Fake News! Photography’s Role in the Post-Truth Era
Fake News and Post-Truth are constant buzzwords in current political and documentary debate. In this review, I will consider whether the traditional link between reality and photography has been a contributing factor to the post-truth phenomenon and specifically the Fake News debate. I will look at the history of the association between authenticity and photography and how boundaries were put around what was acceptable or not in photographic practice, and touch briefly on the role of the photograph’s contribution to Debord’s ‘Spectacle’. I will also consider how postmodernism, post-truth and fake news are interconnected with one inevitably leading on to the other through its questioning of everything we previously took for granted. With social media sites being an increasingly dominant force in news dissemination, I will argue that the loss of faith in the authenticity of photography needs somehow to be mitigated, if we are to have any objective sense of what is happening in the news world.
Firstly definitions of post-truth and fake news are required, as they are not the same thing. According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth means ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2019), while fake news refers to the ‘manipulation, disinformation, falseness, rumors, conspiracy theories that some elements of politics and media use to confuse the public and to further their own agendas’ (Kalsnes, 2018). The recent advent of a new digitally based culture has an effect on various areas of social discourse, but for the purposes of this essay, it will be discussed with regard to journalism and news media. With over 62% of American adults getting their news from social media (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016), these platforms have become major players in the dissemination of news. Until recently, this role has been almost entirely unmediated, with the web platforms arguing that they were simply a device for the sharing of information, e.g. (Levin, 2018). However, after various court cases where Governments attempted to force them take some responsibility, they have now begun to make some effort to police what appears on their sites, and all the main players now employ censors and fact checkers, in a somewhat vain attempt to stem the spread of lies and misinformation, malicious or otherwise (White, 2018).
2. Photography and Reality
One cannot consider how photography relates to this change without first discussing its historical relationship with the truth. From its early use as a method of scientifically recording information (Lister, 2013 pp. 25-28, Potts, 2003 p. 59), the photograph has been almost unique in our fundamental assumption that what we see is indexical and is what really happened. It is only by understanding why photography is so closely aligned with truth that we can come to comprehend our own deep-rooted faith in its authenticity (Mullen, 1998, 97).
This has been a blessing and also a curse. While from its earliest days, images have been manipulated through staging and post-production tweaks (Gelder and Westgeest, 2011, p. 23-4), at the same time people understood that at some point the events depicted in photographs actually occurred (Barthes, 1981), and by the early 1900s the idea of the ‘straight’ photograph being an expression of a truthful event became accepted. This understanding began to be codified in standards and rules, set to ensure that original belief was maintained. As Susan Sontag argued, ‘It is easy to accept photographs as objective truth; this is why photography is so often employed in social documentation with the hope of causing change’ (Sontag, 1977).
At this time, we were confident that what we saw in certain strands of photography was unadulterated, and in particular the genres of journalism, documentary and wildlife, with lists of rules being published for competitions and prizes to limit any changes made in post-processing. Of course, this only affected what happened after the image was taken, and there was still plenty of scope for stage setting before the image was made (Brugioni, 1999, Hofer and Swan, 2005). Even now many photographers proudly declare that all their images are ‘straight out of camera’ as if this is an aim to which we should all aspire. Then along came Photoshop in 1990 (KMahesh, 2011) and suddenly it was possible to alter images to affect their meanings, sometimes subtly, and sometimes quite blatantly, although this had always been feasible (Farid, 2011). Photoshop’s association with image alteration soon became ubiquitous and ‘photoshopping’ is now a generally understood term (Collins Dictionary, 2019) which we apply to any image we feel may have been altered. Technically, it is perfectly possible to check the original integrity of most digital image through EXIF information and pixel matching, and in some ways this is more solid proof of any alteration than was available pre-Photoshop, but the damage was done.
3. The effect of postmodernism on beliefs
This practical break between authenticity and the image has been further exacerbated by parallel alterations in philosophical understanding. We moved from the stark realism of Modernism (Potts, 2003 p. 20) to the ‘assume nothing and test everything’ mood of Postmodernism, which began in the 1970s. This allowed new organisations much more scope to question previous assumptions and to take an increasingly partisan viewpoint (Sunstein, 2017), and leading to the situation in which the public are at the same time much more suspicious about what they see and read (Shen et al., 2019) and willing to believe anything that fits their beliefs (Sunstein, 2017). Hanson argues that fake news can clearly be linked with academic post-modernism and that the new preference for narrative and interpretation over fundamental truths has been picked up by the media as a methodology to underpin misleading narratives in to further their political agendas (Hanson, 2017).
Recently, there has been a wholesale move towards deliberately mischaracterising work (Waisbord, 2018), exemplified by the infamous Inauguration Day crowd size debate (Kelly, 2018 p.39). These has led to a toxic situation in which nobody believes anything they read or see, so they themselves choose what to believe. Internet news algorithms then reinforce these beliefs by offering more of the same and increasingly extremist views are the inevitable conclusion (Sunstein, 2017). This has been ably utilized by political media to create ‘alternative realities’ to suit their specific agendas, which can be readily attributed to Flusser’s Apparatus manipulating Debord’s Spectacle (Mihailidis and Viotty, 2017). We prefer to believe what we are shown – a representation of reality, not reality itself.
Then there is an element which was not specifically acknowledged until postmodernist theorists pointed it out fairly recently (Barthes, 2001, Caputo, 1997). Photojournalists inevitably bring their cultural and personal beliefs and understanding of the situation along as baggage when they go out to make photographs. Everything they see is viewed through these tacitly understood lenses, whether or not they know this themselves. Equally, the viewpoint of each viewer is also mediated through similar beliefs which may or may not be the same as that of the photographer. Furthermore, any image may be used over and over again until its indexical relationship with the original events has been completely lost.
However, it is not all bad news. Two features of the current situation mitigate against this rather nihilistic view of the world. They are the rise of citizen journalism and the questioning of traditional assumptions to give a more diverse view of the world.
4. Citizen Journalism
It is impossible not to see that the vast number of images which are uploaded daily to the internet offers both an incredibly banal and repetitive worldview. Indeed, the photographer Erik Kessels has made a whole career out of considering the issue (Kessels, 2017). It is equally impossible for anyone to sift through that torrent of images and to pick out what matters and what does not. However, more than 3 billion people on Earth now own a smartphone (Takahashi, 2018), and the traditional Western based hegemony is being challenged by different viewpoints from other parts of the world (Ghedi Santur, 2016). Journalism and documentary have always had a highly Western centric viewpoint, which has been reflected through photography, with its original ethnographic and etymological elements, and emphasis on documenting the Other. The concept of ‘The Other’ in photography (Staszak, 2009), who is anyone that does not live a relatively affluent (preferably straight male) white Western life, is still very pervasive although it is now understood and efforts are being made to mitigate it (Thomas, 2016, Ghedi Santur, 2016). The arrival of the smartphone, which was taken up with alacrity by non-Westerners largely because of the lack of wired telephone networks, has offered a massive opportunity for people to make their mark and show their lives in a personal way that was impossible before (Gamson et al., 1992, Möller, 2010). It is now possible to find work by individuals living and working all over the world at all levels of society except he most impoverished, and this must be a good thing (Uimonen, 2016).
At the same time, the iron grip of traditional media on what the public sees is loosening. Citizen journalists (people who happen to be present at events and who record and upload them to the internet) give us a more holistic view of events in real time as they unfold. Their information is often published unmediated and circulates around the world instantly, and it has led to a better understanding of events which previously were edited and controlled by big media (Lindner, 2017, Wall, 2017, Wall, 2015). Their control, and the standards that they maintained have been fatally undermined(Mullen, 1998 pp. 98-101) . This has positive and negative aspects, The positive is the much faster and broader coverage of unexpected events, and also the holding to account of authorities and perpetrators (Sandhu, 2016). The bad news is that we are exposed to a censorship free view of the world with images of beheadings and violent altercations freely flowing around until Web platforms are forced to cut them off, for example the New Zealand mosque shootings (Hymas and Zolfagharifard, 2019). However, the lack of pre-verification means that we are also exposed to information and images that have been deliberately altered to support a specific agenda, and that alteration can be of the image itself, of its context and/or of usage, i.e. misappropriation.
It is also worth considering whether truth and authenticity are erroneously being used interchangeably. Something can be objectively real without being authentic, and vice versa. In The Documentary Impulse, Franklin discusses the concept of authenticity being the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (Franklin, 2016, p.6). He goes on to make the case, outlined by John Ruskin, that ‘truth of impression’ is more important than ‘material truth’. This view appears to feed naturally into the post-modernist view of the world which underpins our current dilemma. We are inundated with a deluge of online media, much of which has been neither confirmed nor verified, and which we view through our personal lens of understanding along with that of the photographer, and in the case of news media, the publisher too. This is fertile ground for the Fake News brigade, which can play on that lack of certainty to encourage certain viewpoints and to further undermine the traditional understanding of major news organisations as being more or less reliable in what they publish. Anything one does not like or prefers not to see can be labelled Fake News, and thus the concept of truth has become slippery – Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ (Wedge, 2017). In this postmodern world, it is left to each of us, individually, to decide what to believe based on what we see and the role of photographs in this chaotic arena is key. Despite all the evidence that widely circulated images may not be authentic, we still maintain an underlying belief in their ability to represent events. As Sontag said in 1977, ‘Photography furnishes evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re showing a photograph of it’ (Sontag, 1977 p.5).
5. What can we do?
Clearly, the previously paternalistic role of the state and/or large media organisations has been significantly compromised and it is doubtful that it can be recovered. We are in a new paradigm, one where each of us has to develop skills in interpreting what we see and read in a way which was considered largely unnecessary before the digital era. It has also opened our eyes to some of the historical Fake News shenanigans that were perpetrated to manipulate the public before we were really aware of it (Burkhardt, 2017, Berghel, 2017) through the lens of the photojournalist’s own viewpoint (whether overtly or subliminally) or by image selection that favoured whatever political viewpoint the news organisation held (Lyons, 2011).
In the new digital culture, our understanding that authenticity of images cannot be taken for granted is both liberating and wide open to abuse. Education is the only logical way of mitigating against false narratives; educating from early childhood to consider whether what we see and read is true or has been subtly altered. We need to learn to do our own verification of sources and reliability, to foster an enquiring but cautious attitude to news and documentary and most importantly to teach our children to question what they see too (Mihailidis and Viotty, 2017). The suggestions puts forward by Dahmen and Heider in their recent Quartz magazine article is a good starting point (Dahmen and Heider, 2017).
Finally, we also need to consider alternative ways of verifying the truthfulness of what we see that are not necessarily based on indexicality and which give more weight to contextualisation. Fake News is a problem that is not going to disappear so it is imperative that we find a way of judging it for what it is.
…the “fake news” approach to photography takes what we do with pictures all the time to its obscene extreme, resulting in a situation where a picture, no matter what it shows, means something that you want it to show, the actual truth be damned (Colberg, 2018).
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