When the spread of disinformation became a major topic of debate in late 2016, it was discussed mainly in reference to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. In the following months, serious problems related to the diffusion of pseudoscientific beliefs, conspiracy theories and disinformation emerged on YouTube and WhatsApp. Until now, the popular video streaming service Netflix had managed to stay out of the picture. Not anymore.
A successful recent documentary published on the platform casts doubt on the kind of content that can occasionally be found on Netflix. It calls into question the responsibility of a content provider with stronger editorial control over material published on its platform than Facebook or Twitter (Full disclosure: the author is the director of Pagella Politica, an Italian fact-checking project that partners with Facebook on its Third Party Fact-Checking program). It is also a reminder that dubious content appears in as many forms and instruments as the internet has been able to popularize. Here is my story.
On May 15, 2019, I watched “Behind the Curve,” a fascinating documentary on Netflix on the so-called flat-earthers, directed by Daniel J. Clark and released at the end of last year. It is a prime example of how to talk about fringe theories, never indulging in the kind of merciless voyeurism that portrays these believers as unintelligible freaks.
“Behind the Curve” successfully balances the claims made by flat-earthers with the positions of experts from the scientific community, and makes a genuine effort to understand the psychology of the people caught in this strange belief.
The next suggestion provided to me by the Netflix algorithm in the field of conspiracy theories was completely different.
On July 18, 2019, I treated myself to a documentary called “Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers.” The film premiered Dec. 3, 2018. It focuses on a man named Bob Lazar, who gained some notoriety in 1989 after being interviewed by a Las Vegas TV station.
In the video, a barely disguised Lazar claimed to have worked for some months, at the beginning of that decade, on an alien spacecraft in a secret government base called S4 which was allegedly located near Area 51.
The publication of the Bob Lazar documentary on Netflix has been instrumental in giving it a very big audience, not to mention some possible real-life consequences. After watching the documentary at the beginning of April, according to his Twitter account, the popular podcaster Joe Rogan hosted Corbell and Lazar in a two-and-a-half-hour long interview posted June 20 on his YouTube channel.
A college student named Matty Roberts saw the episode and subsequently created a Facebook event called Storm Area 51, gaining millions of declarations of interest from users and prompting a response from the U.S. Air Force that “discourages” people from actually trying to storm military facilities in the Nevada desert. The Facebook event was later cancelled, while the initiative has been steered toward fundraising and a festival planned for next month.
Lazar’s story, in short, has gone a very long way since its dissemination on Netflix. Of course, each and every one of us is completely free to hold any belief we so desire about UFOs and the existence of a huge U.S. government conspiracy to keep the public in the dark. But the Netflix documentary has a long list of serious flaws with respect to what it states as facts.
The most blatant absurdity is a scene, a little more than half an hour into the documentary, in which Lazar is presented with a photo of a particular biometric device, a hand scanner that allegedly appears in his previous descriptions of the S4 base (there is no record of a facility with such a name). Presented as a secret technology never seen before on the internet, the scanner actually appeared in a scene of the famous sci-fi movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” released in 1977, more than a decade before Lazar’s first interview (called Identimat 2000, the hand scanner apparently worked terribly). But both Corbell and Lazar react to it as a major discovery and, in Corbell’s words, a “tiny bit of vindication” for Lazar’s story (and in Lazar’s words, “a big one”).
This is not a debunking article for the documentary, so I won’t delve deeper into its inconsistencies. But “Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers” doesn’t appear to be unique on Netflix.
Other dubious documentaries
The video streaming platform also hosts “Unacknowledged,” a 2017 documentary claiming, among many, many other things, that Marilyn Monroe was killed because she knew too much about UFOs as a result of her relationship with the Kennedys (by the way, “Unacknowledged” is presented as suitable for all viewers, even if its opening titles present a wide array of graphic depictions of violence). Or “Alien Contact: Outer Space,” a 2017 documentary that focuses on signals from aliens, claiming that we are more or less bombarded by them on a regular basis.
It is possible, even likely, that this kind of material represents only a small fraction of the immense amount of content available on Netflix. A keyword search of “Conspiracy theories” returns only about a dozen results, among them the entirely worthy “Behind the Curve.” And if only a handful of titles are effectively problematic, this means that the problem can be easily fixed.
Until then, Netflix continues to host documentaries that are usually confined to obscure cable TV channels. Made available on a platform that claims to have over 150 million paying subscribers across the world, they have the potential to go mainstream and reach an exceedingly large audience, as the sudden popularity of Lazar’s story testifies.
Such content and the way the Netflix algorithm makes its suggestions appears to be an entry point for conspiracy theories: people tend to believe more than one of them at the same time, even if contradictory.
A broad diversity of views is good for any platform, Netflix included, and ultimately everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. But in many of the aforementioned cases, it is not a matter of opinion. Conspiracy theories in these documentaries are presented as plain facts, even if many things presented as “proof” have been repeatedly debunked or contradict basic tenets of science. There are undoubtedly better ways to train healthy skepticism than the hectic editing of foggy government conspiracies.
Moreover, Netflix is different from Facebook or YouTube, because the platform has a much higher degree of control over its content, which, in principle, is user-generated on Twitter and Facebook. This is not the case for Netflix, which selects its new releases, actively promotes many of them and even commissions the production of new material. But if editorial control is not about checking the validity of content and therefore the coherence, consistency and adherence to the truth of the information provided to viewers, then what is?
Note: Giovanni Zagni, the author of this article, is the editor-in-chief for the Italian fact-checking organization Pagella Politica.