Something happened during the 2016 presidential campaign that seems to have shifted how we get information. It has become increasingly hard to figure out the facts. Formerly trusted sources, such as Time Magazine, NBC, CNN and Fox News, are no longer widely trusted. I believed there was a general commitment to the truth. I think a major tipping point happened when all the polls made it seem like Hillary was going to win by a landslide. Since then, however, people have become irreversibly cynical about the mainstream media as being an accurate source of information. And it has become very difficult to differentiate between truth and reality.
I've also noticed that the situation seems to be escalating during the quarantine. Many people are asking, how do we know what to believe? Let me see if I can be of some help.
Why Should This Matter?
Why should Christians go the extra mile to make sure that what we share on social media is based on fact? I can think of a few reasons:
But, I think the most important reason that Christians should strive to maintain our credibility is so non-Christians will listen to us when we preach the Gospel. Our religion makes the very bold claim that Jesus died for the sins of the world. The Gospel is definitely NOT fake news. After all, consider what could happen to our witness then when non-Christians observe our social media feed making Jesus posts AND fake news posts?
For these reasons, it is very important for Christians to advocate for truth, and to not be guided by our feelings. As we advocate for truth, we should do it with a heart posture of humility, patience, forbearance, forgiveness and grace.
Obstacles to Accurate Information
Now let’s talk about some common obstacles to getting good information in the age of fake news.
1. Deliberate Misinformation
Supposedly, there are fake news organizations who write news articles for profit and then share them on social media. These posts are displayed to targeted groups who want to believe that the story is true. The intention is for the fake news to spread without readers taking the time to properly vet the information. Now, personally, I have not come across one of these sites, but supposedly they’re out there, so I’m including these sites on the list.
I think more common, in this category, are incidents of the mainstream media reporting stories that are overly biased, and possibly even intentional hoaxes. There have been a number of these incidents now where mainstream media news shape the news narratives, seemingly to the point of making things up at times. Probably the most recent example would be the three years CNN and MSNBC have spent pushing the narrative that Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to interfere with the 2016 election. That narrative has pretty thoroughly debunked now. But one has to wonder, where was the investigative reporting?
2. Misleading Headlines
It’s not uncommon to see a news headline stating something sensational as fact, but then the body of the article says something different. This is called “clickbait." These headlines catch a reader’s attention to make them click on the fake news.
So before clicking on that SHARE button, it is VERY important to click through to an article and take the time to READ it carefully.
3. Sensational News Blog Sites
There are many blog sites that look like news but summarize stories in a fairly sensationalized way. These are designed to evoke strong emotions in targeted groups, such as conservatives or liberals, evangelical Christians, social justice warriors, or whatever your tribe is. I would put the Christian site, Pulpit and Pen in this category.
4. Social Media Sharing
Social media is driven by algorithms. Post propagation is based on shares, likes, followers, and comments. When you see an article pop up in your feed, it’s likely because it's had a lot of interaction. Essentially, social media turns the news into a massive popularity contest.
Now, this could be a plus. Social media has helped many unknown writers to build platforms that they couldn't access through traditional publishing. I’m a big advocate for free market competition of ideas. So I see social media as a theoretical equalizer for the "little guy."
But there are also a couple of problems with algorithms. First, just because something is widely shared does not mean it’s true. You could have a popular article that contains completely bogus content.
Second, social media platforms view their algorithms as highly guarded secrets. For example, YouTube could throttle your stream rate, or Twitter could show your posts to only a small percentage of your followers. Many have wondered whether certain perspectives, particularly conservative ones, are “shadow banned” by these companies. Shadow banning is when a social media platform makes it hard to find a provider's content.
Satire news sites often begin with an aspect of truth and then purposefully twist it to comment on society in a humorous way. In a way, satire is intentionally fake news. Satire news sites are really just a modern example of an entire genre of literature. One of my favorite examples is Jonathan Swift's classic satire, "A Modest Proposal." Satire's purpose is to use humor to comment on a cultural observation or problem.
But, I have seen several situations on social media where satire stories were spread as though they were real news. A couple examples of well-known satire websites are The Onion and The Babylon Bee (which is the Christian version of The Onion).
So, if you aren’t tuned into asking the question, “Is this a parody site?” you can get duped.
Tips to Maintain Credibility
What can we do to overcome these obstacles? Here are 6 tips to help maintain credibility:
1. Rely less on the mainstream media as your source for news.
I hate to say this, but if you are getting your news from the mainstream media, then you are probably getting a lot of propaganda. Few outlets do primary reporting anymore. It’s mostly a lot of repeating. And stories are presented now in order to activate people’s emotions. Quite frankly, I find it exhausting.
So, what’s the alternative? Well, it’s tricky. One thing I do is use Twitter as my source for news because I can find things there that the mainstream doesn’t report.
Now, this can be both good and bad. There is a LOT of weird stuff on Twitter. But over the years, I’ve found a few sources that consistently break reliable and accurate stories.
But doing it this way takes a lot of time and you must be willing to do all your own fact-checking.
2. Get more actively involved in your own research and fact-checking.
Don’t click the share button before doing a quick Google search. This means that you'll need to be a detective. Ask yourself some strategic questions: What outlets are reporting this? How could this story be corroborated through primary sources?
As you are researching, you'll need to track down the primary sources. In other words, take time to find the original quote or document. If an article mentions a study, go find the study. If an article mentions a quote from a video, go find the original video and listen to the whole quote in context. I can't tell you how many times I've done this only to find out from the primary source that a quote was being distorted.
Now, you're probably thinking, "That sounds like it will take a lot of time." You're right. It will. But I strongly suggest that if you don’t have time for this step, then don’t share it.
3. Ask: Is this a parody site?
Recently, a friend sent me a screen cap of a tweet that said Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died. I immediately thought, "Is this a true story?" So, I Google'd it. I couldn't find any corroboration of the story, but I did figure out that the tweet was from a parody news site. Good thing I didn't share it because it sure looked legit!
Here is a bonus tip: If you see that someone quoted something from Twitter, look for a blue checkmark. This will ensure it’s from an original account and not a parody account.
4. Differentiate between facts and opinion.
This is a very basic, but commonly lacking, skill today. When I do an explainer video, I try to be very careful to differentiate between facts that are publicly available and verifiable, and opinions. Christians don’t want to bear false witness and assign motives to people. So keep facts in one lane and keep your opinions and analysis of those facts in a different lane.
5. Vet the author and publisher’s credibility.
It's very important to be aware of the political viewpoint or worldview of the media outlets you consult. This infographic attempts to evaluate the POV of various news outlets. I'm not sure I agree with all of their categorization, but it will give you some perspective.
Another consideration is financing. There is some wisdom in the proverb, "Follow the money." Most media outlets are owned by large media conglomerates who have many publishing houses in their portfolio. This is a link to a crazy infographic that illustrates this.
A Word About Conspiracy Theories
The term “conspiracy theory” has become a fairly derogatory term synonymous with “stupid and factually untrue.” But that’s not necessarily the case.
According to the dictionary, a "conspiracy" means multiple people collude to create a particular outcome. We know from history that conspiracies do happen. Watergate is a classic example of a conspiracy. People conspired to break into the Democratic election office and get insider information to help the Nixon campaign in the early 70s. This was an actual conspiracy.
The thing about genuine conspiracies, however, is that they are usually, eventually uncovered. That's because it's really hard for a bunch of people to all keep the same secret. We live in an age of whistleblowers and the internet. Someone who was in on the conspiracy often comes forward and starts revealing secrets.
Now in order for some conspiracy theories to be true, it would literally require hundreds, possibly thousands, of people to be in on the deception. Examples of conspiracy theories on this magnitude would be the moon landing hoax or the earth being flat. I know way too many credible scientists who have worked in these fields. A conspiracy of this magnitude doesn’t really make sense.
Now, the truth is, I like a good conspiracy theory. I actually lean toward believing in one or two. But I never talk about them publicly. Why? Because if they turn out not to be true, then my credibility as a minister of the Gospel would be shot.
So when you post things about conspiracy theories on social media, you have to be very careful because you can quickly lose credibility.
I don't foresee the mainstream media changing anytime soon. I think it's is going to get increasingly difficult to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not. But Christians should do what we can to fact-check and research before hitting the SHARE button.