New Media and the Problem of Veracity

"We lost good people on that server."

In case some of our readers hadn’t figured it out yet, I’m a bit of a geek. I may be a student of the humanities but I love science, I love technology, and my other big passion besides writing is video-games. It could be argued that the 1996 PC title Riven, a haunting game that explored the wonders and ethical dangers of storytelling, was actually responsible for my initial desire to write. I’ve found it compelling over the last decade to watch as electronic media emerges as an art form unto itself, and I follow developments related to that sphere with great interest.

Of course, as with any innovation, the results are not always shiny-happy-progress. Sometimes the results are actually harmful; more often than not, though, they’re just stupid. Kotaku’s Brian Crecente reports that a recent documentary by UK studio ITV features purported footage of “IRA terrorists” armed with Libyan anti-aircraft weapons, shooting down a Royal Army helicopter in 1988. The footage, while certainly riveting, is actually gameplay from 2009’s online combat shooter ARMA II. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen ARMA being played, and the graphics are quite good, if a bit dated. On the average low-quality TV screen some viewers, unfamiliar with modern conveniences like “video games” or “that awful rock-and-roll music,” would likely not even notice. That said: come on, guys. ITV claims this was a mix-up over use of the wrong clip, but any video editor worth his salt should have picked up on this right away. The glitchy, stilted movements of the soldiers in the beginning should have been a dead giveaway.

Now please understand: I think it’s cool that digital rendering is to the point now where we can convincingly dramatize events and give them real visual impact even years afterward. In fact, had there been a little title card at the bottom saying “DRAMATIZATION,” I’d have been okay with all this. But what we’re seeing here is sloppy work on the part of the producers. That a documentary, exploring how Gaddafi’s government armed anti-Unionist forces during the 1980’s, should have to sensationalize its own material is a little sad; that it should choose to “phone it in” with stock footage from an outdated PC shooter is just embarrassing.

More to the point, I think it raises some serious questions about the nature of truth in reporting.

Now mind you, I’m no techno-alarmist. I’m no Joan Didion, invoking the spectre of cultural decline. I played video-games and listened to Marilyn Manson during the Columbine era, when both pursuits had my parents and teachers convinced that I would stroll into my school with a small armory strapped to my person. I’m not inclined to herald these events as a sign of the end. At the same time however, I do find it interesting that with American media either utterly brain-dead or polarized to the point of “epistemic closure,” we now possess the tools to fake imagery at least well enough to fool the lowest common denominator. In an age where each half of the country is in possession of a separate set of “facts” at any given time, at what point do we question the impact of New Media upon our collective ability to process truth?

Again: I’m no conspiracy-theorist. I’m not that person inclined to cry “fascism” at every invasion of privacy or lazy misstep in journalism. I just think these are important questions.

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