Many of us trust Google without thinking. When we need quick answers, it provides results in less than a second. When were Twizzlers invented? Google knows. The classic candy (that for some reason everyone accepts but never truly enjoys) was created in 1929.
Of course, in reality, Google simply searches for content from users who put the information online. The search engine doesn’t objectively peddle facts.
In recent months, discussion around UFOs has picked up. One video popped up last week that appears to show an object in the sky moving at “106 mph” with strange flight patterns. The best way to fact-check it is through Google, right?
Well, if credible sources aren’t talking about it, then Google can’t give credible answers. When that video was released, it didn’t grab much attention, and hardly anyone reported on it.
Last week, Google added a banner that will appear if you search for something that hasn’t been broadly reported on. The banner reads: “It looks like these results are changing quickly. If this topic is new, it can sometimes take time for results to be added by reliable sources.”
Google and social media sites vary in their approaches to the content they deem misinformation or dangerous, ranging from subtle strips below a post that link to other sources to outright banning users. Though some of these measures stop terrorists and misleading conspiracy theories, they can arguably overstep into censorship. As Christians, we ought to nurture the virtue of wisdom as a built-in warning system for misinformation.
So, what filters have these different companies enacted?
Approaches to misinformation: The heavy-handed policy
What is misinformation?
In a post-truth culture, this simple, face-value question can be difficult to determine. For now, let’s assume that everyone holds to this dictionary definition: misinformation is incorrect or misleading information.
When a company deems something as misinformed, it most often does so on the basis of independent committees and industry experts. Though there are good principles that help guide us to truth, like diversifying our sources, we must remember that even credible sources can be wrong.
With that in mind, when do these companies ban users?
Twitter will sometimes ban users who spread “hate speech”. If tweets encourage harassment or violence, they will be removed. Facebook runs Instagram, and its approaches are similar to Twitter. They also ban certain conspiracy groups if they pose a risk to the public.
QAnon is one conglomerate of conspiracies that continues to mislead millions. In 2016, an apparently well-intentioned though armed man broke into a pizza shop because he thought it was part of a child-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton, a conspiracy purported by QAnon. Facebook and other sites have removed anyone representing QAnon because it tended to encourage violence and patently false conspiracies. (For more, see Dr. Jim Denison’s “What is QAnon? Why is it popular and dangerous? And how can Christians respond?”)
Domestic and international terrorists use social media to brainwash young people into committing acts of terror. Law enforcement uses social media sites to monitor and catch criminals, but, again, they will also suspend those accounts.
However, a more controversial move was the ban of former president Donald Trump from Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other sites on grounds of inciting violence and helping cause the January sixth riots. The debate continues to rage as to whether or not Trump’s statements should be linked in this manner to the riots. Recently, Facebook upheld their removal in light of an independent oversight committee but said they would reinstate his account in two years on certain conditions.
Another primary example includes the Wuhan lab-leak theory of COVID-19. I won’t touch on the theory itself, other than to point out its initial rejection led to Twitter suspending Chinese virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan, who spoke in favor of it. Social media from an early stage labeled it as misinformation. Dr. Yan was later allowed to return to Twitter.
Now, after more than a year, the theory has regained traction with numerous scientists and experts. It can no longer be considered “misinformation” by those companies. This demonstrates why the hasty suspension of misinformation does not lead to truth.
As for Christians, Dr. Denison has written on the dangers of censorship and argued that evangelicals will more and more be de-platformed by companies in response to their biblical views.
Misinformation warning labels: A good compromise?
Another technique currently used involves flagging content or providing immediate access to more centralized information.
Instagram and Facebook will hide a post they determine false or a manipulated image behind a warning label, though you can still choose to click through to see it. It also warns viewers of gruesome or potentially offensive images. Facebook and Instagram have also provided citations to broadly accepted sources on COVID and encourage users to get the vaccine. Twitter may also flag content they deem misleading or add a banner that links to more information, like in the case of the 2020 election.
I’m not arguing that traditionally credible or central sources are infallible. They may report information in a misleading way or present factual claims which turn out to be false (the CDC used a misleading statistic about COVID spreading outdoors). Nonetheless, the information from the CDC and other centralized sources is critical to establishing a guided opinion, even if there is room to debate their findings.
I won’t delve into vaccine debates here, but Steve Yount discusses individual rights versus the common good, and Dr. Denison argues for getting the vaccine. The approach by media companies to have certain sources easily available through banners, and even warnings about potential misinformation, seems like a good compromise. Certainly, it provides a better alternative to banning groups they disagree with (excepting terrorist and criminal organizations).
A better place to begin your search
All of these complicated issues surrounding censorship, misinformation, and “fake news” prove how important biblical wisdom is.
Proverbs says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). This fear refers to a reverence for how God defines good and evil and how to live well. In creating the cosmos with wisdom, God wove moral laws into the order of things (Proverbs 3:19–20).
Wisdom melds God’s word and practical decisions together, transforming our lives and actions. The Hebrew word for wisdom, chokmah, can refer to excellence in craft, like woodworking or masonry. It’s like developing the skill of leading a good life, and it can be honed just like any other skill. When we hone the skill of wisdom, discernment will act like a misinformation warning.
Proverbs expounds upon that skill in numerous ways that should guide our navigation of the modern age of nearly infinite information.
- Proverbs 19:11 and 29:11 say to avoid making quick judgments based on anger.
- Proverbs 17:27–28 says to restrain one’s words.
- Proverbs 11:2 says to follow humility and not pride.
- Proverbs 16:22 says that heeding the words of fools is folly.
- Proverbs 12:15 says we ought to listen to advice; the foolish are sure they are correct.
- Proverbs 18:15 says that the intelligent and wise never stop learning and seeking knowledge.
- Proverbs 14:8 says that the foolish deceive, meaning they will net some people into their folly.
I am frequently this fool. What I find encouraging is that “lady wisdom” speaks to those who truly listen with determination. She makes her voice heard in the marketplaces. She does not speak only to scholars in white ivory towers, but to all who clothe themselves with humility and submit to the Lord’s wisdom.
Google doesn’t contain all the answers, and it certainly doesn’t contain wisdom. But God, who knows all things and possesses perfect wisdom, will impart it generously to us if we ask him for it (James 1:5). That doesn’t mean he will give us any facts we ask for; we are still limited beings. But asking for his wisdom will give us the way forward.
Through the world of competing sources, complicated censorship and misinformation issues, conspiracy theories, political divides, culture wars, cancel culture, the decline of discourse, and this relatively new technology called the internet, wisdom becomes all the more paramount for Christians to live by.