SXSW Review – The Scary Truth of ‘How to Build a Truth Engine’

SXSW Review – The Scary Truth of ‘How to Build a Truth Engine’
Computer scientist, Prof. Vwani Roychowdhury, sitting at the edge of the Grand Canyon watching the sunset | Credit: (c) Friedrich Moser

It’s hard to know what’s true anymore. Universal access to information has not always been the gift it should have been, since it’s possible for an image or video that’s either entirely false or simply miscaptioned to reach millions of eyes and ears in a matter of seconds before any correction can be made. Perhaps more dangerous and unsettling, however, is the fact that there are many who are unwilling to believe what’s true even after they’re shown incontrovertible proof, a disturbingly common phenomenon examined in How to Build a Truth Engine.

There are several key concepts and narratives explored in this thoroughly-researched documentary, including the 2020 United States presidential election and ensuing narrative that Donald Trump actually won. Among the smoking guns exposed is that the domain was registered even before the 2016 election, with supporters of Trump and enemies of the truth prepared to back their manufactured narrative that the election was corrupt before it happened. Deliberate actions to spread misinformation like this are only part of the problem, since there are so many who will eagerly digest it because they believe it to be true. 

Another relevant point to the January 6th, 2021 insurrection is how some protestors proudly showed their faces because they actually thought they were doing the right thing and would face no consequences for their actions. This pervasive trend is not specific to this one lengthy nightmare or the United States in particular. Scholars and experts from around the world contribute their findings to this film’s exhaustive thesis, including the use of dangerous speech to inspire fear in people, which in turn makes them willing to accept an objectively problematic and violent solution to an often manufactured problem. There’s considerable nuance to be found, and no situation is the same as another, but there is tremendous opportunity to exploit misinformation that will only continue to grow as technology becomes more efficient and advanced.

Running 135 minutes, How to Build a Truth Engine is certainly one of the longer titles screening at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival. Nothing necessarily feels excessive, but this is hardly the most concise presentation. It’s surely only scratched the surface of how this works, so those who find themselves enticed enough – and not too put off – by this unfortunate reality will likely crave even more, especially when it comes to referenced snippets and situations that are never fully explained since there’s simply too much to cover, even in a film that runs over two hours.

When it’s not showing footage of people spreading mistruths and the way that the messes often all too eagerly digest them, How to Build a Truth Engine feels, appropriately, like a conspiracy thriller. Interview subjects walk through dimly-lit streets into large buildings as their voices are heard describing the dangers of this worsening phenomenon. There is a potent urgency to action, to take some steps to reverse this before it becomes impossible to stop. Yet, as conveyed by far too many convincing examples, it’s likely far too late to do that.

Director Friedrich Moser has a history of digging into governments and the spread of information, which serves him well to steward this particular expedition. While at times, things become somewhat technical and complicated, it’s mostly portrayed in a straightforward way that should be easily comprehensible to all audiences. A willingness to listen and to understand that anyone is prone to consume misinformation without necessarily being able to distinguish it or recognize it outright. This film can achieve a great deal if it reaches enough people before too many of them are taught not to trust even a researched study like this.

Grade: B

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

How to Build a Truth Engine makes its world premiere in the Documentary Spotlight section at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

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