Seán Moncrieff: The tendency to turn fiction into hard fact takes a darker turn online

There seems to be a growing willingness to prefer a more fantastical version of events over what’s evident, logical or likely

Goncharov: The film that doesn't exist. Photograph: Alex Korotchuk/ The New York Times

Let me tell you about the movie Goncharov. Naples. The early 1970s. The Soviet Union has collapsed. Goncharov (Robert DeNiro) is a former discothèque owner who arrives in the city looking for a change of career. He wants to become a mob boss.

It’s got a fantastic cast: Harvey Keitel as the eye-patched Andrei “The Banker” Daddano; Gene Hackman as Valery Michailov; Al Pacino is Mario Ambrosini; and Cybill Shepherd plays Goncharov’s wife, Katya. And it was directed by Martin Scorsese.

Look online and you’ll find posters, still shots, a theme song, a soundtrack, a video game, the trailer is on YouTube, a quote from Scorsese that he directed the film “years ago”, a photo of Lynda Carter and Henry Winkler attending the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1973. It’s on IMDb. There are mood boards, fanfiction and much analysis of how the film was revolutionary for the time due to its queer subtext.

You guessed it: the film doesn’t exist. Spawned mostly on Tumblr, it was one of those internet in-jokes that grew so many legs it could easily be mistaken for reality.

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Which was what happened. Google Goncharov and the first few pages of results outline how it was a meme that took off. But further along and you’ll find the true believers: the fact that such large fandom grew up around the film proves that it does exist; but it’s been “lost” or (more likely) suppressed because of its exploration of queer themes.

What seems to have changed is how conspiracist thinking is edging into the mainstream

This kind of thing happens all the time on the internet and, in fairness, it’s not the internet’s fault. You can’t make a joke and then worry if some of the credulous people at the back of the hall don’t realise it. But the tendency to alchemise fiction or illogical assertions into hard fact regularly takes a darker turn online.

Last time I’ll mention it, I promise: but when I returned from Ukraine, it was striking how much reaction I received – on Twitter and Instagram – from people who evidently had never been to Ukraine yet still felt they could tell me what was “really” going on there.

They told me that there is no war; that Russian troops never went to Kyiv, that the flattened suburbs I witnessed were the result of Ukraine bombing its own people; that the dozens of first-hand accounts I heard were from actors, or Ukrainians who didn’t know who was really shelling their homes. And this was all presented to me as generally accepted fact. Somehow, I’d missed it.

These people could have been Russian bots, or have mental health issues or simply been so stupid they thought they were clever. Alas, such people have always existed. And so too have conspiracy theories. Historically, they were mostly aimed at Jews (Volodymyr Zelenskiy is Jewish but, confusingly, also a Nazi), yet what seems to have changed is how conspiracist thinking is edging into the mainstream.

It used to confine itself to the moon landings and the Illuminati, but there now seems to be a growing willingness to prefer a more fantastical version of events over what’s evident, logical or likely. The pandemic spawned dozens of such ideas; so too has the controversy over refugees and asylum seekers. And as such ideas grow, so too does the possibility that they will attract votes.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed many people and read many articles attempting to explain why this happens to some, but not others; and I can’t say I’ve discovered a convincing explanation for it. Nor do I have one myself. What I do know is that I find it terrifying: it attacks the substructure of human communication by creating alternate, contradictory realities. And this isn’t about wishing that everyone have the same point of view; anything but. We can all learn from our mutual differences. But you can’t have a conversation about the weather with someone who doesn’t accept that weather exists.