In a twist of irony, Alexandra Juhasz, a distinguished professor of film and the author of two forthcoming books on fake news, had dabbled in some fake storytelling of her own. In 1996, she produced the groundbreaking New Queer Cinema film, The Watermelon Woman, a fake documentary about a young black lesbian. Later, she co-edited a book about the ethics of fake documentaries, F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
“My approach then was that fake media can be very useful for communities that have been disenfranchised,” she explains. “In thinking about their truths and thinking about faking as a productive political and artistic method for people who need lots of opportunities to engage in their truths.”
But things changed in the age of misinformation, and Juhasz says that many of her colleagues in the field started to realize they probably needed to change their approach.
“The rapid rise of the kind of fake news that we’ve been seeing in recent years took all of us unaware,” she says. “The traditional methods by which we taught media literacy weren’t enough. They certainly weren’t geared toward combating fake news.”
With the help of several Tow travel grants and other research funding, Juhasz set about conducting workshops in which she often engages participants to respond to aspects of a multidimensional blog she worked on for three months in 2017 called #100hardtruths-#fakenews.
The blog is a veritable digital quilt of thumbnails stamped with provocations—like “choose to be digitally productive rather than reactive” and “YouTube is less platform than emerging internet nation-state”—that link to various projects around media literacy.
“Part of the idea is to move the conversations beyond the traditional academic settings,” says Juhasz. “It’s critical that we engage everyday citizens and teach them skills around being critical and self aware.”
Juhasz has two books forthcoming this fall based on the poetry workshops, one called My Phone Lies to Me: Fake News Poetry Workshops as Radical Digital Media Literacy, currently under review with a New York City–based feminist poetry press. The other is for a scholarly series, In Search of Media, from the University of Minnesota Press, which she wrote with scholar Nishant Shah: “Really Fake.” Because COVID-19 slowed down book publishing, over the summer Juhasz decided to make a podcast, We Need Gentle Truths for Now, highlighting the voices, poetry, analysis, and helpful processes to engage with digital culture.
“We’re educators because we believe in it,” says Juhasz. “We’re retooling because we want to be a part of the solution. That’s the main power we have.”