Hoaxed is nominally a movie about “fake news,” from the perspective of the new, social-media savvy right.
At its core, though, it’s a movie about framing, and the ways that frames can be used to shape your perception of reality. For producer Mike Cernovich and directors Scooter Downey and Jon Du Toit, “fake news” is just the jumping off point for a broader discussion about – and demonstration of – the power of framing.
The filmmakers let persuasion expert Scott Adams explain the film’s thesis:
“A lot of what we see as fake news is two movies playing on one screen.” – Scott Adams
“Framing… it’s how you think about a situation. People can frame things very differently, and skilled persuaders are especially good at it… Whoever gets there first, it’s tough to get that out of your head… I’ve started doing a lot of live streaming on Periscope, and when there’s a big story I can be live to the world within minutes… and the framing that I put on things… because I’m both persuasive by training and I’m first… is exceptionally sticky.”
Adams continues, with perhaps the theory that has garnered him the most attention of late:
“A lot of what we see as fake news is two movies playing on one screen. If you took a bunch of people on the right and a bunch of people on the left and put them in the same theatre and said watch this movie…when they left, they would come out with completely different ideas of what they’ve just watched, even though they watched the same thing.”
For Adams, Cernovich, and the directors, fake news is a function of framing.
So to avoid being fake news let me frame this review as honestly as I can.
Mike Cernovich is a good friend of mine. Not only that, he’s been an incredibly generous friend. Mike was one of the first people in the populist right to build a substantial audience on Twitter and Periscope. Others might have gotten caught up in their newfound fame and been stingy with their platform. Not Mike. He was the first person with a large audience to amplify my content, and he’s continued to do so for almost two years.
My friendship with Mike probably colors how I view and interpret Hoaxed.
“ALL MEDIA IS NARRATIVE. AND WE ARE IN A WAR OF NARRATIVES.”
That’s the first line of dialogue in Hoaxed, from Cernovich himself. It’s easy to pass over at first, because the movie smacks you in the face with the directors’ filmmaking and editing ability. We see a crisp sequence about the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. We hear the news reports about the shooter who entered Comet pizza; an anonymous actor portraying the shooter, reads news off a computer, smokes a cigarette, and then prepares an assault rifle. And then, Cernovich, our protagonist, walks on to the screen, and drops the opening line.
This, itself, is an exercise in framing. It is a pre-empt. The single most common criticism of Cernovich relates to Pizzagate. So how does he diffuse it? He opens the movie with it. By doing so, he disarms his critics. “Clearly he’s not trying to dodge the discussion; he’s featuring it front-and-center”.
Cernovich proves his thesis by showing, not telling.
But here’s the power of framing: nowhere in the sequence – or the film, for that matter – is contrition.
The framing obviates the need for an apology. And, when Cernovich returns to the topic of Pizzagate at the half-hour mark, he does it in the context of the broader discussion of fake news in the media. As he points out, if you “compare body counts,” the New York Times‘ apologia for communist Russia and the Iraq WMD hoax were all vastly more costly in terms of lives.
That’s another framing move: comparison. It renders Pizzagate trivial; how can you care so much about fake news that resulted in one scary incident, when the mainstream media’s fake news cost the lives of millions?
This is a fair comparison, yet it shows how Hoaxed is a meta-exercise in framing. Hoaxed begins with Scott Adams telling you how important framing is to your understanding of the world. It then frames the debate about the film’s producer in such a way that you, the viewer, become willing to listen to him, and hold in abeyance the mainstream narrative about him. That’s intentional. Cernovich proves his thesis by showing, not telling.
Cernovich and the directors don’t just attempt to frame the debate about the producer-protagonist; they also attempt to change the frame for other figures in his orbit – including, perhaps most aggressively, Alex Jones.
Jones is literally framed as a clown. One of the first things we seem him do is put on a physical rubber clown mask. Then we’re treated to a sequence where clown music starts playing, Jones makes bizarre facial expressions and gestures clownishly, and some of the most preposterous things Jones has ever said (including his famous line about the rapidly-changing sexual orientation of frogs) are played alongside the clown music.
Then, a transition, and suddenly Jones is portraying himself as a heroic journalist who’s spent the last twenty years standing up to the establishment. It’s the most ridiculous moment in the film. But the initial framing – that Jones is just a clown – pre-empts, to some degree, the standard narrative about Jones, and gives him a chance to make his case.
“All media is narrative. We are in a war of narratives.” And Cernovich isn’t unilaterally disarming.
THE FACTS ARE TRUE, THE NEWS IS FAKE
That’s not to say Hoaxed doesn’t spend plenty of time righteously slamming fake news. Cernovich and the directors aren’t lacking for material; they proceed briskly through the media’s treatment of President Trump, Walter Duranty’s apologia for communism, the Church Committee, the military-industrial complex, the Iraq WMD debacle, among other episodes.
“All photographs are rhetoric. All photographs are accurate. None of them are the truth. We don’t see the world in a still frame.” – Peter Duke
There’s also plenty of coverage of media hit-jobs on people in Cernovich’s circle. The movie persuasively demonstrates how Cassie Jaye, Anthony Scaramucci, Gavin McInnes, Adams, and others have been the target of extraordinarily unfair media coverage and fake news.
But the best scene in the film comes at the fifty-minute mark, when the movie focuses on photography as framing.
The scene is defined by a poignant line from photographer Peter Duke: “All photographs are rhetoric. All photographs are accurate. None of them are the truth. We don’t see the world in a still frame.” This, after we were presented the famous photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Kurdish refugee who drowned off the coast of Greece, and was shown lying face-down in the sand.
The directors include excerpts of various mainstream news reports – including one that discusses how the photo “changed the debate” about refugees, and noted that all the mainstream newspapers broke their own rules about publishing pictures of dead children.
That excerpt doesn’t explain why all the newspapers broke their rules, but Duke gives us a hint:
“If you’re listening to a song… you have to at least get to the hook before you decide that you think it’s a good song. Still images don’t work that way. Still images happen immediately.”
The establishment media had (and has) a pro-refugee editorial stance. So it published the Kurdi image. That image is “accurate, but not the truth,” to paraphrase Duke.
And as Stefan Molyneux points out: “If you compare [the Kurdi photo] to the bodies in Europe from terrorist attacks – some of which [were] committed by these migrants or their descendants… those bodies you can’t see. Showing those bodies can get you censored on social media.”
Duke follows up: “Knowing that you’re not seeing those photographs should be a tip. It should be a clue.”
It is indeed. This scene is an incisive proof of Cernovich’s thesis. The choice to publish (or not publish) emotionally jarring photographs is a *framing* decision, because, as Duke says, images “happen immediately.” Still images persuade before the viewer even gets a chance to start reading or listening.
Most mainstream media outlets were – and are – perfectly happy to show us the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on the shore of Greece. But images of the Bataclan massacre? Surely you jest.
The mainstream media has an editorial perspective. It is opposed to the populist right. And it will use emotionally manipulative images, and every other tool at its disposal, to try to frame the conservative perspective out of the debate.
PLATO’S CAVE: A TEST OF THE THESIS
After this scene, the filmmakers pivot to current events and hot-button issues: the election of Trump, the battles between Antifa and the alt-right, Charlottesville, and Black Lives Matter. In each vignette, Cernovich and his directors show the role that frames play, with the help of a number of journalists and other prominent figures: Tim Pool, Lauren Southern, Ryan Holiday, Jordan Peterson, James O’Keefe, Luke Rudkowski, and others.
Hoaxed shows how the media framed Trump as having no chance to win and being beyond the pale; how it downplayed the role of Antifa’s antics in the violence of 2017, spurring more radicalization; and how it heightened racial tensions, exacerbating hostility between Black Lives Matter and conservatives generally.
“The cave is the manufactured reality of those who would control us by controlling what we think.” – Stefan Molyneux
Cernovich and his directors strongly suggest that, in a world without the mainstream media’s dishonest framing, these tensions could be resolved.
Hawk Newsome, a Black Lives Matter activist, is given the chance to explain how fake news targets his own movement, with the media slinging false accusations at Black Lives Matter activists in the same way that they target Trump supporters.
Towards the end, the filmmakers seem to realize that their viewers are probably somewhat disoriented. Cernovich and Adams briefly discuss how difficult it is to know what is true and what isn’t.
In the final scene, the filmmakers let Molyneux try to resolve the viewer’s dilemma, with his novel spin on Plato’s allegory of the cave. This scene combines a remarkable display of cinematography and editing by Downey and Le Toit with an impressive performance from Molyneux, who does not lack for rhetorical skill.
In it, Molyneux tells us that the mainstream media is feeding us a “manufactured reality,” like the images on the cave wall in Plato’s allegory. If we reject the manufactured reality, and walk outside of the “cave,” Molyneux argues, we will grasp real, true reality. Moreover, others in the “cave” – the “enslaved” – will reject our epiphany because they are more comfortable with lies. Molyneux’s final cri de couer:
“We have an obligation, if we have seen the truth, to wrestle the lies from the minds of those stuck in the cave. The cave is the manufactured reality of those who would control us by controlling what we think. But fundamentally… you can’t control what someone thinks, because once they think, they are beyond your control.”
This is an elegant piece of rhetoric: a chiasmus. But Hoaxed is a two-hour long refutation of Molyneux’s thesis.
Hoaxed began with Scott Adams explaining that framing controls our perception of reality; that we are all watching two movies on one screen; and that skilled persuaders can set frames so sticky that they are nearly impossible to dislodge. Cernovich, Downey, and Du Toit have provided an array of examples showing just how framing has shaped public perception of hot-button issues and controversial figures. Cernovich, a master rhetorician himself, has set and used frames to control the way we view him personally.
Despite this, Molyneux suggests viewers can escape the influence of framing and discover what is truly real, if we reject the media’s “manufactured reality.” That’s doubtful.
Because his “allegory of the cave” is just another frame.
Will Chamberlain is the publisher of Human Events.