Fake History

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Writing in Maclean's this week, journalist Colin Horgan warns us about the perils of fake history. His main concern is the advent of digital editing tools that will allow troublemakers to alter voice and image seamlessly. "Want John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address to have gone differently? Easy. Could Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have had something other than a dream? Sure. Did Adolf Hitler really say those horrible things about Jews? Maybe not! The possibilities would be endless, so long as video exists."

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Professional historians will tell you that propaganda, fake news, planted stories and doctored documents have always been with us. Conspiracy theories thrive on them. (Think, for example, of the decades-long debate about the authenticity of the famous backyard photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a rifle, shown here. What was Oliver Stone's JFK if not fake history?) What is more, historians routinely make discoveries that change what we thought we knew about the past. The more dramatic the discovery, the more likely the story will go viral. The converse is also true. The fake-history stories that have really set the world alight are precisely those—like the discovery of the forged Hitler Diaries in 1983, for example—that suckered the pros.

Horgan's piece, seen in this context, is not really about history and truth but the perceived gullibility of ordinary media consumers. He uses the popular "we" to frame the looming threat of fake history—"In 2017, we began to suspect that anything could be happening. In 2018, we will begin to believe anything could have happened"—but it is obvious that this "we" does not include sensible people like himself. His real worry is not that fake videos will be beyond the reach of critical scrutiny but that they will "infus[e] themselves into the minds of those already primed to believe what they are seeing. From there, as we have seen with news countless times, it is virtually impossible to rein it back in. No one, after all, cares about the corrections."

No one cares about the corrections? Well, Horgan himself obviously cares, and so do a good many historians, archivists, librarians, broadcasters and lawyers, and so do plenty of students, teachers, history buffs, news junkies, and assorted other connoisseurs of the truth, and so, too, might the occasional young naïf who "shares" a fake-history video, only to discover, to her own mortification, that she's been hoodwinked.