Fake news is nothing new. Pope Francis, a victim of fake news himself, traces its origin to the serpent deceiving Eve in the Garden of Eden.
“This biblical episode brings to light an essential element for our reflection: there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences,” he wrote in a message for World Communications Day.
For example, inaccurate information about the COVID-19 pandemic has become so widespread and harmful that the World Health Organization has declared an “infodemic.” Too much information, some accurate and some not, has made it difficult to determine the truth—a common situation these days.
The advent of the internet and social media have made it more important than ever for Christians to exercise discernment, and not just in what they believe but also in what they say. If Christians lose their reputation as truth-tellers, they lose their ability to influence others.
Pope Francis well knows the dangers of misinformation. During the 2016 presidential campaign, one satirical website reported that he had endorsed Donald Trump; another said he had endorsed Bernie Sanders.
Neither, obviously, was true.
What’s the difference between misinformation and disinformation?
Many such websites don’t clearly label their content as satire, and the distinction between fact and fiction blurs even more when their content is shared. On the other hand, some sites use the labels to avoid safeguards set up by social media platforms against misinformation.
“We see bad actors and disinformation agents labeling their content as satire knowing well it is likely to be shared without the satire label,” Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, told The Japan Times.
First Draft—a nonprofit that gives readers the tools to detect false information—doesn’t use the term fake news because “of the way it has been used by politicians around the world to discredit and attack professional journalism,” it says.
Experts prefer terms like misinformation and information disorder.
“The fundamental problem with misinformation is that once people have heard it, they tend to believe and act on it, even after it’s been corrected,” said Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of psychology at the University of Bristol in the UK. “Even in the best of all possible worlds, correcting misinformation is not an easy task.”
Experts reserve the term disinformation for incorrect information shared with malicious intent.
“Common reasons for spreading disinformation include endorsing a political party or candidate, damaging a person’s reputation, or inciting a specific action from users — like clicking through to a website that makes money from advertisements,” according to Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies.
The Russians are perhaps the most active and sophisticated spreaders of disinformation. Government officials and journalists in the US and Europe have documented numerous cases of Russian agents interfering in foreign elections.
New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang wrote in their book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination that the social media platform had no rule against disinformation before the 2016 presidential election.
“Facebook had no playbook for the Russian hackers, no policies for what to do if a rogue account spread stolen emails across the platform to influence U.S. news coverage,” they wrote. “The evidence was clear: Russian hackers posing as Americans were setting up Facebook groups and coordinating with one another to manipulate U.S. citizens. But Facebook didn’t have a rule against it.”
Despite allegations of censorship, Facebook now has a team to ferret out disinformation and shut down fraudulent networks on its platform. It issued a report this year describing Russia as the source of the most fake accounts.
Fake news sows division
Russia’s tactics are designed to inflame passions and promote division. “I think the single biggest thing people don’t understand is that this targets and affects both sides,” William Marcellino, a scientist at the RAND Corporation, told Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.
“People on each side like to believe that they think critically, and the other side is stupid, but that is exactly the goal: To make sure we Americans no longer trust our own neighbors, that we think that it’s not just that we don’t agree politically, but that those that we disagree with are secretly either Nazis or communists.”
Unfortunately, people tend to share news without confirming its veracity, often without even reading it. Perhaps a misleading headline caught their attention, or the story fits their worldview.
If a fictitious story contains a kernel of truth, it becomes more believable. For example, during the 2020 presidential campaign, when President Trump said that mail-in voting was rife with fraud, Democrats feared he would use the US Postal Service to suppress voting among supporters of Joe Biden.
In mid-August 2020, a picture of a pile of USPS collection boxes went viral. The photo was shared hundreds of thousands of times, with millions of views. One tweet said, “Photo taken in Wisconsin. This is happening right before our eyes. They are sabotaging USPS to sabotage vote by mail. This is massive voter suppression and part of their plan to steal the election.”
Not true, the fact-checking website PolitiFact.com found: “The picture was taken at Hartford Finishing, which has a contract with USPS to refinish or destroy old mailboxes. The picture has nothing to do with voter suppression. The boxes were either removed from little-used locations or replaced with new boxes due to their condition, USPS says.”
“For every fact there is a counterfact”
The nature of social media and the internet contributes to the confusion. “The internet has made it possible for many voices to be heard that could not make it through the bottleneck that controlled what would be distributed before,” Paul Resnick, professor of information at the University of Michigan, told the BBC.
“Initially, when they saw the prospect of this, many people were excited about this opening up to multiple voices. Now we are seeing some of those voices are saying things we don’t like and there is great concern about how we control the dissemination of things that seem to be untrue.”
Social media platforms use algorithms designed to funnel information to us that reflects our preferences and promotes engagement. With so many people getting their news from social media, their networks shape their knowledge and beliefs.
“Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers,” Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, said. “For every fact there is a counterfact, and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”
People are particularly susceptible to misinformation during a crisis, when there is a shortage of information. “There’s often a lot of uncertainty in crisis situations, so people come together and start sharing information in a sort of collective sense-making process,” University of Washington professor Kate Starbird told the American Psychological Association. “That process can get things right, but it can also get things wrong, producing rumors that turn out to be false.”
The pandemic has produced more than its share of wild conspiracy theories, including ones involving Bill Gates and Big Pharma. Less sensational but still dangerous claims call for drinking more water and avoiding ice cream to help prevent the illness.
Christians are called to be “truth-tellers, not argument-winners”
Christians have a special responsibility not to share this kind of misinformation.
“As followers of Jesus, truth is our currency,” Karl Vaters, a pastor and author, wrote for Christianity Today. “Without it, we have nothing. It’s essential to the integrity and believability of the gospel that we are known as truth-tellers, not argument-winners. Christians should have a reputation for being the most truthful people on earth.”
So, don’t share a story just because one of your friends posted it on Facebook. Check out the original source first. Is it reliable? Do other stories on the website seem credible? If a story isn’t widely circulated by conservative and liberal outlets, its content may be suspect.
Don’t just read the headline. It may have been sensationalized to draw in readers. Read the whole story. And if you’re still suspicious, consult a fact-checking site like PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org. Don’t share something unless you’re sure it’s true.
“This is not a game we’re playing,” Vaters wrote in Christianity Today. “When the integrity of the church gets undermined, the reliability of the gospel message gets called into question.”
So be careful what you post.
Your witness may depend on it.