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Fake News in Media Art: Fake News as a Media Art Practice Vs. Fake News in Politics

  • Hadas Emma KedarEmail author
Original Articles

Abstract

Fake news has become popular in the last few years and appears mainly in the form of alleged news articles that spread via social media or as satire. However, fake news can appear in two additional manifestations: in politics—when falsehoods are generated by politicians; and as a practice of media art—by the activist-art branch ‘tactical media’. From the perspective of media art history, this article presents a comparative analysis of two case studies of each of these domains: the political case was a false statement about the 2017 tax bill by US president Donald Trump, and the media art case was a false statement on BBC television in 2004 regarding corporate responsibility for the Bhopal industrial disaster, acted by the art duo The Yes Men. The cases were compared for their tactics, motivations, purposes and rhetoric. The most salient difference reveals the producers’ relation to truth: while in a ‘post-truth’ manner Trump ‘bullshitted’, distorted facts and disregarded truth, the Yes Men emphasized facts and exposed truth. This article concludes that fake news in politics is dangerous and that fake news in media art has an educational potential to fight fake news and promote critical deliberation.

Keywords

Fake news Media art Bullshit Post-truth The Yes Men Donald Trump Tactical media 

Introduction

In the last two decades, the development of media technologies and social networks has enabled the production and dissemination of information more rapidly and abundantly than before. Yet it has also allowed the rapid and abundant spread of false information and fake news. In recent years, ‘fake news’ has been recurrently discussed following Donald Trump’s frequent use of the term during the 2016 USA presidential election and subsequently as president. The Cambridge Dictionary defines fake news as 'false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke' (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus 2019). The spread of false information, its methods and scale have been the focus of recent fake news studies, determining that most engagements with fake news are via social media—in particular Facebook and Twitter (Allcott and Gentzkow 2017; Fletcher et al. 2018). Satire, however, constitutes a different type of fake news. It contains humour to criticize the state of affairs and the mainstream media, mostly on late-night television shows or on satirical news websites. Fake news has a further colloquial connotation of the kind that is used by president Trump to describe news reports which he does not like (Coll 2017). Differently from Trump, to discuss the dangers of falsehoods in the media I will refer to critiques of mainstream media at times delivering biased or inaccurate information.

In this article I present two extended manifestations of fake news: the first derives from powerful people and politicians as a medium through which falsehoods are delivered, and the second situates fake news as a practice of media art.

First, Trump exemplifies what I name 'fake news in politics'. Parallel to his frequent use of the term ‘fake news’, Trump has continually delivered falsehoods (The Washington Post 2019), using various forms of intentional or reckless untruths. One can label his practice ‘lying’ (Shear and Huetteman 2017), but an overall label would be ‘bullshitting’ (MacKenzie and Bhatt 2018). While a lie is a direct falsification of facts, bullshitting rhetorically bypasses facts. According to Frankfurt (2005: 33), the essence of bullshit is its 'lack of connection to a concern with truth.' This lack of concern with truth describes Trump’s conduct, which has been further observed by McIntyre (2018) as a symptom of the current ‘post-truth’ era. Post-truth generally describes the tendency to base one’s opinions upon feelings rather than objective facts (Lexico Dictionaries 2019), and thus it undermines the basic communication components of objectivity and integrity—and perhaps threatens the overall status of truth. Second, media art offers a unique combination of artistic and socio-technological practice and theory. Artist Julie Perini (2010:189) explains that media art is innovative and collaborative, and aims at 'blurring the boundary between scientific research and art production'. Fake news is being used by media artists namely in the realm of tactical media—a form of activist art using various media for socio-political critique. By analysing these two manifestations, I wish to explore the ways in which fake news is different when it is used by artists than by politicians. To do so I will compare two case studies: one by the American art duo The Yes Men and the other by president Trump. While I compare the cases for their tactics, motivations, purposes and rhetoric, their common ground is a false statement given in public: The Yes Men declared on BBC live television a radical bogus statement about a big corporation deciding to compensate the victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster; and president Trump declared an exaggerated false statement regarding his new tax bill.

With the notion that practices such as politics, news or art cannot deliver objective truth per se, I do not engage in the philosophical debate about the existence of ‘objective truth’ but rather adopt McIntyre’s approach of 'respecting truth' (McIntyre 2018: 11) —assuming that objective facts exist and are possible to prove or refute. And so, to maintain the status of truth and the basic integrity of public deliberation—which are threatened in the post-truth era—I argue that fake news in politics should be opposed and fought against by appropriate cultural means. The case studies I use here emphasize the harm of fake news in politics and the educational potential of fake news in media art. Comparing an artistic tactic to a political one is both refreshing and challenging, and, moreover, reveals art to be potentially powerful and accountable.

Fake News Extended Manifestations

In the last few years, the most common manifestation of fake news is false stories that appear on the internet and circulate via social media (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus 2019). These stories appear on websites which mimic online news outlets and contain articles presented as factual stories but are entirely fabricated. According to Allcott and Gentzkow (2017: 217), some websites contain a mixture of false articles and factual articles—often with 'a partisan slant'; and other websites disguise themselves as news outlets, often titled as news companies embedded in their internet-domain such as cbsnews.com.co or cnn.com.de. Fake news websites have two primary motivations: financial and/or ideological (Allcott and Gentzkow 2017: 217). Whereas the ideological motivation can be propagandist, critical or partisan, the financial motivation is business driven and based on ‘clickbait’—a tactic designed to attract users to click on a sensational headline so that the website’s owners get paid per click by their advertisers.

Another manifestation of fake news is satire. Within the genre of satire, fake news is often a news broadcast or article presented humorously for political criticism and entertainment. Clearly one should distinguish a professional satirist from an amateur internet user who spreads fake news jokes online. In some cases, an online satirical story which seems at some level credible can leak into the general online misinformation—so that out with the satirical context the story can be mistaken for being factual (Allcott and Gentzkow 2017: 213). Nevertheless, in satirical contexts the audience knows that the presenter is performing a role and that the stories are fabricated, exaggerated or lampooned. The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight are examples of American satirical television shows which criticize current political affairs and mainstream media. Political satire as such challenges traditional journalism and reveals the media’s 'inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and failures' (Reilly 2012: 2).

The claim of ‘fake news’ is now infamously associated with Trump. However, while Trump portrays news with which he disagrees as ‘fake news’ (Coll 2017), here it is used to describe biased, inaccurate, distorted, manipulated, partly true or false information delivered by mainstream media. Errors in news articles are commonly referred to as ‘false news’ by the media—perhaps to emphasize the accidental nature of the mistake and to distinguish it from intentional fake news. Although exaggerated and harmful to general trust in the media, Trump’s claim does raise the question whether errors in gathering and organizing information are merely false and innocent; or whether the media should be scrutinized for recklessness, bias or misleading news. Following Eco (1990: 182), a false piece of news is not dissimilar to historical forgery—which he refers to as a mere lie— 'a formally authentic charter, which contains false or invented information' (186). When the media deliver false news, it can undermine common knowledge and the status of objective facts; and since historians depend on news articles, it can also harm the authenticity of history writing itself. Ideally the role of the media would be a socially accountable information system which is transparent, fact-checks and openly discusses disputable topics. Alas, contemporary industrial news production portrays a different picture: the media is being criticized time and again for being distorted or propagandist (Chomsky 2002; Davies 2008); false or unverified (Davies 2008); biased or commercial (Holiday 2013); or even ‘infotainment’—information mixed with entertainment (Morone 2013:138). Furthermore, journalists rely on sources which ought to be reliable such as witnesses, wire agencies, scientific and academic sources; and in particular they prefer to rely on ‘official sources’—public representatives, politicians and their spokespersons—because they are more likely to deliver 'factual statements which are safe' (Davies 2008: 118). When a source is poisonous—incorrect, biased, distorted—then the journalist’s research is contaminated. As sources of information, should politicians be less scrutinized than the media itself?

Fake News in Politics

It is crucial to distinguish a ‘fake news’ producer who is a citizen—an artist, a partisan, an activist—from a public representative since their roles in society are different, and so the expectations from, and consequences of, their actions should be held to critical scrutiny. Politicians can be exceptionally good at creating and disseminating false news. An early example for that was, inspired by the 1938 War of the Worlds satirical radio broadcast, when Hitler and Himmler used a similar tactic to fabricate a Polish attack of Germans. A top-secret SS unit fabricated an attack of a radio station in Gleiwitz and broadcasted it via the radio. The next day, on September 1st, 1939, Hitler explained to the Reichstag that 'Polish troops had attacked Germany,' and so the Nazis invaded Poland (Schwartz 2015: 161–162) —with catastrophic consequences. A contemporary example is from Trump’s rally speech in February 2017 referring to a terror attack in Sweden. He stated: 'We’ve got to keep our country safe. ... you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers' (cited in Topping 2017). In reality there was no terrorist attack in Sweden that night, which means that Trump had probably misinterpreted or poorly understood a piece of information. The day after, he explained that he was referring to a Fox News story about immigrants in Sweden (Ringstrom and Mason 2017). This example presents a misleading assertion that became news through the rhetoric of a politician. Even if this was an honest mistake, the audience exposed to such information from an authority as the President of the United States, is likely to receive this as truth.

Further, in the post-truth era falsehoods by politicians can be delivered indirectly—often through bullshitting. Following Frankfurt, bullshit is a speech tactic or action to avoid lying (2005: 10; 49). In our post-truth era, bullshit is used by public representatives and politicians in the form of sophisticated rhetoric to bypass truth and objective facts. I have watched video interviews with politicians (mostly American) and witnessed a general shift in public debate: from whether a fact is true – to what feels true (e.g. Trump in his first month of presidency explaining his loss of popular vote through millions of illegal votes—based on his feeling (cited in ABC News 2017)); and from objective facts – to ‘alternative facts’, a term coined by Trump’s White House counsellor, Kellyanne Conway to, perhaps, avoid telling a direct lie (Obeidallah 2017). Fake news in politics is particularly dangerous because a public highly exposed to misinformation from all media is likely to develop general uncertainty and mistrust, or to believe uncritically that which they ought to question. However, is it different when a falsehood is delivered as part of an artistic tactic?

Fake News in Media Art (Tactical Media)

The umbrella field Media Art (also referred to as New media art or Digital art) combines art with various cultural, scientific and technological practices and theories. Within media art, one practice which adapts the production of non-truth content is tactical media—an activist-artistic approach that grew in the mid-1990s outside museum walls. It focuses on socio-political issues upon which it often acts in public sphere. Its tactics are usually short and temporary, using any media necessary such as the internet, video, radio, television or billboards. Tactical media places itself outside institutions yet it operates from within, appropriating media technologies and manipulating them (Apprich 2013). As Biafra declared: 'Don’t hate the media; become the media!' (in Blais and Ippolito 2006: 125). In other words, tactical media artists use the very same practices of power institutions – to subvert them.

Fake news is referred to here as a practice of tactical media. By the act of faking, according to some artists, art is able to express truth (Bichlbaum 2012; Catts 2018). In some tactical media acts the artists directly fabricate news and distribute it, and in other acts they forge information which later circulates as false news. One example is from 2011 by Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, a European art duo who created ‘Newstweek’—an intervention act in several cafés around Europe. In each café the artists hacked the local WiFi, occupied news websites such as Der Spiegel and BBC Online News, and altered their content, so that the customers found manipulated ridiculed news on their personal computers. This action was a commentary, not only on the growing fake news phenomena, but also a critique of the 'top-down distribution model' of corporate media and its manipulations of public opinion (Oliver and Vasiliev 2011). Another example is from 2002 when the Viennese media art group ‘monochrom’ was invited to participate in the São Paulo biennial as Austria’s representative. Because of the rise of the far-right Austrian government at the time—which the group resisted—monochrom decided to avoid direct representation and instead invent an artist named Georg Paul Thomann. The group members constructed Thomann’s existence from a fabricated biographical book and an oeuvre website which they collaboratively produced. Then they sent a press release to newspapers announcing that Thomann would be the Austrian representative at São Paulo, and the news was published in several outlets as factual—though it was regarded with some suspicion.1 However, despite the group’s expectation that the hoax would be immediately revealed, the fiction that was Thomann was accepted by many as true (Grenzfurthner 2006). When it was finally revealed, it was crucial because only then could the critique of Austria’s politics materialize: Austria that year had a non-existing artist to represent it at the biennial.

How does fake news in tactical media differ from satire? Satirical fake news declares the pretence upfront—the viewers know that they are about to watch an alleged news programme for the sake of critical commentary and entertainment; they are not being deceived. Yet tactical media fake news often use hoaxes, which according to Reilly (2018: 5) are primarily defined as an act of deception. Hoaxing aims to create full belief in a certain occurrence in order to then reveal the truth behind it. A hoax in tactical media seeks to induce the spectator to experience temporary belief and subsequently moral contemplation when the deception is revealed. By comparing their actions to satire shows, Reilly (2013) claims that the actions of the art duo the Yes Men are more effective at creating social awareness because they shift 'from critique to mobilization'. The claim is that mere critique or satire cannot achieve the same results as can actions. In other words, tactical media focuses on doing instead of talking.

Case Studies of Fake News: Politics Vs. Media Art

The ‘Bhopal Hoax’ by the Yes Men

In 1999 the American artists Jacques Sevrin and Igor Vamos (also known as Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) founded the Yes Men whose work has focused on topics such as social ethics, environmental matters and globalization. They use various tactical media practices which mostly include impersonation and hoaxing such as performative interventions in conferences, and fabrication of websites and newspapers. Sevrin and Vamos work with an international network of contributors from different professional fields to use whatever media is necessary for each project. One of the Yes Men’s first actions took place during the 2000 US election, launching the rogue website GWBush.com on which they published subversive and satirical content critical of Bush’s covert campaign. Another action took place during the US-Iraq war in 2008. Together with artist-activist Steve Lambert and dozens of volunteers the group wrote, printed and distributed a clone of The New York Times filled with ‘good news’ articles. The front page declared 'Iraq War Ends'.2 The aim of the hoax was not to talk about the state of affairs with respect to the war, but to momentarily alter reality and stimulate people’s reactions to positive news.

Using a similar approach of altering reality, the Yes Men’s ‘Bhopal hoax’ (unofficial title) was initiated as a response to the Bhopal disaster of 1984, when the Indian city of Bhopal suffered a major industrial disaster. Toxic gas-release from a nearby Union Carbide pesticide factory caused the deaths of more than 20,000 people and severe health problems to many others. The Yes Men agreed with the Bhopal activists’ claim that the compensation given by the American company Union Carbide—later acquired by Dow Chemical—was insufficient. Another claim was that the abandoned factory was still contaminated and was causing ongoing health problems in Bhopal. On its behalf, Dow Chemical repeatedly claimed that it carried no responsibility for Bhopal because Union Carbide was acquired by Dow with no liability for the disaster (BBC 2004). To challenge Dow’s claim, in 2002 the Yes Men launched a rogue website DowEthics.org. The cloned website looked identical to Dow’s but contained subversive slogans such as 'Dowkharma: Treating others as we would like to be treated'. Two years later, in December 2004, the BBC-World aired a special daily programme on Bhopal 20 years after the disaster. Looking for a comment from Dow Chemical, a BBC researcher mistakenly landed on the rogue Dow website and sent an interview request to the Yes Men. Confirming the invitation, the Yes Man Servin impersonated a Dow spokesperson and went on to appear on BBC live as Jude Finisterra (Fig. 1). During the interview, Finisterra announced that Dow had decided to finally take full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, recompense the victims and clean the contaminated site. He declared:

...today I’m very, very happy to announce that for the first time Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe. We have a $12 billion plan to finally, at long last, fully compensate the victims, including the 120,000 who may need medical care for their entire lives, and to fully and swiftly remediate the Bhopal plant site... (BBC World 2004).

The announcement became headline news, especially on Google News (The Yes Men 2006:179). Dow stockholders started withdrawing so that in Germany the share price fell 4.24% immediately after the interview—a loss of $2 billion off Dow’s market value (Paterson and Bindra 2004). After approximately 2 hours, the hoax was finally exposed; Dow announced that Finisterra was not their representative, and that they had not made any such an announcement. The BBC corrected the false news and apologized for their mistake.
Fig. 1

Still-shot from the ‘Bhopal act’, interview with Jude Finisterra (performed by Jacques Servin) on BBC World, The Yes Men, 2004

The ‘Biggest Tax Cut’ by Donald Trump

The 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, graduated from the Wharton School of Finance and was a businessman for most of his career. According to Trump, in 2004 he was the largest real estate developer in New York. His assets include numerous buildings, model agencies, private aircraft, gulf courses and casinos. On his official website it reads: 'President Trump has always dreamed big and pushed the boundaries of what is possible his entire career, devoting his life to building business, jobs and the American Dream' (Donald J. Trump Official Website 2018). A similar point of view is presented in the opening of The Apprentice (2004), a reality business show which was hosted by Trump, in which he narrated that Manhattan is a tough place but 'if you work hard, you can really hit it big.'3 Trump values hard work and financial success, and journalists and media critics consider him a skilful user of social media (Lovink and Servin 2018; Parkinson 2015).

At the beginning of his presidency in January 2017, Trump proposed a new tax plan that would cut tax expenses for citizens and companies. His Republican Party supported the bill, claiming that 'the tax cuts for businesses and families will unleash investment, spending and growth', and Trump claimed further that this plan will benefit in particular the middle class and small businesses (BBC 2017a). But the Democratic Party and other critics opposed the bill, claiming that it would only increase the gap between poor and rich, and that it would be particularly unbeneficial to future generations (BBC 2017a). With his social media skills and Party’s support, Trump campaigned for the tax plan to pass in the Senate. Like a campaign, it combined actual data and distorted information, but carried the recurring statement that attracted the media’s attention: ‘the biggest tax cut in history’ (later Trump added ‘in U.S. history’). For example, in October 2017 he tweeted: 'Working hard on the biggest tax cut in U.S. history'4 Fig. 2.
Fig. 2

Twitter screenshot: ‘the biggest tax cut’, Donald J. Trump, 25 October 2017, 04:35 AM

Various journalists and scholars thoroughly demonstrated Trump’s claim to be false by comparing it to other tax cuts in US history, and finding at least four bigger cuts (BBC 2017b; Jacobson 2017; Kessler 2017). Fact checking PolitiFact, for example, found six tax bills that had cut taxes more than Trump’s had (Jacobson 2017). Yet, Trump has continually repeated the claim in speeches, interviews and via social media. In a Fox interview he said: '...we’re bringing the corporate rate down from 20% to 35%. That’s a massive-- this will be the biggest tax cut in history, in the history of our country' (Trump 2017) (Fig. 3). Two months later, after the tax plan had passed, Trump’s Facebook posted: 'Biggest Tax Bill and Tax Cuts in history passed in the Senate'5 (Fig. 4). He similarly tweeted: 'The United States Senate just passed the biggest in history Tax Cut and Reform Bill'—this tweet alone has reached more than 190,000 engagements (likes, comments, retweets).6 The falsification of this fact generated false information and it can be assumed that the campaign had its influence on public opinion. The Washington Post, for example, claimed that the number of supporters for the bill had doubled since the end of 2017 (Kelly et al. 2018). Since it was first claimed, the ‘biggest tax cut in US history’ has not been refuted or corrected by Trump.
Fig. 3

Still-shot from Fox Business interview with president Donald Trump in the Lou Dobbs Tonight show, mentioning the ‘biggest tax cut’, October 2017

Fig. 4

Facebook screenshot: ‘the biggest tax cut’, Donald J. Trump, 2 December 2017

Comparing Trump and the Yes Men

President Trump and the Yes Men come from different fields of practice: politics and media art. They differ in their ideology: Trump is a capitalist, conservative and nationalist, whereas the artists are humanist and critical of the harms of globalization and capitalism. Yet, the common ground they share is in the similarity of their ‘fake news’ practice, both delivering a false statement which had major implications: Finisterra declared that the company Dow would compensate the victims of Bhopal and end their suffering, and president Trump declared that American citizens would have the biggest tax relief in US history. Despite their different backgrounds, both the Yes Men and Trump share an intelligent use of media technologies, skilful performance and convincing rhetoric, and both seek to promote ‘good news’. Trump campaigned for the tax bill in the spirit of ‘the American dream’ and the Yes Men promoted justice for Bhopal based on ideologies of social justice. Further, both producers have vast experience with fake news and deception: the art duo has based its entire oeuvre on hoaxes and trickery; and by April 2019 Trump had a count of no less than 10,111 ‘false or misleading claims’ (The Washington Post 2019).

However, what is essentially fake in each act? Fake is defined by the inherent similarity to the original which it forges, as Eco explains: 'Something is not a fake because of its internal properties, but by virtue of a claim of identity' (1990: 181). Thus, to analyse a fake, one should look for the original—the real, ‘authentic’ object. Evidently, the speaker himself is fake in the Yes Men’s case but not in Trump’s; and in both cases the announcement is false, but in a different way. Trump’s announcement is incorrect, exaggerated; the authentic claim is that this is not the biggest tax cut in US history – there are proven data of bigger tax cuts in previous governments. Thus, the fake element in Trump’s statement is the data. In the Yes Men’s case, the announcement that Dow would accept full responsibility, compensate the victims and remediate the plant site was untrue – and when the hoax was revealed, Dow stated that the interview included ‘entirely inaccurate’ information (cited in Wells and Ramesh 2004). However, on examining all the data presented by Finisterra in the full BBC interview (e.g. previous Dow-spokesperson’s statement, Union Carbide’s financial worth, their business actions, the legal deal with the Indian government) – they were all true facts. Thus, the fake element in the Yes Men’s act was not the data contained in the announcement, but rather the company’s position regarding the data. The authentic object was the real position of Dow which was that they were not responsible for the Bhopal disaster, would not compensate the victims or repair the plant. In their words, Dow 'has neither a connection to nor legal liability for the tragic events of the 1984 gas release' (cited in BBC 2004). The difference here is between falsifying an assertion and falsifying a fact. While the Yes Men may have disrespected the company, Trump showed no respect for the objective facts.

After Dow refuted the false announcement and the hoax was exposed, Servin went on to recap the hoax, explain their aims and present the truth in a later interview.7 To explain their work the Yes Men coined the term ‘Identity Correction’, according to which one should 'speak a little lie that tells a greater truth' (Bichlbaum 2012: 60). Or as Servin said in a recent interview, all of their fake actions 'were never really fake, not for long—the whole point was to reveal them and arouse laughs and insight' (Lovink and Servin 2018). The Bhopal hoax was meant to be revealed. The statement was falsified so that the original Dow’s position could then be emphasized—through ‘laughs’ the viewer achieved ‘insight’ into the callous actions of the company. While the exposure of the hoax was integral to the act in the Yes Men’s case, distortion was the goal in Trump’s assertion. Trump kept repeating the claim ‘the biggest tax cut’ even after being proved wrong throughout and after the bill’s campaign, resorting to bullshit to claim something with ‘big’—rather present the truth. One can assume that his intentions were motivated by political propaganda and self-promotion rather than informing the public. While the Yes Men intended to raise questions of social justice, Trump intended to inflate his record to increase his approval ratings.

Frankfurt (2005: 18) claims that the bullshitter’s intention is not to deceive the audience but rather to portray a positive image of himself. Trump indeed draws excessive public attention to himself. Chomsky (2018) claims that when the media focuses on Trump’s falsehoods and controversies, the entire attention goes to Trump instead of his policy making—and so crucial decisions are being made in the background with minimal public attention. The Yes Men, too, were criticized for attracting attention mainly to themselves. Research which analysed the Bhopal hoax’s effect on the media’s agenda following its revelation revealed that it did not increase the media’s attention to injustice. Examining over a hundred newspaper articles from 2 years before and after the hoax, the research concluded: 'Instead of attracting attention to the plight of the victims of the disaster, [The Yes Men] succeeded only in attracting attention to themselves' (Robinson and Castle Bell 2013: 365). Both critiques point merely at the mainstream media’s focus, but these media navigate the public’s attention. If both assessments are valid, while Trump’s self-attention sabotages democratic deliberation, the Yes Men’s throws attention onto the need to support democratic deliberation. In other words, Trump and his (mis)conduct distract the public from being critically involved in its own state of affairs, and therefore undermines the idea of democratic deliberation. The Yes Men may have attracted much attention to themselves, but that attention did not interfere with their call for socio-political activism, critical thinking and moral discussion.

In retrospect, the Yes Men reflected that: 'Much as we try to convince ourselves it was worth it, we cannot get rid of the nagging doubt. Did we deeply upset many Bhopalis? If so, we want to apologize'; and they also expressed regret that the BBC’s credibility took a hit (The Yes Men 2006:182). In contrast, one cannot find any expressions of self-reflection or responsibility by Trump for his falsehood. Since his presidency he has made more than ten thousand false or misleading claims (The Washington Post 2019)—but, correspondingly, has also delivered true and factual claims. Whether intentional or not, this reckless mixture of true and false information coming from such an authority can confuse the public about what a fact is—which can more radically lead to ubiquitous societal mistrust and generally undermine the status of truth.

To examine the producers’ relation to truth, I adopt Frankfurt’s explanations of lies and bullshit. While a ‘lie’ is a basic component of all types of deception (e.g. misleading, falsifying), Frankfurt distinguishes it from bullshit. He argues that both a liar and an honest person—by either presenting or mispresenting the truth—must pay heed to the truth. The bullshitter, in contrast, deceives through pretentious claims and disregards the truth altogether; he does not care about describing real data correctly but 'just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose' (Frankfurt 2005: 56). When Trump pretentiously distorted the data, did not correct his falsehood and maintained his claim, he was mostly bullshitting. In the Bhopal case, however, the falsehood was revealed soon after and there was no intention to bullshit: this was a hoax. In fact, following Frankfurt’s definition, the Yes Men seemed to have lied in their act—with great respect to the truth. The liar must know what he believes to be true and 'in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth' (Frankfurt 2005: 51–52). To construct their hoax, the Yes Men researched and presented accurate data regarding Bhopal and Dow. They designed a perfect lie so that when exposed it could create a truthful discussion about the position of Dow—its policy and ethics. Dow’s ethics as appeared on their actual website included phrases such as: 'Ethical behavior is everyone’s responsibility', and 'Dow’s policy is to be lawful, highly-principled and socially responsible' (About Dow 2001). In their act, declaring ethical statements in that spirit, the Yes Men exposed a contradiction between the principles presented by Dow and its actual conduct. In order to raise ethical questions about the corporation’s social responsibility, the Yes Men had to lie—but it was a temporary lie. While the liar rejects the authority of truth, the bullshitter disregards it altogether – and thus bullshit is a greater danger to truth than lies are, according to Frankfurt (2005: 61). Trump used bullshit, directing the public’s attention to him whilst disregarding the truth, while the Yes Men used a temporary lie to expose and amplify the truth. The Yes Men deconstructed truth in order to reconstruct it – while Trump simply obstructed it.

The Educational Potential of Fake News

In January 2019 the Yes Men spread another fake newspaper, this time the Washington Post with the headline 'Unpresidented: Trump Hastily Departs White House, Ending Crisis.' The newspaper included articles about the alleged departure of president Trump due to women-led massive protests around the USA and about the worldwide celebrations to follow. To declare their intentions, the last page consisted of a semi-manifesto, written on behalf of the human race, demanding the return of justice and democracy. Referring to the period since Trump had been elected as president, it claimed that 'crazed misfits', the politicians who brutalize our society, should be incarcerated and that we, the people, should 'take back the power we’ve handed over to [them].'8 Following these critiques, I assert that Trump’s falsehoods, self-attention and self-promotion harm the status and integrity of the leader’s role. His use of bullshit and lies, instead of informing or allowing rational deliberation, threatens the very basic notion of truth and objective facts. Should we not accept bullshit as more dangerous than lying?

Whereas lying in politics is a misconduct, lying as an artistic practice turns the tables on fake news. While a direct lie is used to mislead and alter truth, and bullshitting and lies are used to ignore truth, the artistic lie is used to expose truth. Both artists and politicians have the tools, access, talent, intelligence, framework, social awareness and legitimacy to act in public, and they both aim to influence public opinion. But certainly, the purposes and consequences of delivering falsehoods by politicians and by artists radically differ. While the politician’s purpose is to maintain his political interests often with disregard to reality, the artist’s purpose is to hold a mirror to society and reflect on its reality. This is an educational act. I believe that artists, like educators, carry a social vocation and have the skill to self-reflect, and can be entrusted to perform the potentially dangerous practice of fake news. More specifically, media art has the relevant technological tools and imagination needed for creation and action. It is a liberating process with which, using whatever media is necessary, can provoke debate and alert the audience to upcoming or existing threats (Blais and Ippolito 2006: 231; Perini 2010: 183). When the Yes Men created the Bhopal piece, they made the viewer active. Their action provoked reaction from direct and indirect participants—the BBC, Dow, Bhopal activists—as well as the viewers. The viewers who were exposed to the hoax may have found out who Dow was; what had happened in Bhopal; or what the Bhopal activists’ demands were. Like a talented educator, the Yes Men raised questions rather than gave answers, so the viewers had to be critically engaged to comprehend the act.

Media art and its bold use of technology, media, performance and public interventions, can expose and oppose the corrupt conduct of politicians who use the same powerful tools. It takes much effort, risk, skill and knowledge to work from within a powerful system to oppose it. Critical commentary, protest or satire are often not enough to do so; thus, politicians and leaders who disregard the value of truth and facts, must be opposed by their own means—assertive rhetoric, provocative performances, fake news. While the common practices of fake news usually aim to mislead for as long as possible, tactical media fake practices aim to be exposed for reflection, ethical and critical deliberation and educational edification—and this use is noble. In an era of post-truth, bullshit and fake news, further tactical media acts are required to undermine or limit their power and embolden critical thinking. As opposed to fake news which spreads confusion and mistrust and undermines the status of truth, fake news as an art practice has the educational potential to fight fake news; it can foster urgent critical discussion over the state of truth and, perhaps, how to recognize what is true from the false.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    A newspaper article about Georg Paul Thomann representing Austria is archived here [in German]: http://www.monochrom.at/thomann/archiv/thomann-presse-19-02-2002.jpg.

  2. 2.
  3. 3.

    Transcribed from the opening of The Apprentice (2004): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jx9cMuMb2pk.

  4. 4.

    Donald Trump’s Twitter@realDonaldTrump, 25 October 2017, 04:35 AM.

  5. 5.

    Donald Trump’s Facebook, Donald J. Trump, 2 December 2017.

  6. 6.

    Donald Trump’s Twitter @realDonaldTrump, 19 December 2017, 10:09 PM.

  7. 7.

    To watch Servin’s interview on Channel 4 search for FLASHBACK: The Yes Men Explains Dow Chemical/Bhopal Disaster Prank (2004) on YouTube.

  8. 8.

Notes

Acknowledgements

This work was written with the professional support of Prof. Dr. Ana Peraica and Dr. Alison MacKenzie.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent ScholarHamburgGermany

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