Fake News Is Television's Favorite New Storyline

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

Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) and Max (Maury Sterling) in Showtime's Homeland (Showtime)

This article contains spoilers through the most recent episodes of Homeland and Quantico, as well as recent episodes of The Good Fight.

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.”

Homeland’s Brett O’Keefe seems modeled on Jones—so obviously so that Infowars published a post complaining about the show’s “not-so subtle inference ... that anyone who listens to Alex Jones is violent and semi-deranged.” But Jones also seems to have been the inspiration for the character Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale) in the 2016 revival of The X-Files, and for the unnamed broadcaster in the 2016 film Arrival who spurs members of the military to take their own violent action against the heptapods. In The X-Files, which is itself something of a conspiracy theorist’s fever dream, O’Malley turns out to be vindicated—the government has indeed injected every American citizen with alien DNA in the guise of vaccines, which makes them vulnerable to a killer virus. (Why exactly the government would go to all this extraordinary effort is never made clear.) But this favorable depiction of a Jones-like figure is the exception. Other cultural portrayals of fake-news peddlers show them wreaking misinformation for nefarious reasons, or directly motivating others to commit atrocities.

O’Keefe, for example, is part of a characteristically complex Homeland plot about an effort to undermine the president-elect, by doctoring footage of her son—who was killed in combat—to make it seem like he was a coward. Apparently, this fake-news network is so sprawling and well-connected that it allows for the execution of FBI agents who randomly happen upon its headquarters, and is well-funded enough to hire former intelligence agents looking to cash out. Its essential function, after weeks of buildup, is almost a disappointment when revealed: a basement full of tech-savvy Americans using dummy social-media profiles to spread fake news that makes Elizabeth Keane look bad. On the one hand, it’s laughable; on the other, Homeland’s female president was at least elected before the malicious misinformation campaign against her took off.

With stories like this, the Showtime series is continuing its habit of basing plot points on real geopolitical events, while also seemingly trying to make amends for previous storylines, which have been criticized for encouraging Islamophobia. But it’s also—whether deliberately or not—contributing to a greater sense of what fake news is, and where it comes from. While the subject makes for catchy buzzwords and an easy impetus for dramatic acts, it’s becoming more obvious that television wants audiences to take it seriously.

ABC’s Quantico, which has also been making efforts to address topical events in its second season, went even further in its Monday-night episode “Mockingbird,” offering a basic primer on the ins and outs of sham stories. In simple, straightforward language, Alex (Priyanka Chopra) patiently explained how fake news is “the handiwork of a vast and organized web brigade, also known as trolls.” As her crew investigated the false account of a chemical fire that had cleared out a small town, they discussed hackers, the proliferation of troll farms in Russia, Bitcoin, and more. The reveal of the episode was that the fake news was part of an effort to cover up more fake news—allowing hitmen to isolate and attack the unlucky staffer who’d authored made-up stories on behalf of her boss.

Here, Quantico directly mirrored the events now known as Pizzagate. The staffer invented a story about a baker who refused to make cakes for veterans, but she was thrown under the bus by the senator she worked for after an outraged citizen shot up the bakery. Alex’s team pondered the consequences of her actions. “The press, they might call it fake news, but that’s just another term for misinformation,” Ryan (Jake McLaughlin) argued. “They’re turning Americans against each other and fostering whatever hate is inside of them.” As  life lessons go, this one was so earnestly didactic it could have been brought to audiences by the Children’s Television Workshop. But it also demonstrates how aware TV shows are of their influence on the viewing public. At a time when trust of the media is at historically low levels, TV has an opportunity.

This influence isn’t imaginary—studies have shown that viewers of Law and Order: SVU are better informed about sexual assault and consent than viewers of CSI. (SVU, famous for its ripped-from-the-headlines stories, is apparently considering fake news itself in a future episode titled “Real Fake News.”) Homeland, newly aware of the consequences of its portrayal of Muslims, seems to have developed a sense of responsibility following the election. And Quantico, according to its showrunner, has hopes of being a kind of “West Wing junior.” If the relative lack of scandal in the Obama administration allowed TV to invent outrageous characters like Francis Underwood, the barrage of news provided by President Trump apparently has fiction considering its higher purpose. (It’s worth noting that while TV’s fake-news purveyors tend to be right-wing, it’s a bipartisan phenomenon that affects all Americans.)

Perhaps predictably, no show has more sincerely or thoroughly considered the perils of modern technology than The Good Fight, CBS’s streaming-only successor to The Good Wife. Recent episodes have featured a Milo Yiannopoulos-inspired alt-right provocateur, a host of online trolls, and a Twitter bot that pretends to be Maia (Rose Leslie), set up by her ex-boyfriend. After he refuses to dismantle it, Maia fights back by creating fake-news stories that label him a sex offender, all tagged with SEO-friendly keywords. Eventually, though, she realizes that trying to control information online is like tilting at windmills. “It’s Reddit,” Marissa (Sarah Steele) tells her. “That’s like the teeming masses. You don’t do anything.” Homeland and Quantico might disagree. After all, if they can get people to better understand what fake news is and where it comes from, they’re halfway to neutering its political power.