We have to face up to the threat of fake news

19 October 2018

The Church has an important part to play in countering the destructive culture of post-truth, says Peter Crumpler

“DOES democracy still work?” is one of the provocative questions raised at the exhibition “The Future Starts Here”, currently running at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Among the exhibits is a leaflet produced for the 2016 EU referendum.

It carried the NHS logo, and encouraged people to vote Leave “to help protect your local hospital”. The exhibition’s curators have headed the leaflet — not produced or sanctioned by the NHS — as “post-truth propaganda”.

In a speech to the Society of Editors last week, the Director-General of the BBC, Lord Hall, said that “fake news” had “given street cred to mass disbelief”. He said: “It threatens people everywhere. For democratic government to be legitimate, it needs not just the consent of the people, but their informed consent.”

This summer, a House of Commons committee concluded that the volume of disinformation on the internet was so vast that it was crowding out real news.

 

IN THIS age of post-truth, when “fake news” and disinformation thrive, is there something that the Church, uniquely, can bring to the debate?

Despite often failing to follow Christ’s example — including, at times, in issues around integrity and trust — I believe that the Church can still provide an important antidote to the prevailing culture.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate and public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In 2016, when both the United States presidential election and the EU referendum were contested, it was the dictionary’s word of the year.

In January, Pope Francis called disinformation “snake-tactics”, crediting the serpent in Eden as creating the first fake news. He likened disinformation to mimicry, “that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments”.

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The Pope called for people “ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language”. How can the Church take this forward?

First, we have a commitment to a powerful “good news” narrative. Christ’s gospel, with its potential to bring transformation, hope, and a commitment to a better world, transcends party lines and challenges deeply held viewpoints.

In his recent book Post Truth, Matthew d’Ancona contends that, in defending the truth, “powerful counter-narratives are required: stories that, in the words of branding entrepreneur Jonah Sachs, call ‘their listeners to growth and maturity’ rather than irrationality and huddled fear of conspiracy”.

Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding in May resounded globally when he spoke powerfully of the Christian narrative of love (News, 25 May).

In his book Reimagining Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury calls on the UK to rediscover its Christian roots and “the power of the narrative that has shaped it for so long and set its values so deeply” (Books, 16 March). He sees the way forward as “recreating story through action.”

Second, the Church encourages dialogue across political, social, and racial divides.

Just as, at election time, it is often the churches and cathedrals that host hustings with the candidates, so the Church has a part to play in encouraging debate, being the catalyst to bring wide-ranging viewpoints together.

For example, the Church Urban Fund’s project Near Neighbours has engaged more than a million people in about 1600 projects. Aiming to “bring people from different backgrounds together for initiatives that improve their local neighbourhoods”, it helps diverse and divided communities to come together.

Third, the Church has a strong commitment to the local. Trust in politicians and the political process is at a low point, and much power and resource are centralised away from local government and organisations.

Archbishop Welby has called for increased support for locally based organisations, including charities and faith-based groups that are rooted in their communities.

The Church, working at the local level, but linked to national and international networks, can speak for those left behind in urban, suburban, and rural Britain. When bishops speak in the House of Lords — or when Archbishop Welby spoke to the Trades Union Congress (News, 14 September) — this grass-roots network gives them credibility.

Fourth, the Church’s long-term commitment, often stretching back hundreds of years, builds trust.

 

IN HER foreword to the Theos report on the faith groups’ response to the June 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster, the think tank’s director, Elizabeth Oldfield, explained that they “were able to respond in the way they did because they were trusted. They were embedded in the communities they served.

“The faith groups had a history, they were longstanding institutions, their presence in the community not temporary or contingent on immediate funding, but steadfast. They were in it for the long haul.”

The power of the Christian narrative, an ability to bring diverse groups together, and commitments to both the local and the long-term will not alone solve the pervasive issue of mistrust in our society.

But together they provide a vital resource to help the Church play its part in countering the destructive culture of post-truth.
 

The Revd Peter Crumpler is associate minister of St Leonard’s, Sandridge, Herts, and a former communications director for the Archbishops’ Council and other National Church Institutions.

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