Christians and fake news

January 23rd, 2017

The good old days

When I was growing up, watching or listening to the evening news was a ritual in many households. People would tune in to the broadcasts of one of several (three or four) possible local TV or radio stations. News reporters would speak to the camera in even tones in standard academic English, and people treated their pronouncements as true, even if there was occasionally some skepticism about how the news was reported. In comic books, Lois Lane and Clark Kent (Superman) are reporters who are committed to knowing the truth and uncovering injustice quickly.

My memory of this ritual of watching or listening to the evening news seems quaint to me now. In my lifetime, I’ve watched news evolve into 24-hour cable channels, talk radio and social media. News itself has become suspect in this new world, where the public are “consumers” and the number of clicks and advertising revenue generated are more important than the truth. No one is more aware of this than journalists themselves, who have spilled a lot of ink over the last few months trying to understand the rise and proliferation of fake news.

What is “fake news”?

The popularity of the term fake news is only a few months old. It gained prominence in October during the 2016 presidential campaign when, as Will Oremus describes them, “online entrepreneurs and pranksters” discovered they could make a quick buck by making up stories that sounded just plausible enough to spread virally through social media and get lots of clicks. Some of these included stories about the pope endorsing Donald Trump or about Hillary Clinton running a child-sex ring from the basement of a pizzeria (which, it turns out, doesn’t even have a basement). This last fake news story led a would-be vigilante to attempt to free the fictional child hostages. He took several guns to the restaurant and fired inside. Fortunately, nobody was physically hurt.

Fake news isn’t merely biased reporting or journalistic mistakes. There are plenty of mainstream and reputable media organizations, and even good journalists occasionally get bad information or fail to report accurately. But fake news is specifically designed to mislead or to create outrage in order to spread virally. Several websites in Macedonia were set up to make money from advertising revenue by spreading fake news.

An assault on the press

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America declares that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press. A news media that reports on the activities of government has often been referred to as “the fourth estate,” an unofficial check on the three official branches of government. Without an active and relatively trustworthy source of news reporting, our democratically elected leaders don’t have any accountability to the people they govern.

This is one reason politicians and reporters often seem to have an adversarial relationship. Who said or did what to whom, who was misquoted or taken out of context or who has a bias are all arguments that happen between politicians and news media. Politically motivated accusations that the media is biased are often described as simply part of the game.

But the rise and distribution of fake news through social media is a whole new way to undermine the public’s confidence in the media, even if the sources of fake news are discredited and even though fact-checking through the internet is widely available. In a world where so much information is available so quickly, how does one investigate whether their sources are trustworthy? Who even has the time? A saying often misattributed to Mark Twain is, “A lie can fly half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots.” The fact that this quote is fake (Mark Twain didn’t actually say it) is a great example of how true it is.

Viral spread and inoculation

While lies certainly had wings during the days of Mark Twain, today’s lies can spread instantly through the internet. We call things “viral” that spread organically as people have an emotional reaction to what they read and then quickly click “share” or “tweet.” Mate Gold, a political reporter from The Washington Post, says they “catch on like a flu in the winter, quickly passing from one person to the next, often with little regard as to whether the content is true or not.” A recent study from Stanford found that most middle school, high school and college students couldn’t tell a difference between sponsored advertisements, biased propaganda and real news.

One question reveals how badly we’ve failed at teaching critical reading skills and basic discernment principles. Elis Estrada, program manager of Washington, D.C.’s News Literacy Project, says that when he asks students where they get their news, many respond, “What is news?” “They don’t even know what it is,” she says. “The fact that we have to start there is really telling.”

The News Literacy Project teaches students how to read critically and to discern advertisements and propaganda from real news. Students learn practices such as looking for bylines, quotes, information from other sources and whether other reputable news outlets report the same story.

Critical reading and thinking can certainly be one way to inoculate against the viral spread of deliberate misinformation. Although some people like to paint all news media with a broad brush and claim “you can’t trust anything you read,” the fact is that there are good and widely accepted criteria for journalism.

The problem with indiscriminate skepticism about news media is that it actually makes us more gullible — not less. If we actually believe any source is as good as any other, we fail to develop common-sense criteria for discerning the truth.

Why we’re susceptible

Fact-checking and critical thinking alone aren’t enough to stop the viral spread of fake news. There are three important factors that affect our ability to fight back.

The first problem is something called confirmation bias. In short, confirmation bias is the tendency for people only to pay attention to news or facts that confirm beliefs they already hold. Confirmation bias is something that applies to all human beings, regardless of how open-minded we believe we are.

The second problem is the “echo chamber” effect of social media. Users of social media tend to connect with like-minded people who reinforce their beliefs and opinions.

The third problem is that even when presented with information that contradicts what we believe, we’re more likely to dig in and resist the new information. A recent academic study found that attempts to debunk bad information simply solidified people in their position. Journalist David McRaney summarizes the study this way: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

The only way to decrease our resistance to facts is to cultivate humility. We have to be willing to ask questions like, What would it take to convince me otherwise? Whose opinions or perspectives am I willing to hear?

The good news of Christian faith

There are several reasons the proliferation of fake news should be a concern to Christians. First, the prevalence of fake news means the good news of Christ that we share is less likely to be heard. Second, if we’re the ones sharing fake news, our credibility suffers and our witness is tainted. Christians who wish to share an audaciously good message about Jesus Christ can’t allow their witness to be tainted by sharing fake news or perpetuating the culture that feeds it. There are already plenty of people who believe that Christians are gullible and that the news we share is questionable.

News, of course, is central to Christian faith. The message of Jesus Christ about the kingdom of heaven is called “good news” or “gospel.” The Greek word for “good news” is euangellion, which is where we get the English word evangelism

In contrast with news that relies on outrage and polarization to spread, the good news is about faith, hope and love: faith that though the wrong is often strong, God is still in control; hope that God’s purposes for redemption are working even in dire circumstances; and love that casts out fear and conquers our own sinfulness.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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