By Kent E. Fillinger
A January 2021 Lifeway Research survey found 49 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say they frequently hear members of their congregation repeating conspiracy theories about something happening in our country. Around 1 in 8 pastors (13 percent) strongly agree their congregants are sharing conspiracy theories.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SHOWS
An October 2020 research report found that Facebook users engage with misinformation 70 million times per month on average. Though far fewer than the 2016 peak of 200 million monthly fake news engagements, it still is no small figure. On Twitter, people share false content 4 million to 6 million times per month, a figure that has remained relatively unchanged since 2016.
The journal Science in 2018 reported a study by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which found that fake news spread faster on Twitter than true news.
Sinan Aral, who led the team of researchers, said, “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people.”
HOW TO IDENTIFY FAKE NEWS
The library at Thompson Rivers University in Canada provides a simple, helpful summary of the characteristics of “fake news.” In general, fake news is factually inaccurate, optimized for sharing, and meant to obscure or distort with emotions . . . preying on prejudice or bias.
A story is not fake simply because it is impolite or inconvenient. A story that challenges your beliefs or values is not necessarily fake news. And a story that is rejected by those in power does not make that story fake news either.
WHY DO PEOPLE SPREAD SOCIAL MEDIA DISINFORMATION?
An October 2020 research project by Tom Buchanan noted there are three primary reasons people spread false information online: consistency, consensus, and authority. (Learn more at journals.plos.org.)
Consistency is the extent to which sharing would be consistent with past behaviors or beliefs of the individual. Research indicates social media users consider headlines consistent with their preexisting beliefs as more credible, even when explicitly flagged as false.
Consensus is the extent to which people think their behavior is consistent with that of most other people. For example, seeing that a message has been shared widely might make it more likely a person will forward it themselves.
Authority is the extent to which the communication appears to come from a credible, trustworthy source. Research participants have detected a greater likelihood that people will propagate a social media message if it comes from a person or agency they perceive as trustworthy.
HOW TO STOP THE SPREAD OF DISINFORMATION
Misinformation is a serious threat to the credibility of Christians and the church. For that reason, it deserves serious attention.
Truth alone can free us from the deception and bondage of conspiracy theories, misinformation, and disinformation. Christians should set the standard as truth-tellers, but we should do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16).
Theologian John Stott said, “We are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world.” So, we need to learn how to filter information so we can speak God’s truth into a broken world.
How can we focus on sharing truth and discontinue repeating and reposting falsehoods?
Be Like the Bereans. Paul said the Bereans “listened eagerly” to his message and “searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth” (Acts 17:11, New Living Translation). The Bereans fact-checked Paul and Silas, and in doing so, they set a good example for us.
We should fact-check social media, our preacher, friends, politicians, etc. Don’t blindly accept statements and opinions as true. Instead, search the Bible and other credible sources to verify its veracity. Do this especially before you share, repost, or repeat it. You can verify stories before sharing them by using websites such as these: factcheck.org, politifact.com, snopes.com, and truthorfiction.com. (These websites agree with one another about 95 percent of the time.)
Reevaluate your circle of friends. The Public Religion Research Institute concluded that Americans tend to choose friends who vote like them, worship like them, and look like them. America is becoming more geographically polarized as people sort themselves based on political views. A recent example of this: Of the nation’s 3,143 counties, the number of super landslide counties—where a presidential candidate collected at least 80 percent of the vote—jumped from 6 percent in 2004 to 22 percent in 2020, according to political scientist Larry Sabato.
When you consider your circle of friends—the big question is who is influencing whom? Paul told the believers in Corinth not to be fooled by people who spread lies; he said, “‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning” (1 Corinthians 15:33-34).
To apply Paul’s words in your own life and ministry, you may need to create some healthy distance and needed boundaries and ignore people who are “passionate but uninformed.”
Check yourself and your motives. Before sharing something that might be questionable, divisive, or blatantly false, ask yourself these questions: Should I be focusing on this? Is this an important focus for a Christian? How will sharing this impact my Christian witness?
Paul told Timothy to “avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior” (2 Timothy 2:16). Proverbs 19:9 says, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and a liar will be destroyed.” Remember, your words have consequences. Be a truth-teller!