Retro Futures: Wag the Dog and Deep Fakes

A classic 1997 movie about technology-fueled misinformation shows how democratized deception has become in 2024, and why we shouldn’t call them “deep fakes” in the first place. 

By Brad Berens

Image created by DALL-E

Typically, when I write about retro futures I’m exploring what a classic work of science fiction got right and wrong about the future and what that says about life today. This time, though, I’ll dig into the magnificent 1997 political dark comedy Wag the Dog, which is hardly science fiction, but which incisively illustrates how much our world has changed in less than 30 years.

We’re all already exhausted by the 2024 election year, so Wag the Dog is both eerily timely and antiquated.

The Wag the Dog Story in Brief (ahoy, thar be Spoilers ahead!)

Eleven days before the election, a “Firefly Girl” (basically a Girl Scout) accuses the incumbent President of molesting her in the Oval Office. (We never find out if the accusation is true because nobody cares.) Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), an administration official, calls in a fixer, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), who decides to distract the public by pretending that the U.S. is going to war with Albania.* The pretext is that the Albanians have a nuclear “suitcase bomb” that they plan to send via Canada.

Brean hires a Hollywood producer, Stanley Moss (Dustin Hoffman), who in short order creates:

  • Fake footage of an innocent Albanian girl (Kirsten Dunst) fleeing terrorists while holding a kitten; she is really an aspiring actress,
  • A quasi-fake, left-behind soldier named Schumann (Woody Harrelson),
  • A recording of a fake 1936 folk song (composed by Johnny Dean, played by Willie Nelson) about an “old shoe” that the team inserts into the Library of Congress to be discovered…
  • Which then becomes the theme song for a nation-wide movement to bring Schumann, a.k.a. “Old Shoe,” home.

Barry Levinson directed, and David Mamet was one of the screenwriters. The entire cast is topflight. Hoffman is incandescent as Stanley, the unflappable Hollywood producer who greets each disaster with the same phrase: “This? This is nothing,” and then goes on to tell a story about some even more harrowing disaster earlier in his career. De Niro is the spine of the story: his eyes see everything clearly and manage everybody else’s perceptions. Heche is the proxy for the moviegoer, reminding us through her surprise and disbelief that what the team is doing is, when you stop to think about it, deeply immoral.

Calling easily spread digital deceptions “deep fakes” is a mistake because the word “deep” suggests that, like in Wag the Dog, a bad actor needs resources and technical expertise to make convincing lies. That’s just not true. Moreover, most of the time people are willing to believe any plausible story, particularly if it plays to their prejudices.

These few details do no justice to the hilarious complexity of the movie (which isn’t streaming, but you can and should rent it via the usual services or borrow the DVD from your local library like I did), and I won’t spoil the entire story by revealing how it all works out.

Why Wag the Dog couldn’t be made today, and why that matters

In our age of remakes and reboots, I’m fascinated by movies that simply couldn’t be made today, like The Music Man, Pillow Talk, and High Fidelity.  Wag the Dog is another one. The story hinges on two things that are different today than in 1997: information scarcity and technology imbalance.

Information Scarcity: As we watched this movie as a family, my son William observed, “they couldn’t make this movie today because of the internet.” He’s right: if Wag the Dog were set in 2024, the curious could easily do a Google image search on the face of the Hollywood actress, find out that Schumann is actually a psychotic convict rather than a hero, and figure out that the folk song hasn’t really been lying in the Library of Congress for 60 years.

Technology Imbalance: The plot quietly depends on the fact that only a Hollywood producer with a big budget and access to world-class talent could pull off a deception so huge that even the CIA (represented by William H. Macy) can’t figure out why they haven’t heard about terrorist activity brewing in Albania.

Horrifying in 1997, that idea is oddly comforting today.

Today, anonymous bad actors sitting at their laptops can use cheap, off the shelf AI to create fake pornographic images of Taylor Swift and then disseminate them across the web in moments—and that’s only the most famous recent example of revenge porn.

Today, kidnappers can use voice cloning technology to trick family members into paying huge ransoms for people who are safe at home. More recently, a voice clone of President Biden tried to suppress voter turnout in New Hampshire.

Wag the Dog is comically Orwellian because it imagines that only powerful people can twist reality. Today, alas, instead of one scary Big Brother we have (as Simson Garfinkel observed many years ago) an infinite supply of malicious kid brothers spraying the world with fire hoses of misinformation.

It gets worse: bad actors don’t even need super-advanced AI technologies to dupe people. The 2019 fake video of the then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi drunk onstage was created simply by slowing down the video: no algorithms required.

Decades before Generative AI, I tricked a friend who was very involved with her daily horoscope site by downloading all the source code for that day’s horoscope, rewriting it to be minutely specific (e.g., “and that’s a nice pink blouse you’re wearing today”), and uploading it to my own webspace. It took less than five minutes. I then Instant Messaged her a link. She didn’t look at the URL until she got to the impossibly personalized details, then she saw what I’d done and cracked up.

As I’ve written elsewhere, we have to believe things in order to understand them, which means we have to learn to think twice afterwards in order to escape the Plausibility Loophole.

Calling easily spread digital deceptions “deep fakes” is a mistake because the word “deep” suggests that, like in Wag the Dog, a bad actor needs resources and technical expertise to make convincing lies. That’s just not true. Moreover, most of the time people are willing to believe any plausible story, particularly if it plays to their prejudices.

We should call them shallow fakes.

As my friend Shiv Singh has outlined in detail in a recent issue of his Savvy AI newsletter (you should subscribe), there’s an arms race between corporations struggling to protect their brand reputations and the malicious kid brothers spreading misinformation.

However, on top of all the technology we can bring to this fight, the most important weapon is hitting the brakes on our own credulity. It’s also good to get in the habit of phoning a friend to be your Fair Witness before you repost, share, or forward that juicy story to everyone you know. Our last line of defense against misinformation is us.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).


* What is it with Hollywood hating on Albania? I’m still puzzling over why in both Wag the Dog and Tune in Tomorrow (1990) the scary invading aliens are Albanian… aside from Americans not knowing where Albania is (next to Greece and across from Italy). Also, War Dogs (2016) spends a lot of story time dissing Albania, and former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes infamously quipped of Netflix, “Is the Albanian Army going to take over the world? I don’t think so.”


See all columns from the Center.

February 16, 2024