In HBO’s ‘After Truth,’ the Victims of Disinformation Campaigns Humanize the Danger of ‘Fake News’

“In this film, you see real-life victims and real-life perpetrators. And it makes this issue so much more human,” executive producer Brian Stelter told TheWrap

James Alefantis in 'After Truth' documentary
James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong. (Courtesy of HBO)

The term “fake news” has been thrown around with such facetiousness and carelessness that it has itself lost its meaning in the public imagination.

But in HBO’s latest documentary, “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,” director Andrew Rossi (“Page One: Inside the New York Times”) and executive producer Brian Stelter have parsed through recent history to take a look at some of the devastating consequences of actual “fake news” — the disinformation campaigns that continue to wreak havoc on the livelihoods of people around the country and the world.

“So many of these fake stories get traction because they demonize a group. And they make the people who believe them feel special and superior,” Rossi told TheWrap. “It’s unfortunate that they have gotten to this place where they think they’re above the law or above some sort of social pact that we should have where we … believe in the importance of facts and truth, but [they] feel that it’s justified to hurt other people in order to achieve a political goal.”

The instigators of such disinformation campaigns featured in the documentary include Jack Burkman, a lobbyist and conspiracy theorist who unabashedly acknowledges on camera that he operates in disinformation; Jacob Wohl, a conservative conspiracy theorist who has been behind a number of false smear campaigns; Alex Jones, the founder of InfoWars; and, underlying it all, Donald Trump and the misinformation spread during his presidential campaign and his presidency.

But on the opposite side of these instigators exist the very human victims of such disinformation. They include James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, and his staff — the targets of the widely debunked #Pizzagate conspiracy that led a gunman to fire inside the restaurant, believing that he was there to save children from a pedophile ring. They include the family of Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee staffer who was murdered in an armed robbery and soon became the subject of another conspiracy — heavily promoted by Fox News’ Sean Hannity — alleging that Rich was on his way to leak information to the FBI about Hillary Clinton but was assassinated by gunmen working for her. And they include the families of the Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas shooting victims and the survivors who have become vocal gun safety and gun control activists — some of whom have been wrongly accused of being “crisis actors” or the subjects of doctored videos.

“In this film, you see real-life victims and real-life perpetrators. And it makes this issue so much more human,” Stelter told TheWrap.

“The emotional truth of that will be more persuasive than any kind of scientific debunking that could occur,” Rossi added.

Comet Ping Pong still from 'After Truth'
Courtesy of HBO

But what of the potential viewers who won’t necessarily be inclined to watch a documentary about “fake news” and disinformation — especially one executive produced by a CNN anchor?

“Sean Hannity’s biggest fans are maybe not interested in a film called ‘After Truth.’ There are alternative, competing universes of information in America, and I am not in denial about that,” Stelter said. “There are a lot of Trump supporters who have been told for years not to trust anything produced by a major media company other than Fox.”

“But I don’t think the average American subscribes to that view,” he continued. “There’s a lot of people that will be open to the insights of this film, whether they identify as Democrat or Republican.”

And though the documentary, which premieres on HBO Thursday evening, begins with events in 2015 and ends around 2018, it is almost uncanny to see how its overarching message is applicable to how the discourse surrounding the present-day coronavirus pandemic has unfolded. (The film’s scheduled premieres at SXSW and in New York and Washington, D.C., were also canceled because of the outbreak.)

Though networks like Fox News and the President himself have, in the past, sought to portray news of the coronavirus as attempts by the media and Democrats to target Trump, Rossi said that perhaps now, amid the seriousness of the pandemic, there was room for optimism.

“That whiplash in that sense of fear and life and death stakes is one of the most powerful ways to change people’s minds,” Rossi said. “And perhaps this is the moment where it changes for them.”

After Truth” premieres Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern/Pacific on HBO.