Heartbursts: How Prophetic Confrontation Produces "Fake News"

May 9th, 2018

Heartbursts: Churches Empathizing with Cultures is a new, regular column helping leaders plan, implement, and evaluate credible and relevant ministries based on cultural trends.

“Fake News” will likely be considered one of the most significant stories of 2018 as the media dissects world events in December. On the surface this seems an issue of false representation in marketing. Beneath that, however, is the deeper issue of how corporate and political organizations can use private lifestyle data to target audiences who are most likely to believe uncritically what they are told. And behind that is a yet deeper issue about how different lifestyle groups discern “truth."

Recently Mark Zuckerberg apologized for allowing too much access to private information by marketing companies like “Cambridge Analytica.” Facebook has now promised to limit third-party access to data, and to monitor how other parties use Facebook to share information and images. That answers the surface issue, and it will certainly be welcome. Frankly, it is astonishing that Facebook never did that in the first place since it is common practice among major newspapers and television news networks. Yes, there are breakdowns there also, but notice that it doesn’t take ten years and a congressional hearing to force them to act responsibly.

The deeper issues, however, are still there. Facebook (and other print, radio, and television networks) all believe that giving ordinary people a voice in the world, relationship-building opportunities, and a sense of community are important. They often fail to understand that diverse lifestyle groups in America do not really want to hear the truth. They want to hear what verifies their assumptions and viewpoints. The “news” today is less about facts, and more about positive reinforcement of current tribal perspectives. The energy of the public is not spent separating facts from “fake news," but in choosing which “fake news” stories they prefer to believe as truth.

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What is becoming clear is that the voice of some people is more important than the voice of other people, and there are differences of opinion about which is which. Community is defined more by who we are not rather then by who we are. A healthy relationship in one community is unhealthy in another. And there is no credible authority (secular or religious) to ensure that minority voices matter (regardless of whether we agree with them).

This emerging reality is scary. Authentic Christianity and genuine democracy are about who we are (and what we hold ourselves accountable to become). Majorities and minorities vary in different community contexts, and it is the responsibility of the majority to make sure the minority gets heard. Healthy relationships argue with each other which is why the community as a whole can stay healthy.

I think that is the message of the prophetic voice of the church today: minorities matter. Christian community is fundamentally accountable to the spiritual fruits of peace, patience, kindness, generosity, justice, and self-control. Healthy relationships encourage diversity rather than uniformity. This is, perhaps, a different kind of prophetic voice than the church had in the 60’s. Then it was about confrontation with culture. Today it is about conversation with culture. Prophets today have learned that confrontation results in propaganda (“fake news”), but conversation eventually arrives at the truth.

But what media can best convey that message?

The research giant Experian (which provides information for MissionInsite) isolates six methods of communication. Experian is primarily interested in which lifestyle segments are more or are less likely to be receptive to direct mail, email, broadcast cable TV, internet radio, mobile newsfeed platforms, or websites. Church membership tends to include lifestyle segments that are more likely to read printed newspapers and magazines, use corded telephones, listen to AM/FM radio and verbal announcements, or appreciate personal visits.

The common denominator today is social media… and Facebook in particular. The secular may think it is old-fashioned and the religious may think it lacks substance, but it is the lingua franca of today. And this is why the recent controversy about Facebook is important. In the end, the challenge is not about how marketers use it to sell “fake news," but about how we use it for a new kind of prophetic voice.

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