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Christian witness in today’s post-truth society

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online at lausanne.org/analysis. 

By Tony Watkins.

 

‘Truth has perished; it is banished from the lips’ (Jer 7:28).

We now live in a ‘post-truth’ society. The adjective ‘post-truth’ was Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2016. It relates to ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals’. This perfectly describes the 2016 political campaigns leading to the 'Brexit' vote in the UK and the US presidential election.[1]

Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries, said that the term’s rocketing popularity is ‘fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment.’ He suggests that it will become ‘one of the defining words of our time.’[2]

As Grathwohl implies, the term ‘post-truth’ is closely connected with the deluge of ‘fake news’ we have experienced. Jonathan Freedland writes, ‘In this era of post-truth politics, an unhesitating liar can be king. The more brazen his dishonesty, the less he minds being caught with his pants on fire, the more he can prosper. And those pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff are left for dust, their boots barely laced while the lie has spread halfway around the world’. [3]

The changing news landscape

Why do fake news wildfires spread so quickly across the media landscape? One key factor fanning the flames is, of course, political agendas. Fake news affects far more than politics, but it has recently characterised that sphere of public life to a frightening degree. There have always been lying politicians desperate to promote themselves, and propaganda is a vital tool for any totalitarian state. Yet it does feel that there is something very different about the current political landscape, at least in the West.

Two things are different in particular:

  • First, social media allow anybody to communicate anything at any time to a vast audience. Donald Trump exemplified this during his 2016 election campaign when he tweeted things that were inflammatory or blatantly untrue, but which resonated well with his target audience.

  • Second, social media have become the main way we access news; so the incomes of established news media are plummeting. They desperately need more clicks on their content to bring in more advertising revenue. The Guardian’s editor-in-chief Katharine Viner laments that ‘the new measure of value for too many news organisations is virality rather than truth or quality.’[4]


‘All are greedy for gain . . . all practice deceit’ (Jer 6:13; 8:10).

Fake news is also driven by greed. A great deal of it is dreamed up by teenagers in Veles, Macedonia.[5] Having discovered that they could attract vast traffic to bogus websites by publishing sensationalist stories, they are becoming rich by selling advertising. These teenagers have become masters at click-bait headlines. Interestingly, most fake news stories from Macedonia have been pro-Trump; the hoaxers found during the US election campaign that pro-Clinton stories did not bring in anything like the same traffic.

Macedonia is not the only fake-news factory:

  • The Czech government now has a unit confronting the flow of potentially destabilising fake news in the lead-up to the general election in October 2017. The false stories (mostly about migrants) come from websites which, the Czech authorities claim, are supported by the Russian government.[6]

  • In Burundi, journalists accuse President Pierre Nkurunziza of using fake news to re-ignite ethnic tensions while simultaneously dismissing UNHCR and EU reports of human rights abuses as lies.[7]


However, fake news is not always created with an obvious agenda. Often on social media, especially following an atrocity or disaster, it is merely careless, unverified reporting which quickly spreads. Anyone who was on Twitter after recent terrorist incidents in Western Europe will know just how much conflicting 'information' was circulating.

Information cascades and filter bubbles

Whatever its origin, fake news relies on social media to spread widely and rapidly. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2016 suggests that 23 percent of US adults have shared fake news, knowingly or not.[8] We need to look at sociological and psychological reasons to understand why people share it with others at all.

The key way social media platforms persuade us to share content is by social proof. The more ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ a post has, the more likely we are to like or share it ourselves. And so it spreads in ever-widening circles, accumulating more likes and shares as it goes. It does not take much for an unstoppable ‘information cascade’ to develop.

We also share posts that push our emotional buttons: if something makes us laugh or cry, or angers us, we will share it. We may share something just because the headline or image has stimulated the pleasure centres in the brain—even though we have not engaged with the actual content. If we later see something revealing that what we have shared is false, that affects us less. A rebuttal does not stimulate the brain’s pleasure centres; so we do not bother sharing it. In other words, our response to much of what we see within social media is primal, not rational.

Then there is the problem of confirmation bias. We all have a strong psychological tendency to latch on to information that confirms ideas we already have. Conversely, we tend to avoid or reject anything that challenges us. So we readily believe anything that meshes with our existing worldview or values, and dismiss anything that threatens them.

Even without all these factors, social media platforms would still be ‘filter bubbles’. When we like and click on things in Facebook’s news feed, its algorithm delivers us more of those kinds of things, and less of the content with which we do not engage. Day by day, our timelines become increasingly filled with things that reinforce our perspectives—whether or not they are true.

Truth stumbles in the street

When ‘alternative facts’ take over from truth, a culture is in big trouble. Katharine Viner says, ‘This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means . . . that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.’[9]

Isaiah’s assessment of his society is startlingly relevant: ‘So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey’ (Isa 59:14–15; see also Jer 9:3–6).

The implications for the church are sobering. When public discourse becomes nothing but competing viewpoints claiming to be ‘facts’, debate over the truth of the gospel becomes much harder. Those insisting on the existence of ‘true truth’ are swiftly dismissed as bigots, and their message is ignored. Any appeal to a source of authority, such as the Bible, is neutralised by writing it off as just ancient ‘fake news’.

Where do we go from here?

Paul follows Isaiah in insisting that suppressing the truth brings God’s wrath (Rom 1:18). Will God ‘give us over’ to our pursuit of feelings over truth, so that the West totally loses its bearings and collapses in chaos? Or will we embrace truth and wisdom once more and turn away from the relativistic mess into which we are sliding? We must pray that the West takes this second route and that the majority world does not also become infected by the post-truth disease.

I see some signs that people and even media companies are increasingly troubled by the present state of our society. Mark Zuckerberg has committed to tackling fake news on Facebook[10] and The New York Times has promised a ‘renewed focus on truth and transparency’,[11] for example. Are people realising afresh how vital truth is to society? Or is it just a momentary slow-down in the decline? The role Christians play in society could well be the deciding factor.

Responding to fake news

Christians should be passionate about truth because we follow the One who is the Truth (John 14:6). However, it is inconvenient and uncomfortable to do so; it makes us unpopular and requires courage. Yet we must not flinch from it. That means not only holding to truth intellectually, but living it out day by day.

 ‘The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy’ (Prov 12:22).

It is tempting to share something which fits comfortably with our views, whether or not we are sure of its truthfulness. However, we must never become like those Paul warns against, who ‘gather around them . . . teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Tim 4:3). Instead, we must resist our confirmation bias, questioning the assertions that come streaming our way. We must not assume that ‘social proof’ proves anything. We must commit to discovering the truth, which includes doing our best to be sure of the sources of the information which comes our way.

Our commitment to truth must take us beyond simply reporting and sharing things that are true. We must be prepared to challenge false assertions and spin, to present alternative viewpoints, and to share fresh perspectives. If the church is to have a prophetic role within society, we must dare to speak precisely those biblical truths which most challenge and discomfort society (Jer 7:27–28; John 16:7–11). Let us pray for courage to do so.

 

 

Tony helps Christian leaders develop a better understanding of how the Bible (especially the prophets) relates to today's media. He partners with several organisations, including Damaris Norway and the Lausanne Media Engagement Network, for which he is the Network Coordinator. He is a visiting lecturer at the Norwegian School of Theology and Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communications, Norway. Tony is the author of Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema and Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Philip Pullman, and co-author of seven other books. Visit tonywatkins.uk for free resources on media and the Bible.

 

 Endnotes

[1] Editor’s Note: See article by Darrell Jackson entitled ‘BREXIT and Its Impact on European Mission’ in September 2016 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis. See also article by Thomas Harvey entitled, “Trump’s First Hundred Days” in this issue.

[2] ‘Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is . . . Post-truth’, Oxford Dictionaries, 16 November 2016.

[3] Jonathan Freedland, ‘Post-truth politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are no joke’, The Guardian, 13 May 2016. Mark Twain is credited (falsely, ironically) with saying ‘A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on’ (or lacing its boots). The Victorian preacher C.H. Spurgeon quoted the saying in Gems from Spurgeon (1859), referring to it as ‘an old proverb’.

[4] Katharine Viner, ‘How technology disrupted the truth’, The Guardian, 12 July 2016.

[5] Emma Jane Kirby, ’The city getting rich from fake news’, BBC Magazine, 5 December 2016; Samanth Subramanian, ‘The Macedonian Teens Who Mastered Fake News’, Wired, 15 February 2017.

[6] Robert Tait, ‘Czech Republic to fight “fake news” with specialist unit’, The Guardian, 28 December 2016.

[7] Rossalyn Warren, ‘”Fake news” fuelled civil war in Burundi. Now it’s being used again’, The Guardian, 4 March 2017.

[8] Michael Barthel, Amy Mitchell and Jesse Holcomb, ‘Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion’, Pew Research Centre, 15 December 2016.

[9] Katharine Viner, ‘How technology disrupted the truth’.

[10] Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook note, 13 November 2016.

[11] Minda Smiley, ‘”We are preparing for the story of a generation”: New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet discusses covering President Trump’, The Drum, 12 March 2017.

2 thoughts on “Christian witness in today’s post-truth society

    1. I am thankful for the challenges this presents when news/”news” confronts me and the truth platform I struggle to occupy.
      Where/how, with prayer, does one raise the truth threshold for all published and broadcast news?

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