‘F’ is for Fake

PHOTO: Journolink, Flickr CC
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

In 1973, Orson Welles produced a strange movie called “F is for Fake.” Loosely structured as a documentary about art forgery, the film attempts to explore the notion of what is real and what isn’t. The whole time Orson hovers through the shots, a corpulent, enigmatic shadow of his Citizen Kane days. He even satirizes the newsreel footage from that famous movie.

In “F is for Fake” Welles also re-imagines elements of his famous “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, the 1938 program that allegedly convinced some listeners that the fictional story of an alien invasion was really happening. Not surprisingly, the true story of this fake story causing real panic is, itself, partly fake — drummed up by Welles himself for self-promotion.

Fake art holds some surprisingly important connections to today’s so-called “fake news.” We experience art viscerally, emotionally. A great painting prompts a feeling upon first sight. That notion changes our minds forever. That is one part of how art is valued, but the other is supply and demand. Certain artists come to be seen as masters, their works exalted beyond the material cost of paint and canvas. Some art buyers will pay millions of dollars to cage up a piece of this magic in their living rooms or den. Perhaps they just want to lock it away, to know they have captured and consumed it.

All this means is that there is real financial incentive to make fakes and sell them to dolts who can’t tell the difference. But in the biggest forgery cases the victims are hardly dolts. They’re often very well educated and savvy in art history. The big auction houses hire detectives whose full time job is to spot fake paintings. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. And still sometimes the fake paintings fool them for years, decades or even centuries.

Some famous art we all look at is probably not what it claims to be, and we’ll never know.

So here is where we need to talk about news and information in the 21st Century. Your Facebook timeline is hardly a 16th Century masterpiece. It’s usually a parade of trash. But it is very valuable to powerful people, because you are one small part of a marketable audience. If you believe something you see, and act on it, you’re helping someone far away make money, take money, gain power or keep it.

Democracy thrives on truth. Autocracy generally traffics in lies. A democracy fed a steady diet of lies gradually becomes something other than a democracy.

Last month, a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appearing drunk and disoriented went viral on Facebook. It was fake. The author had collected normal footage of Pelosi and altered the speed to make her appear intoxicated and confused.

As this video was rather gleefully transmitted by Pelosi’s opponents, the big services that provide us our information — Facebook, Twitter and Google, for instances — couldn’t figure out how to handle it. Google ended up blocking the fake video, while Facebook said people could probably tell it was fake on their own.

Probably they could. But consider this. What if one part of our brain knows it’s fake, but the other part chooses to believe it anyway?

This is the central threat to all democracies today, ours in particular. Can we handle self-government if we are all too happy to believe things that make us feel good, even though they are not true?

In Finland, democracy has endured on the razor’s edge. Occupied for centuries by Sweden and Russia, Finland liberated itself in divisive civil conflict. They then survived as a western nation with the Cold War Soviet Union breathing down its neck.

Today, Finland is constantly bombarded by the same very real tactical Russian interference that has been documented in our recent elections and in the democratic processes of nations across the world. But rather than denying it, or casting blame, the Finns are learning to defend themselves in a world where falsities are weapons.

Eliza Mackintosh of CNN filed a special report on Finland’s efforts to spot and destroy fake news. Their program is aggressive, educational and it’s proven effective in reducing belief in documented falsehoods. Finland’s solution is not to close off information, but to train the whole country to spot signs of fake news and deceptive persuasion.

In school, students are shown fake videos — often the very same ones we see in our social media feeds — and shown ways to determine who makes the videos, how they may have been altered, and how to double check facts before re-sharing the video.

The results are evident. In 2018, Finland led all of Europe in media literacy, scoring a 76 on a 100-point scale — significantly higher than than the European average, and 5 points better than the next nation, Denmark. The United Kingdom scored a 60, while Italy scored 50.

Finland holds something we don’t, however. Mackintosh describes their sense of national unity, a desire to remain “Finnish” regardless of which political party is in power. Too often, America seems part of a zero-sum game, where political opponents are more reviled than hostile foreign powers.

Short of rekindling American unity, a noble goal worth considering, we could at least improve our ability to spot and reject the fake information fed to us every day, and the false emotion provoked by it.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 14, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Kirsten Derynioski says

    The Baltic States are very active in countering fakes, as well. Have a look at this, from the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, Latvia:

  2. truly is such a gamble when you get a face…

  3. Joe musich says

    Great piece. I am going to look for that film. You bring in the Pelosi video and mention the usual social media sources which generally get tied to fake news. The this wonderful insight ….”….This is the central threat to all democracies today, ours in particular. Can we handle self-government if we are all too happy to believe things that make us feel good, even though they are not true?….” Great stuff. And additional part of this that does not seem to be directly addressed are the conventional sources of media and who owns them and how these owners affect their newspapers, radio and tevee stations. The Sinclair chain or the Adelson purchase on a newspaper and that goes without mentioning the Fox opinion shows. I guess what I am trying to say as there are a lot ways we can be vulnerable to misinformation. In any case vigilance is the by word. It begins with a full throated all the time media analysis program. Finland is leading the way in education and now in this proactive approach to protecting the brain from making itself happy when that should not not be the case. Thanks Aaron.

  4. Jan Merritt says


  5. I somehow missed this when you published it in July, but a great column. (Not just cuz you talk about one of my favorite directors.) I am currently writing a novel that is looking at some of these ideas: belief, where it goes in an age of climate chaos, how people are swindled by, oh I dunno an Orange Monster who tells them immigrants are causing all their problems. Very interesting contrast with Finland, i.e. a country that has not allowed its politics to make it insane. Great take on what is going to keep being a very important story. jA

  6. David W Kannas says

    Fox “news” recently victimized Seattle by photo shopping pictures of some of the demonstrations here by mixing them with war footage. Fox was called out for doing such a despicable thing. Did they learn by being caught? Doubtful. Thankfully, Fox is widely known as a purveyor of fake news, so we at least have that. But we also have a president who takes his information from this source. Yes, fake news is a huge problem; it has, however, been redefined by our president so that many among us now take real fake news as Gospel.

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