During the summer of 1919, two expatriated dadas living in Zurich were bored. Hans Arp (1886-1966) and Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) spiced things up by fabricating a duel between them. They planted the story in Swiss newspapers and falsely reported that fellow dadas Francis Picabia, Oskar Kokoschka, and Walter Serner were at the duel as seconds, as well as the sentimental poet and popular schlock author, J.C. Heer.
Heer, not wishing to be associated with ruffian prankster dadas, sent in a furious disclaimer to the newspaper. Yet another story later that day was published acknowledging that it would have been embarrassing for Heer to have been there, but respect for the truth compelled Arp and Tzara to say that he had…all a hoax to mock and infuriate the author and to deflate the importance of such events reported as news.
And the hoax went viral, appearing in a number of newspapers, one of them as far away as Prague. The seemingly harmless prank demonstrated how easily the media could be manipulated. It’s as if this fake news event sent a postcard a hundred years into the future. We now live in an environment perplexed by an onslaught of such manipulation. What were Arp and Tzara trying to tell us?
I have more questions than answers, but asking a few good questions might aid the untangling. The paradoxical dada movement was grounded in the noblest and greatest of moralities, they were pacifists who shared emphatic opposition to the blood and stupidity of World War I. But dada was also the quintessence of the absurd in art, a liberation from morality and a return to the amoral soup that is the habitat of the trickster.
So that postcard sends the message to simply say that mass media may tell the truth through honest journalism, but it is also a public canvas where, under certain conditions and with a sense of mischief, good, bad, and indifferent…any picture can be painted and truth is often the first casualty.
The first casualty in service to fun. And slander. And propaganda. And hate. And political manipulation. And satire. And sensationalism. And titillation. And so on.
So, what need we be wondering right now, now that we’ve had a hundred years to think about the ramifications of mass media? If news is to be reported objectively, where will the arbiter of truth reside? Would you trust a government-run Department of Truth? Would you trust Facebook? Would you trust the mainstream media? How about 8th grade history teachers? Astrology? God? Science?
My line of questioning is less facetious than you might think. I do believe that there are reputable and reliable sources of truth. John Oliver recommends supporting The New York Times, The Washington Post, ProPublica as fact-checkers, and your local newspaper. The Onion and Comedy Central ‘news’ shows make it obvious when they are riffing off real events and going fake in order to get a laugh, or to uncover a deeper truth. But what are the differences between comedy fake news that everyone gets as comedy and fake news meant to tap and inflame anger in order to deliberately misinform and get away with political misdeeds and crime? Or more pathetically, click-bait to get you to read lies and make money for someone else? What about news that is primarily factual but lends itself to a particular perspective? And internet trolling, lies spread just for the sake of creating chaos or for mean amusement (Michael Douglas isn’t dead?)?
And almost all politicians do daily pirouettes with the truth, but in 2017, an ill-informed President of the United States recklessly and regularly doubles down on lies and fabrications through Twitter. What is to be done about that?
How will we react when we get our first fake fact-checking site?
And how is this all reconciled with freedom of speech?
While I recognize that we do not have a lot of time to contemplate these questions, I suggest that we do, as the answers our society gives will say a lot about how we move forward, how we govern…and how we get governed.