In one of the most chilling sequences of “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” (there’s plenty of competition), we see dash-cam footage of Edgar Maddison Welch, the assault-rifle-toting “avenger” at the center of the Pizzagate insanity, as he drives from Salisbury, N.C., to Washington, D.C., to put an end to what he thought was a child sex-slave ring being run out of a popular restaurant. Bearded and resolved, with hipster rings on his fingers and a wool cap pulled down to his eyebrows, the 28-year-old Welch, staring at the highway ahead, looks and sounds like a meaner version of Bradley Cooper in “A Star Is Born.” Which made me think: Wouldn’t it be riveting to see an actor like Cooper play a wing-nut like Welch? Not to caricature him, but to understand him.
It’s often alleged, by those on the right, that “elite” liberals rarely make an effort to understand the world from the point-of-view of those who love and support Donald Trump. I tend to agree: When it comes to something like Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that erupted in the heart of Trump country (and that tens of thousands of people believed), we don’t delve deep enough into the mindset of those who’ll work themselves into a righteous froth over an “actual” (but, in fact, entirely delusional) news event. They’re disconnected from reality — and that, you could argue, is one of the key definitions of mental illness. But how did they get there?
“After Truth,” an absorbing and impressively researched documentary directed by Andrew Rossi (“Page One: Inside the New York Times”), traces the insidious and interlocking ways that full-moon fantasy has leaked, like a virus, into our national news stream. One of the film’s more entertainingly sleazy figures is Jack Burkman, a huckster-lobbyist who offers an unabashed defense of fake news (“I mean, what is truth? You study philosophy, there is no reality, there is only perception”) as he tries to sell the made-up notion that Robert Mueller is guilty of sexual assault. He’s even got a victim to prove it! (Or so he says.) Burkman calls a press conference, and the victim, conveniently, never shows. But the meme is planted (did you hear? Robert Mueller got #MeToo-ed!), the mud is splattered, the seed of the right-wing-media talking point planted.
There is no reality. There is only perception.
That’s one minor example of how the sausage gets made. But as “After Truth” reveals, fake news isn’t just a lot ghoulishly fabricated PR bullshit that a lot of suckers believe. It’s a toxic stimulant that people get addicted to. It heightens their day, it stokes and cleanses their anger, it terrifies and reassures them, it explains the world. Once you buy into the cult of fake news, you tend to descend to deeper and deeper levels of it, as if it were a video game that’s playing you. I saw a friend devolve, over time, from a reasonable person into a conspiracy junkie into a devotee of Alex Jones — and when I tried to question that path, the friend, eyeballs ablaze, accused me of Trump Derangement Syndrome and far more heinous sins.
Pizzagate is one of the key stories dissected by “After Truth,” and in tracing its evolution the film shows us how a schizoid reality can now seize the imagination of an ostensibly rational electorate (or a sizable enough segment of it). Comet Ping Pong, the family-night-out pizza parlor that came to be portrayed, in alt-right circles, as a pedophile den of hell, is the sort of funky, popular eatery that gets celebrated on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” — a cozy homegrown place with tall ceilings and distressed walls and tasty-looking artisanal pizzas. It’s popular with D.C. politicos, and the reason the restaurant and its owner, James Alefantis, popped up in the emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, is that Podesta was arranging a catered event.
But after his emails were hacked and exposed on WikiLeaks, a rumor began on Reddit that the place was a front for a pedophile ring, and that words like “pizza,” “cheese,” and “ice cream” were being used as code (for “girl,” “little boy,” and “male prostitute”).
You may catch an echo of the original fake-news myth of the contempo era: the child-sex-abuse schoolteacher witch hunts of the 1980s. The connection demonstrates how a fake-news story can strike a primordial chord (fears of what could happen to our children!) even as it appears, ironically, to be a pure projection of the people who believe it. This particular story snowballed through the cesspool of paranoia that is 4chan, then gained “credibility” through Alex Jones and his fellow far-right loudmouths. Yet Pizzagate was always a kinky grass-roots mirage.
The way this stuff can take root suggests that our minds have been turned to mush by 50 years of cracked conspiracy theory (alien abductions! stranded Vietnam POWs!) and demagogic attack-dog politics. But what has given the hokum its special power is the decision, at the highest levels, to weaponize mass delusion.
“After Truth” makes the point that the Russians, while their troll-bot farms have fomented their share of fake news, are mostly working in tandem with what the far right is doing anyway. Rossi interviews Jerome Corsi, the alt-right author and commentator who, in his 2004 book “Unfit for Command,” popularized the story that those who served with John Kerry on a Swift Boat in Vietnam claimed that he’d falsified his record. The Swift Boat story was a crock, yet by the time of the election, the mythology that Kerry, a decorated war veteran, was in fact a coward and that the rich-kid draft dodger George W. Bush was a swaggering Texas he-man (he liked to clear brush!) had been implanted in the ids of the voters. Perception skewed — and slew — reality.
It’s riveting, in an unsettling way, to see “After Truth” deconstruct other seminal fake-news narratives, like how the tragic death of the DNC operative Seth Rich was contorted into a Hillary-Clinton-as-murderer meme, or the way that the 2015 Jade Helm military training exercise in Bastrop County, Texas, became the fulcrum for a conspiracy theory that President Obama was planning to round up right-wing political dissidents and put them in camps. According to the theory, a network of secret tunnels connected all the Wal-Marts in Texas, and this would enable the stores to be converted into detention centers! You may be tempted to chortle at the outlandishness, yet what made this story anything but an outlier — what lent it legitimacy — is the way it traveled from conspiracy blogs to town-hall meetings (we see one: It’s like the late ’60s replayed by disgruntled Middle Americans) to getting the imprimatur of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Inevitably, “After Truth” confronts the question of what we should do about fake news. And here, at least from my point of view, the documentary stands on shakier ground. Rossi chronicles a Democratic attempt to fight fire with fire during the 2017 U.S. Senate special election in Alabama. The media heat in that race focused on the sensational allegation that Roy Moore, the Republican candidate, had pursued sexual relationships with minors. But the fake news, planted by Democrats, that may well have turned the election spun around the notion that Moore was the kind of Christian puritan who wanted to make Alabama a dry state — a piece of fiction that would have turned off anyone who likes to grab a beer after work. Moore lost the election, and the film rightly questions whether liberals getting down in that mud can ultimately lead to anything but a greater abandonment of truth.
Yet “After Truth” is also the latest documentary to make Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg into the poster boy for what’s wrong with the fake-news era. The complaint, voiced here by the technology business journalist Kara Swisher, comes down to one that liberal culture has elevated into a kind of dogma: that Zuckerberg should be regulating this stuff. Not allowing it on Facebook. And that the fact that he won’t agree to do so is a transparent expression of his “greed.”
Sorry, but I find that argument specious. I’ll leave it to others to parse Zuckerberg’s profit motives, but the case that he has made, over and over, about the slippery slope you’re on when you decide to censor fake news is correct: Who’s to decide where the line gets drawn? The rise of fake news is about how lying has become our new reality, yet we didn’t get there overnight. The culture of advertising led us there. Advertising, as often as not, consists of lying. Should it be regulated, or censored, on that basis? Lying may be loathsome, but it is our right. (The corrective is libel law.) Because who’s going to decide which lies have to go and which get to stay? Fake news will never be defeated by being suppressed. (That just feeds the left-wing-and-now-right-wing canard that it’s the truth the corporation didn’t want you to see.) It will be defeated by having its day in the sun, where it can be melted down only by a citizenry that has learned to see through it.
“After Truth” will be shown Thursday, March 19, at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.