Would fake news be so widespread if the regular news weren’t already so entertaining? My current favorite headline comes courtesy of The Washington Post: “She found a dating app on his phone. Then she bought a samurai sword.” This two-sentence title reads like a cross between a Tarantino flick and an Onion article, and it says a lot more about us than it does about contemporary journalism’s formidable cadre of clickbait sages. In fact, this surge in outlandish headlines is a partial byproduct of our habit of viewing the news as just another source of entertainment. How many local stories have morphed into autotuned videos that rack up millions of views as they float further and further from their concrete circumstances, like some wayward helium balloon? Little wonder we often confuse farce with fact. Scanning social media responses to developing stories, it’s hard to escape the notion that we care more about what we can do with the news than we do about actually understanding it. A story about an assault and attempted rape is a real downer. With autotune, it’s a scream.
Enter time traveler confession videos. These odd gems are becoming increasingly popular and quite a few impressionable people are taking them seriously. Of course, the videos range from hilariously bad to mildly compelling, but all they really do is confirm that our most exotic tabloids have migrated from grocery store checkout lines to YouTube. The basic format usually involves a white male with a heavily pixilated face and a disguised voice disclosing some cryptic tale of his zigzagging journey through time. Presumably, the identity protection measures are meant to add a level of verisimilitude to the inherently bizarre proceedings, but all they really do is confirm the lesson we learned from The Blair Witch Project and all of its found footage heirs—namely, that simple gimmicks can play out like explosive special effects if they’re placed in conjunction with any kind of amateur footage that appears to be recovered. It’s an ingenious strategy because it’s managed to transform low production values into a mark of authenticity. In a maneuver that probably caused the special effects industry to bristle, the Paranormal Activity franchise managed to turn oscillating fans and baby monitors into objects of unremitting terror. Consequently, the “evidence” presented by these displaced time travelers often fits squarely into the DIY category—a murky photograph from the year 6,000 of a Jetsons-like cityscape, a hint about a future president, or a Transhumanism-for-dummies announcement about the fact that we can upload our brains to servers and inhabit various alternate realities.
In an article for Mel Magazine, Zaron Burnett III makes an interesting observation about the growing popularity of this burgeoning genre: “In this way, these clickbait time-travel stories are a very American form of existentialism: We like to believe we can shape the future, and we need to know that everything will be okay.” Nowadays, our aspirations aren’t limited to the future, though. Most of us may not believe that we can directly shape reality, but we can certainly experience it on our own terms.
These days, you don’t need to upload your brain to a server to explore an alternate reality. Pinscreen, a 2015 Los Angeles start-up, is pioneering new software that begins the world-building process with nothing more than a selfie. Drawing on “gains researchers have made in deep neural networks, complex algorithms that loosely mimic the thinking of the human brain,” the app gives you an avatar capable of deceiving everyone but experts.
As with any technology in its incipient stages, the possibilities appear limitless. You can send your avatar out to do your bidding in everything from video chats to virtual reality games. The dangers also appear limitless. As journalist David Pierson puts it, “Now imagine a phony video of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un announcing a missile strike. The White House would have mere minutes to determine whether the clip was genuine and whether it warranted a retaliatory strike.” Forget these large-scale public disturbances: How will this software play out in our increasingly hostile and gullible online spaces? What about the social terrorism of grafting an opponent’s face into a pornographic video? What about the growing list of indulgences at your disposal? Your avatar can be a Jekyll or a Hyde. For all its apparent novelty, Pinscreen’s basic philosophy simply underscores the deeply ingrained American assumption that we ought to be able to experience reality on our own terms. For some, that involves an abiding belief in mermaids, Sasquatch, and marooned time travelers making poor quality YouTube videos. It’s not a matter of truth; it’s a matter of taste.The convenience of fake news may have increased exponentially in recent years, but the tendency for wishful thinking to override our commitment to reality has always been with us.
Since the news isn’t excluded from our entertainment habits, we often just refuse to “buy” the story our opponent is selling. Given the intense pressure for self-expression, it’s not enough to simply dismiss the story; we have to attack it and give it a poor review. After all, it’s failed to satisfy us as customers. If the story corroborates our assumptions, we’ve got to spread the good word about the legitimacy of this particular story/product. Some people will clap; others will pounce. “Bring it on,” we say. The online world is a playground teeming with kids who are easily provoked—waiting to be provoked and actively seeking to provoke, really. In this kind of environment, trolls have immense power. But, again, the most insidious factor here is that this kind of environment is largely made possible by our unspoken agreement that nothing is really all that serious. We’re in the land of wants and wishes, not brute facts. When it comes to politics, religion, and the news, we’re often not really dealing with matters of life and death; we’re dealing with preferences, options. This is a malaise that goes well beyond indifference. If we want a positive phrase that can serve as a counterpart to “post-truth,” we might say that this is an “in-fancy” era—a time when the project of fanciful wish-fulfillment replaces that of earnest truth-seeking.
Despite the increasing sophistication of our technological subterfuge, the problem of fake news is not unique to our era. Writing to pastor Timothy, the apostle Paul exhorts his young protégé to “preach the word” and to be “ready in season and out of season” to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4). The convenience of fake news may have increased exponentially in recent years, but the tendency for wishful thinking to override our commitment to reality has always been with us. We’ve always had our mermaids and time travelers. The internet has simply given them a new lease on life.
One of Oscar Wilde’s most enduring plays is The Importance of Being Earnest. In many ways, the story is uniquely suited to our times. A kind of soft Jekyll and Hyde, the play involves two characters who create double identities to blamelessly capitalize on their vices and avoid the tedium of social obligations. A good deal of the play’s comedy hinges on the irony inherent in the fact that this elaborate ruse involves the name Earnest. Rarely will we meet a more deceptive Earnest(s). But, of course, throughout the course of the play the truth comes out, and all involved discover the importance of being Earnest.
We don’t need Pinscreen’s avatars to lead double lives online, of course. In the era of covert porn addiction, vicious cyber-bullying, and increasingly sophisticated propaganda, I think it’s safe to say that a wit like Oscar Wilde would have had a field day. The same could be said of Wilde’s contemporary, Robert Louise Stevenson—who might have given us something closer to Black Mirror. Both men were fascinated by our penchant for trying to cheat reality of its consequences. The online world appears to offer us a whole new degree of freedom in this regard. But, as both stories illustrate, appearance and reality are far from identical, and, in the end, truth proves to be frustratingly inflexible. Matters of life and death remain matters of life and death, whether we “like” them or not. Our habit of approaching everything as entertainment, of trying to lead lives devoid of consequences, has made us a culture that’s as malleable as clay. Perhaps it’s time for us to rediscover the importance of being earnest.
 It’s also evidence of the fact that we often don’t make it past the headline.
 When it comes to breaking news, your primary objective is to follow Madonna’s advice: “Express Yourself.” Passive options: leave a comment, a GIF, an emoji, etc. Active options: create a meme, a video, a satirical article, etc.
 At the risk of overstatement, we’re nuts if we think this dynamic isn’t reshaping our understanding of capital-T truth.