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If a video is viral, who cares if it’s fake?

Welcome to the age of unreality

July 23, 2020

10:05 AM

23 July 2020

10:05 AM

After two months, the ‘mostly peaceful’ label for the riots gripping American cities is wearing a touch thin. That’s not just because it fails to satisfy conservatives and moderates, who puzzle over how ‘mostly peaceful’ demonstrations leave so many downtowns torched. It also fails to satisfy the actual rioters. They insist their demonstrations are very violent, courtesy of brutal tactics from the police officers they want abolished.

‘Proof’ of such violence went viral on Wednesday. The video was first shared by Twitter user @Andy_Resist, but was swiftly magnified by a different Andy. This one bore Twitter’s hallowed blue checkmark and enough followers to populate a small city, or a few dozen ‘mostly peaceful’ protests.

Cockburn was eager to dispute Ostroy’s historiography, but alas, no such conversation was needed. Ostroy’s tweet failed on a more basic level: the video he shared wasn’t from America. Alert viewers quickly discovered the truth: instead of showing Trumpstaffel rehearsing for the coming of the American Reich, the video was instead a stale clip of Serbian police abusing a demonstrator in Belgrade.


Fortunately for the two Andys, the truth didn’t matter much. When Newsweek published an article on the clip’s real origin, it had just passed a million views. By Wednesday afternoon, it was well on its way to three million. For thousands, if not millions of viewers, the clip will be filed away, not as a blunder, but as more proof of what they already knew: that American police are dreadful creatures who should be defunded or abolished posthaste.

Cockburn’s memory can be peccable, but he recalls a few cases similar to this one. Just a month ago, a video of a Seattle Postmates driver harassing a terrified woman amassed nearly 12 million views, mostly based on the driver’s wholly unprovable claim that the woman directed a racial slur at him before the video even began. For those primed to see it, the clip was another example of Karen getting her due. Likely just a small minority of those 12 million viewers saw the full truth: the driver was a fame seeker, with a history of harassing others for attention, who tried to immediately cash in on his viral clip.

During the 2018 debate over US border policies, Democrats passed around photos of detained migrant children, the much-ballyhooed ‘kids in cages’. Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles declared himself ‘speechless’, before promptly declaring ‘this is not who we are as a nation.’

But as it turned out, it was: the notorious photos were taken by the Associated Press in the before times of 2014. What had changed wasn’t the images themselves, or the policies in place. Instead, what changed was the administration, and with it, the public’s Pavlovian response to politically loaded imagery.

Misguided confidence in viral imagery is hardly a one-sided political phenomenon.  In 2017, President Trump himself was briefly bamboozled by seven-month-old footage of a failed Iranian missile test. And during the George Floyd riots, no fewer than three of Cockburn’s friends sent him security footage, supposedly from the riots, of one looter braining his accomplice with a piece of masonry. No dice: the clip is from China, in 2018. That should have been obvious, since Chinese characters and the 2018 date are both clearly visible on the footage itself. And yet people were fooled anyway, because they wanted to be.

For Cockburn, this all feels very similar to another phenomenon of modern politics: the glut of hate crime allegations. Every allegation is seen by millions, while the countless retractions are seen by few.

It’s been obvious for years that, far from exposing people to a wide spectrum of views, social media instead generates echo chambers. The content we like best (and click most) is what most fantastically confirms our pre-existing beliefs. Exercising skepticism isn’t just tiresome. It’s unwelcome.

Washington’s most histrionic residents have four years’ warning that fake news will undermine the republic. More savvy experts warn that ever-more-sophisticated ‘deepfake’ technology could create a postmodern hellscape where nobody knows what’s real. But Cockburn sees a more pressing problem: right now, nobody even cares.


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