“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked Jesus two thousand years ago. Today, as we read the newspaper, watch YouTube and TV news, listen to the radio, and scroll through social media, we confront that same question. In this time of pandemic, social upheaval and political strife, the distinction between truth and falsehood seems especially nebulous.
We’re living in a time of an “infodemic,” a phenomenon that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes as “a rapid and far-reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information about something, such as a disease.” It’s difficult to know what to believe when facts, rumours, and fears mix and spread.
Combine that barrage with the smart technologies that target media consumers with specific messages. When you start following a particular source online, the algorithms will feed you even more of the same kind of content. Sitting alone in front of a screen or a printed page, you are susceptible to taking in shady “data,” propaganda and outright lies designed to sell products or ideologies; or to sow confusion and fear.
Some liken it to falling into the cavernous rabbit hole where health authorities are discredited, unfounded “scientific” claims are pushed, and ideologies are used to support conspiracy theories. Laudable efforts like battling sex trafficking are mixed with racist and misogynistic claims.
Then we pass it on. Our intentions are good: We’re trying to make sense of these disorienting times, to find satisfactory answers to why things are as they are. We believe it is vital that others know the important information we have acquired. We want to make a positive difference in the world.
But sharing inaccurate content can cause great harm. It can engender anxiety, misunderstandings and division within individuals and groups. When we share speculation and lies, we help degrade confidence in trusted sources of information. The rumours we help spread can even threaten public health and safety. Passing on hatred can encourage extremism and sometimes even violence.
“Genuine news, and not fake news or hyped news or corrupt news, puts reality first; it does not subordinate honest reporting to ideological consistency or political advocacy,” says Michael Schudson, a journalism professor, in the Columbia Journalism Review. “It does not curry favour with advertisers, or with the publisher’s business interests, or even with the tastes of the audience.”
If you search in the Bible for terms like “speech,” “gossip,” “lies” and “the tongue” (broadly meaning how one communicates), you will see that disinformation is as old as biblical times. It was often decried by the prophets and in biblical wisdom literature. Psalm 10, for example, describes the schemes of “the wicked”: “Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity” (verse 7). “They utter lies to each other,” says Psalm 12:2, “with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.”
As followers of Jesus, “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), we must practise integrity in our communications. In a marketplace of ideas and facts, Christ calls us to practise a kind of discernment that does not perpetuate falsehood but promotes truth and justice. Here are a few things we can do:
- Share only reliable information, from reputable sources. Did the source do careful research or point to respected authorities? Is the source accountable to a board of directors, a professional association or expressed journalistic standards? Has the source been proven reliable over time?
- Check our feelings and biases: Does this information make us feel confused, fearful or angry? These may be signs to dig deeper before sharing anything. If you’re not sure, use a fact-checker. You can search the internet for “fact-checking tools for journalists.”
- Read beyond the headline or the content of the meme. Check the date and the name of the person sharing; avoid anonymous or ambiguous sources. Does the artwork or photo look exaggerated or manipulated in some way? Might the content be satire?
- Beware of content that promotes secret knowledge, us-versus-them thinking, apocalyptic timetables, Christian nationalism, distrust of reputable sources, or a blurring between opinion and news.
Let us heed the exhortation in Psalm 34:12-14: “Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” May all our communication follow this high standard.