Millions of words must now have been written on the perils, real and imagined, of "fake news." Far less has been said about its considerable appeal.
Let me be clear about what fake news is. I am not referring to articles or claims made by politicians that do not measure up by the standards of the bores at PolitiFact or The Washington Post's "Fact Checker," nor to assertions with which the president happens to disagree. The Alex Jones programs recently banned from Facebook and Co. are fake news in the sense that pro wrestling is fake sports. But the best examples are the new right-wing conspiracy theories — Pizzagate, QAnon — that have spread on the internet, though in fact they are as unlike news as can be.
A disinterested observer attempting to make "sense" of fake news works at a disadvantage. My familiarity with Jones is limited to remixed YouTube clips shared as a joke on Twitter. (Some of them are very amusing.) But to read a summary of something like the Pizzagate fantasy, even one that draws extensively upon screenshots and quotes a good deal of the material originally shared on social media platforms, is to experience it in nothing like its initial form. Comet Pizza is not a discrete text; it is not a tract, like the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion dreamed up by Russian mystics at the turn of the last century, nor even a body of learning, like the vast literature of Holocaust denial, with its books and journals and news bulletins. Nor is it a mere media phenomenon, like Jim Garrison's "investigation" of the workings of a right-wing gay mafia in New Orleans and Dallas. Proponents of the QAnon theory, according to which President Trump is secretly rooting out the influence of the so-called "deep state" and its billionaire pervert allies at the behest of the Armed Forces, do not read up on it, the way an admirer of David Irving might acquaint himself with the latter's views by purchasing one of his books. They create it — or rather, because it is already there, they revise it. It has no author, no source except in the sense that everything is a source.
Fake news is lived, not consumed. The best way to make sense of it is to see it as an example of what scholars of rhetoric refer to as "augmented reality games." These games are a kind of decentralized participatory storytelling made possible by technology. Instead of an imaginary setting they take place in our own world. They unfold in real time and the user interface exists solely for the purpose of bridging the gap between players' humble surroundings and the game reality. Like iPhone-clutching children hunting for Pokémon in their backyards, fake news roleplayers find not only the characters but all the material for their fantasy in tweets, news articles, Reddit posts, and their own fruitless investigations of the scenes of non-crimes and pseudo-conspiracies. Imagine Dungeons and Dragons with an unlimited number of participants; instead of good wizards there is President Trump; rather than ogres or goblins or minotaurs there are CNN reporters and federal bureaucrats and Democratic politicians. The struggle against the forces of darkness has been replaced by a campaign to thwart the ambitions of so-called globalists. There are no dice and no rule books. The only limit is the extent of one's imagination.
My first recollection of a phenomenon at all akin to fake news was the television program Lost. Between seasons the show was promoted by marketing campaigns that encouraged fans to track down a shadowy corporation that appeared to be central to the plot in real life. On internet forums this search was accompanied by endless speculation about the significance of the show's most minor visual details and the most insignificant scraps of dialogue.
Everyone understood at some level, I hope, that it was nonsense.
Lost was a pastiche, a collage of tropes from Lord of the Flies, Apocalypse Now, Of Mice and Men, adventure serials, techno-thrillers, popular science, the Alice novels, Shakespeare, the CliffNotes to Homer and James Joyce. There was never any real mystery about the island upon which the show's characters had been marooned. It was a purely formal exercise in bafflement, entirely devoid of meaning. The show's creators were making everything up as they were going along, and so were the fans. It was, in other words, a perfect simulacrum of the internet itself and the epistemic distortions it encourages, of which the augmented reality game is the most formally perfect realization so far.
Why some people — most of them young, white, and male — are drawn to fake news is difficult to say. But I believe they are motivated in part by a desire to experience something more real than Lost or interactive Facebook promotions. It is possible that they are also dimly hoping for some kind of transcendent justice, for an end to the very technological meaninglessness in which they are more or less willingly immersed and the economic and social system upon which it depends, a deliverance that can arrive only in the form of some unimaginable victory by their chosen heroes over their ill-defined enemies.
Their aspirations are pathetic. Globalized techno-capitalism and its discontents are very real. All the conventions really do conspire to make this fort assume the furniture of home — but not because of Jeffrey Sachs or Peter Strzok. Trump is not selling out his base because he is compromised by chthonic elites but because he has no principles. There is no globalist cabal. All the horrors of spoliation and immiseration are playing out in front of our eyes with our more or less equal and tacit cooperation. No one is to blame because we are all guilty. Fake news is fake because it promises otherwise.
Like marijuana, fake news is an appetite that many persons seem capable of indulging without meaningful consequences. For a small but significant group this is not the case. In December 2016 a man from North Carolina drove to Washington, D.C., and began firing shots at the walls of Comet Ping Pong Pizza. It appears that behind them he expected to find torture chambers or dungeons or sausage grinders full of the remains of children. Only two months ago a lunatic in Nevada went to the Hoover Dam and waved guns around and demanded the release of a Justice Department report that had in fact appeared the previous day.
I have argued in the space on numerous occasions that there is something wrong with the way we are living. The internet makes it possible for us to read the best things that have ever been written, to listen to the greatest music ever recorded, to communicate with our friends and relations across the country and the world. But it is also making at least some of us very sick. Children who have never known a world without smartphone technology are mutilating and even killing themselves. Paranoiacs are customizing weapons according to specifications they have discovered on obscure forums and live-tweeting murders that are all-too-real. A boy in Florida who slaughtered 14 of his classmates and three of his teachers spent months telling a private Instagram group that black people and Mexicans should be kept in chains and that white women who married African-Americans had committed treason. He insists that he is possessed by a demon who urged him to "Burn. Destroy. Kill."
We need to think very carefully about all of these things. Life is not a roleplaying game.