When I logged into my Facebook account yesterday, I was greeted by an alert describing a new experiment on the popular social networking site. This trial will introduce banners teaching Facebook users how to “spot fake news” given the recent controversies regarding the accuracy of news sources. Also, users will be given the opportunity to mark unreliable news stories as “disputed.” The media plays an influential role in our world today—we are constantly bombarded with news everywhere we look. I think it’s good that Facebook and other sites like Google, which has recently unveiled plans for a similar experiment, are taking an active stance in attempting to improve the way users consume media. But is that enough? Can we be certain that what we know is true? To tackle these questions, I turned to one of my favorite movies, Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.
The Truman Show tells the story of a TV show starring a man named Truman Burbank. The twist is that everybody knows the show is a TV show except for Truman himself. The town Truman lives in, Seahaven Island, was created just for him. His friends and family are all actors. Truman was born on camera and has gone his entire life believing that this constructed studio world is all there is—it’s all he has ever known. After a couple of things go wrong on the show (a studio light falls from the sky, Truman hears cues being given as he drives down the street, and Truman sees extras waiting in a green room) Truman begins to question everything he has ever been told. In the end, Truman finally discovers the truth—or, rather, falsity—of his situation.
This type of show is very appealing to viewers both within the film and in our world. Shows like The Bachelor, The Real Housewives, Keeping Up with the Kardashians are some of the most widely watched and talked about shows on television. While billed as “reality” shows, these shows are calculated to a high degree to ensure engaging drama and high ratings. Within the film, viewers also cannot get enough. A man is consistently shown watching Truman in his bathtub; it seems his entire life revolves around the 24/7 footage of Truman’s life. We even see waitresses watching the show at a Truman bar, in which people can go watch the footage and buy Truman merchandise. So why are these types of shows so appealing? Marlon, Truman’s best friend on the show, explains about the show: “It’s all true. It’s all real. Nothing you see on this show is fake. It’s merely controlled.” It seems this is exactly why it’s so appealing. Though it’s controlled, people feel that the show contains a degree of realism due to Truman himself. But is that a legitimate distinction to make? Can something “controlled” be real? Isn’t calculation and falsity the same thing?
I am fascinated by the complicated concept of truth, and perhaps that’s why I find myself watching this movie over and over again. How can we ever be sure what we’re being told is accurate? Christof, the creator of the television show, is asked in an interview at one point in the film why it took Truman so long to begin questioning his life. Christof responds: “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” Though this clearly applies to Truman, who accepted the reality of his world for thirty years, this also applies to each and every one of us on a smaller scale. We are endlessly bombarded with facts and information from varying sources. If you aren’t willing to scrutinize—to dig deep and work hard until you can determine what is true and what is not—you can really be led to believe anything.
It seems that this scrutiny is exactly what Facebook and Google are trying to do with these new tools. But my question is…what if that isn’t enough? The Truman Show has a happy ending. Truman is committed to figuring out what is going on and doesn’t give in until he has discovered the truth. With this ending, the film seems to say that the media is inherently calculated and misleading, but its deceptiveness is not impossible to overcome. The truth is out there waiting to be uncovered. However, I think this might be an old-fashioned, idealistic hope in today’s society – a society in which technology is further integrated into our lives every day, and thus falsities become easier and easier to disseminate. The perpetration of inaccurate information is more concerning than ever. Is it possible to escape The Truman Show in 2017?