‘A History of Fake Things on the Internet’ shows digital fakery is just the latest medium for age old manipulation of the truth

"A History of Fake Things on the Internet" by Walter J. Scheirer. (MUST CREDIT: Stanford University Press)

"A History of Fake Things on the Internet" by Walter J. Scheirer. (MUST CREDIT: Stanford University Press)

Published Dec 6, 2023


By Becca Rothfeld

What distinguishes toxic falsehoods from sustaining fictions? And which of the two flourishes in the wilds of the internet, where hoaxes thrive and doctored images abound?

In "A History of Fake Things on the Internet," computer scientist Walter J. Scheirer proposes that much of what has been disparaged as "misinformation" is best considered under a different rubric: that of art.

"Haven't creative art forms like the novel always challenged the truth in some way?" he provocatively asks. "Why turn away from new innovations in storytelling simply because they provide an outlet for folks intent on making things up?"

Some readers may find it hard to entertain such questions when a small percentage of online deceptions have fomented such dramatic political upheaval: The outrageous QAnon doctrine, which inspired many of the extremists who swarmed the Capitol in 2021, is one of the most loudly publicized lies on the internet.

But the intriguing case studies in Scheirer's bold book demonstrate that the vast majority of "fake things on the internet" are clever and harmless pranks - and that a handful are full-fledged triumphs of the imagination.

Scheirer notes that we are awash in discussion of misinformation, but most of it is alarmist and ahistoric, treating duplicity online as an unprecedented and catastrophic phenomenon.

In contrast, he asks us to regard digital fabrications as the latest manifestation of a perennial human tendency.

What Scheirer calls "participatory fakery" - the creation of memes, the invention of personas - is in fact continuous with much older practices of collective mythmaking.

Is a young woman using a filter to alter her features on Instagram really so different from the ancient Greek artist who embellished a figure in a painting on a pot?

Is a teenager who exaggerates an anecdote in an online forum really so different from an oral storyteller adding idiosyncratic flourishes to a familiar tale?

Drawing on a framework developed by the pioneering anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s, Scheirer argues that humanity always occupies "two parallel timelines: the physical world (i.e., the historical timeline) and the myth cycle (i.e., a fictional timeline)“.

Both are indispensable: We are confined to reality, but we cannot confront facts (or even make sense of them) without the salve of fiction. As Joan Didion so famously put it, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live".

Scheirer claims that we have always told ourselves stories in order to live, but he also understands that the stories have changed along with the mediums in which they are told.

In the 19th century, as soon as photography was developed, methods of falsifying images were invented on its heels.

"Small-scale retouching of faces to remove blemishes, blotches, freckles, and other minor imperfections visible on a negative was an accepted practice at studios," Scheirer writes.

Objects could also be inserted into photographs, and "more elaborate photomontages could be achieved by combining significant portions of different images".

Soon, "intentionally absurd" collages were all the rage: "Whimsical scenes began appearing on postcards as advertisements for local regions and products."

In one representative image, an advertisement for Wisconsin, men wielding a saw attempt to slice through log-size cobs of corn allegedly found in the state.

But the technologies that allowed for these mischievous and innocuous revisions were soon put to nefarious uses.

In 1976, after the death of Mao Zedong, Chinese censors expunged four of his loyal followers from state-sanctioned history by removing them from a photograph taken at his funeral.

Meanwhile, Scheirer writes, "Albania's leader throughout most of the Cold War, Enver Hoxha, routinely purged his perceived enemies, as well as the historical record. In one particularly chilling photo, two high school classmates of Enver were erased, yet their shoes remained visible."

In post-Maoist China and Soviet Albania, authoritarian regimes exercised a monopoly on mythmaking by fashioning and disseminating a single inflexible fiction.

But from the moment of its inception, the internet democratized the ability to revise reality. The hacking scene that emerged in America in the 1970s and '80s was not the preserve of a small elite.

Though the computer buffs who inaugurated the subculture all had a modicum of technical expertise, the barrier to entry was low, and the crew that assembled was motley.

Initially, high jinks and inside jokes predominated. Mike Schiffman, a hacker who went by the name "route", tells Scheirer that hacking was "a lot like professional wrestling; you have these bombastic personality types that hide not behind flashy costumes, but nom de plumes".

As much performance artists as they were coders, the first generation of hackers ribbed each other in iconic electronic zines like Phrack and 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, and in the now-obsolete genre of the textfile.

These "digital texts circulated as individual files" were often "a blend of technical elements" and "fantastic elements that push the imagination into the new realm of cyberspace".

Early files contained dumps of real data, dumps of fake data and outlandish narratives.

Interspersed among actual information about how to break into various operating systems were boasts about obviously fictional exploits, code purporting to shut down telephone lines and elaborate stories about UFOs.

Competing narratives proliferated as rival hacking groups responded to one another's gibes and invented ever zanier gambits.

Many of the outsize personalities involved in this extended repartee would eventually put their technical skills to work in the tamer and more professionalised computer security industry, which would develop over the next few decades.

Ultimately, "A History of Fake Things on the Internet" is not only a history of (some) fake things on the internet but also a history of early internet culture, a history of early photography and much more.

All of the stories and theories that feature in the book are entertaining; only some of them are obviously relevant to the question of online fakery.

Still, a compelling lesson that emerges from almost every chapter is that the success of a manipulation hinges less on its believability than on its cultural import.

Of the photo doctored after Mao's death, Scheirer writes: "The observer is meant to notice that the scene has been altered, which itself conveys an important message."

The edit succeeded not because it produced a convincing image but because it scared Chinese citizens by reminding them in no uncertain terms that the state was the arbiter of the truth.

Many of the falsehoods that have proliferated online follow a similar pattern.

They are entirely unlike the threats that computer scientists and security aficionados have obsessively predicted since the dawn of Photoshop.

In the years leading up to Donald Trump's election, "there were no deepfakes and very few instances of scenes that were altered in a realistic way so as to deceive the viewer. Nearly all of the manipulated political content was in meme form".

What falsehoods like those perpetuated by QAnon offer is not a photorealistic trick but a myth that appeals to a large swath of Americans, given their fears and desires.

There are no technical fixes for social and narrative problems. Blame is often assigned to "specific social technologies and those responsible for creating them," Scheirer writes.

"If only we could trust-bust, reform, and regulate our way out of the post-truth stalemate, the global political crisis unfolding around us could be resolved. Or so the current thinking goes."

But cultural problems demand cultural solutions.

"We continue to blame technology for long-standing social problems instead of confronting the unethical behaviour that nourishes them," Scheirer concludes.

Algorithms cannot take the place of ethics.

How, then, are we to differentiate between playful fictions and malevolent lies, online and everywhere else? If there is no technology that can discern fable from fakery - and of course, there is not - then the burden falls to us.

Unfortunately, Scheirer does not take up the challenge. In a brief passage early in the book, he cursorily reflects that lying is "associated with the negative behaviour of individuals, while myths are the collective expression of an entire community".

But surely there can be community-wide lies, for instance the shared beliefs of cultists.

"Of all lies art is the least untrue," Flaubert wrote. For all its panache, "A History of Fake Things on the Internet" cannot help us determine which of the many dazzling fabrications on the internet are the least untrue - and which are fatally false.

∎ "A History of Fake Things on the Internet" retails for R610 on Loot.