As a former journalist, I do not write this lightly: fake news has its place – but that place is in the future.
Reading a news dispatch from two or three decades out is one of the most effective world-building tools available to science fiction writers. Most news stories are stripped down to the essentials, and that stylistic discipline gives writers a leg up on honing in on the right details and characters – for instance, Google’s programmers in the year 2043 are in on the hunt for rogue Chinese undersea drones.
In 2014, the Art of the Future Project kicked off its first crowd-sourced creative challenge with an appeal to write a front-page account of the outbreak of the next great power war. The winning story, “Coffee, Wi-Fi and the Moon” by Nikolas Katsimpras, put the reader alongside clacking typewriters in the New York Times newsroom in the aftermath of a massive cyber-attack that even included medical-device hacking.
The contest was based on some big assumptions. First, that people will still read (or watch) news reports in the future. Yet being set in the near future made this seem a reasonable bet. The second assumption, that journalists would actually know what was going on, is a perpetual challenge, but writing from the future allows a writer the sort of omniscience that most editors only dream their staff might have.
Another finalist in that contest successfully captured the journalistic voice with a mix of narrative and dispatch-style writing in a brilliant concession to uncertainty. Consider the lede for Sydney Freedberg Jr.’s page-one entry, “Tallinn is Burning”, a chillingly realistic rendition of a Pentagon-datelined news story we never want to read: “Online, on TV, and on the phone, the capital of Estonia is a black hole. From space, though, you can see Tallinn burning.”
What about from further out into the future?
A series of news reports were at the core of the winning format employed by Jason Hansa for his entry in the 2016 Third Offset Strategy contest, which took a clear-eyed look at the technologies and trends – as well as risks and advantages – behind the Defense Department’s quest for game-changing battlefield breakthroughs. His entry, “Pure Risk”, includes a series of wire reports with titles like “Abandoned Chinese drone takes down tanker” and “Hunting the Jakes and Jamies: Using technology to find abandoned weapons from the last war,” detailing collaboration between the Pentagon and America’s top technology companies. These are increasingly believable headlines, even if they appear to occur nearly three decades from now.
Recently, researchers at Stanford University studied the ability of students to critically assess information found online. According to Stanford, the researchers concluded that students thought they were sophisticated readers, but in reality were not. This is a worrying conclusion given the means by which fake news spread quickly and effectively on social media during the 2016 US presidential election.
There is an art to responsibly seeding doubt in the reader or viewer about their relationship to reality. On a massive scale, that was what Orson Welles inadvertently found he had done in 1938 with his radio broadcast of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds”, which led many Americans to believe Martians were invading. This was entertainment, but with the hindsight of history it is seen differently, knowing as we do now that Europe’s leaders were treading toward the building calamity of World War II.
We worry about much more than Martians today, though space does have plenty of world-ending perils. At this moment, myriad headline-grabbing existential risks exist in the international security environment – from bio-weapons, to the overreliance on the Internet, to climate change, to inadvertent great-power conflict. Thankfully, none of these threats are preordained. Consider, too, that such risks are less likely to come to fruition in the future if we can write about them first as if they have.