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Fake News Is Television’s Favorite New Storyline

Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) and Max (Maury Sterling) in Showtime's Homeland. PHOTO: The Atlantic/Showtime

Shows including Homeland, Quantico, and The Good Fight are featuring topical storylines about attempts to spread misinformation within the U.S.

By Sophie Gilbert | 28 March 2017

THE ATLANTIC — On the most recent episode of Homeland, Max (Maury Sterling) made a discovery that pulled all the manifold villains of the sixth season together when he witnessed the CIA’s Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) meet with Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber), a garrulous online broadcaster of conspiracy theories. With this sighting, it became clear that O’Keefe’s alternative-media platform was linked to a huge underground network using sock puppets—thousands of fake social-media accounts run by professionals—to propagate misinformation throughout the U.S., particularly stories that oppose the president-elect, Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel). And Dar Adal, long Homeland’s most untrustworthy civil servant, was overseeing it all, breaking numerous federal laws in the process.

The Homeland episode aired the night before Quantico’s interrogation of fake news, in which a chemical fire creating panic on social media turned out to be a non-event—cover for the assassination of a congressional staffer who’d authored fabricated stories to further her boss’s agenda. This being television, the two storylines are notably outlandish. In one, a rogue CIA operative is somehow orchestrating a multi-million dollar operation to smear the president before she takes office. In the other, a Republican senator attempts to have his employee murdered after a story she invents leads to a shooting in which 11 people are killed. But they’re both emblematic of a newfound desire among television writers to tackle the subject of fake news, and, possibly, to better inform the public about the contents of their Facebook feed. The question is, will it count?

The inspiration for the majority of fictional fake-news storylines would appear to be Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, radio host, and founder of Infowars. Jones has propagated, variously, theories that 9/11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook shootings were a false-flag operation, that the Oklahoma bombings were organized by the U.S. government, and that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-trafficking ring operated out of a D.C. pizzeria—the last of which he was forced to retract last week, or risk a libel suit. President Donald Trump, who has on occasion voiced statements seemingly inspired by Infowars posts, is a fan of Jones and his site, and has previously described Jones’s reputation as “amazing.” […]

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