The Real Truth About Fake News

November 21, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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Recently, I came across a New York Times feature piece bemoaning the increase of what are deemed “fake news sites.”  These are websites that purport to share what which is newsworthy, but regularly play fast and loose with the facts, usually to further a particular political agenda.  For instance, days before the election, a news story from The Denver Guardian received hundreds of thousands of shares on social media:  “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE.”  It sounded salacious – and terrifying.  There was only only problem:  it was completely fabricated.  For starters, The Denver Guardian did not exist before this year.  Moreover, the article contained misspellings and demonstrably untrue details, such as a reference to the “Walkerville Police Department” in Maryland.  Walkersville does not have a police department.  It should also be noted that no other noted news outlets picked up this story, which, if true, would have caused a stir among at least certain corners of the media.  Still, this article was shared more than half a million times on Facebook alone.

Of course, fake news is nothing new.  Tabloids have been around for a long time and have managed to prove very profitable precisely because they are more concerned with feeding readers titillating stories than true ones.  Indeed, each year, Oxford Dictionaries names a “word of the year.”  This year’s word is “post-truth,” because it seems “to capture the English-speaking public’s mood and preoccupations…where people lived through divisive, populist upheavals that often seemed to prize passion above all else – including facts.”

This particular surge of fake news fury seems to have been fueled not only by political passion, but, at least in part, by what many perceive to be the bias of traditional news outlets.  For example, the Pulitzer Prize winning website politifact.com has been widely panned because, though it purports to check the truthfulness of what politicians say in public forums, it has been shown to rate what some politicians say – especially those who are more conservative – as “false” even though some of the statements in question could reasonably be considered as true.  In other words, a website that claims to be devoted to uncovering the truth has been shown to be, in some instances, clouding it.

Christians have long held the truth in high regard.  We do, after all, follow a man who not only claims to “tell the truth,” but actually to “be the truth.”  This is why it is so incumbent on us to watch what we say, what we write, what we teach, and, yes, what we post on social media.  We have not always been the best at the this.  For instance, have ever you heard it claimed that Christians divorce at the same rate as non-Christians? This may sound alarming.  But it shouldn’t be.  Because it’s not true.

One interesting trend in churches is that of fact-checking sermons.  Many folks will now Google a statistic that a pastor cites or a publicly available anecdote that a pastor shares to check whether or not it is true.  Can you imagine the damage done to the Christian witness if a pew-sitter finds that some of what a pastor is saying is not, in fact, true?

A willingness to be less than concerned with the truth can often be symptomatic of a deeper disease.  On the one hand, it can be symptomatic of an intellectual laziness.  With so many competing facts and figures floating around, sometimes it takes time to chase down what is accurate and what is not. Some people simply do not want to be bothered.  It’s easier to take the first thing you find and run with it.  But if you want to put in a little extra work to verify what you read, this terrific (and funny) article by Matt Masur offers some simple suggestions on how to fact check that Facebook post that raises your hackles.

A lack of concern with the truth can also be a symptom of a desperate desire to bolster a particular argument, even if that comes at the cost of the integrity of reality.  That is, whether it is posting a cagey news story on social media or citing a suspect statistic in a sermon, some people simply cannot resist the kind of “slam-dunk” affirmations these kinds of stories and statistics provide.  Unfortunately, once they are shown to be false, they can actually undermine the very argument they seek to make.

If we truly believe in whatever arguments we make, the truthful versions of these arguments ought to be persuasive enough.  If we don’t think they are, we don’t need a sensationalistic zinger to make our case.  We need different arguments.  After all, Jesus is quite clear that deceit comes from only one place – a place that is the antithesis of the kingdom of God.  The truth is enough.  So let’s stick with the truth, celebrate the truth, and traffic in the truth.

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