A few months ago, an image of Pope Francis wearing an André Leon Talley–looking puffer coat cum cassock started circulating online. Since, like the pope, I’m from Argentina, several friends sent this image to me. Each time I received it, I bristled and said, “That’s AI,” or some version of that phrase, which felt to me the same as saying, “You have been fooled.” I felt like I was adding insult to injury: It’s a bummer to learn not only that you have fallen for a fake image but also that the swagged-out pope doesn’t exist, that the joy you felt upon seeing the image of this Catholic heavyweight sporting a giant metal cross on a chain and a puffer coat that someone made to look like papal vestments was based on nothing more than a fiction.
I may not have fallen for this particular ruse, but the dread that I will get conned by some other one has been following me around. What exactly am I looking at? And will I be able to tell if it’s real? The potential answers are bleak: It’s common knowledge now that some TikTok and Snapchat users are so accustomed to seeing their face filtered or mirrored by the selfie camera that they struggle to recognize other kinds of images of themselves. Earlier this year, a reporter for NPR’s Morning Edition wrote that legislators are struggling to keep up with advancing deepfake technology and experiencing difficulties regulating the production and dissemination of images and videos that might, say, influence the outcome of an election.
But our loosening grip on reality isn’t just a product of fraudulent images, app filters, or AI chatbots. It is also born of the simultaneous rotting and unmasking of civic institutions and those supposedly tasked with the safekeeping of democracy. The election of Donald Trump, the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the rise of QAnon, the January 6 riots, the Jeffrey Epstein scandal—these were all harbingers, and symptoms, of our unraveling shared reality. For better and for worse, we no longer inhabit anything remotely close to a consensus reality. Each of us is free to decide not only what we personally believe but also what is true. “Do your own research,” Alex Jones told his listeners and viewers, reportedly 80 million per month at the peak of InfoWars’ popularity. Because the institutions we once trusted to define the basic parameters through which we understand our world have proven themselves to be either corrupt or deeply biased, or both, we have nowhere to turn for answers.
Perhaps this is why the popularity of reality-check pop culture has been climbing toward a screaming peak. There is the glossy biopic, with its amped-up version of events and at least one headline-grabbing star; the salacious documentary film, trotting out its B-roll footage like a fisherman chumming the waters; the gory true-crime podcast, so popular a category that four of the top 10 most-listened-to shows on the Apple Podcast app fall into it. In 2022, Netflix alone produced 56 original documentaries and docuseries, including a full-length film about the “Tinder Swindler,” the guy who conned women he dated out of millions of dollars. There was the series Our Father, which chronicled the discovery that a fertility doctor in Indiana had inseminated hundreds of patients with his own sperm—a fact uncovered, with the help of Ancestry.com, by one of his 94 biological children. In February of that same year, the same streaming platform released Inventing Anna, a miniseries about Anna Sorokin (also known as Anna Delvey), who for a few years in the 2010s posed as a wealthy heiress in order to trot around the New York City social elite scene. The following month, Hulu released The Dropout, an eight-episode series about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, preceded by the 2019 documentary about her, The Inventor and followed by the 2023 podcast bearing the same title as the miniseries. The “truth” programming runs the gamut from schlocky to prestige.
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The proliferation of this sort of media is partially a result of the pressure to produce content. Studios have been mining newspapers, tabloids, and court records for ideas for ages, but the turnaround times seem to keep getting shorter. Donald Cline, the fertility doctor, was sued by the state of Indiana in 2015. Delvey/Sorokin had been arrested in October 2017, her story gaining notoriety in May of the following year after a big profile in New York magazine. Holmes was arrested in June of 2018; Simon Leviev, Tinder Swindler, in 2019. The genre’s growth is also about the simple fact that liars and cheaters get views: These stories are attractive for their shock value. It is easily to be lured by the staring-at-the-train-wreck-can’t-look-away pull of someone who is getting away with what they’re trying to get away with—but who eventually won’t, a certainty that makes the swindling enjoyable to watch and the enjoyment morally acceptable. Audiences get to feel both tantalized and superior, exalted and relieved, comforted and engrossed, disgusted and magnetized.
But alongside all of that, there is something else more existential: the reassurance, however fleeting, that liars and cheaters might eventually get caught, that there is such a thing as a true story. These shows and movies and podcasts appeal to the same compulsion that leads us to binge-read Wikipedia pages, to arm ourselves with facts, to supplant our gullibility with cynicism. Perhaps most of all, their allure lies in their ability to temporarily suppress that ever-present dread over whether we’re being duped, to at least for a moment neutralize the lurking threat of the unreal. The easier it becomes to manipulate reality, the more we want to believe in an absolute truth. (Even if, as in AI-generated images that “reveal” the “background” of famous works of art and AI-generated videos of crime victims “telling their own stories,” that “truth” is entirely fabricated.)
The day my friends brought to my attention to the puffy pope, I happened to come across a website that tests visitors by asking them to choose which of two images of human faces is real. (Real as in not generated by AI, but rather a photograph of an actual human being taken by an actual human being.) I pulled the website up on my phone and killed a few minutes while waiting in line for coffee by clicking on different faces. Each time, I dreaded the message that would appear if I got it wrong and felt intense relief when a green frame around the image instead told me that I, on some level, was still in touch with reality and its visual manifestations. Click, green frame. Click, green frame again. I closed the website before I got one wrong. The truth, I realized, would not predictably be found inside my phone.