IT IS easy to decide that we are each powerless in the face of the onslaught of post-truth, fake news, and disinformation. What can I do against the pervasive and often negative impact of social media, the algorithms of big tech serving me up information that confirms my inbuilt biases, or the politicians who bend facts with slogans that lose sight of the truth?
Each of us has influence within our own circle of friends, family, colleagues, and worshippers at our church and other places of worship. James Ball, author of Post Truth: How bullshit conquered the world (Biteback Publishing, 2017), has advice for pushing back against fake news and disinformation. His insights have contributed to this article.
FIRST, burst your bubble. I attended a meeting at which a politician with whom I strongly disagreed was speaking. It was being hosted by an organisation that I support. By the end, I still did not support the politician, but I had a greater respect for him and his opinions. Ball writes: “Knowing what people we disagree with actually say and think — rather than the straw men and caricatures we create in our heads — helps us bridge gaps and makes it harder to demonize people whose politics are different from our own.”
In social media, this means following people or organisations with which you disagree, and being ready to engage with what they are saying. It may not change your point of view, but you will understand better the views that they are expressing.
Second, do not share without thinking. It is easy simply to share on social media or tell a friend something that you have just read online or in print. But take a few minutes to think over what you have just read or heard. Ask yourself: is this from a reliable news source? Can I check this information on another media platform? Slowing down our responses makes it much less likely that we will share fake news or spread disinformation. If in doubt, then do not spread the story — even if you would like it to be true, because of your world-view.
Third, do not succumb to conspiratorial thinking. Christians are not immune to taking an interest in conspiracy theories.
Theories about how the coronavirus pandemic came about were rampant on social media from early 2020. While scientists worked to understand the virus, and to find vaccines and treatments, conspiracy theorists were finding blame and reasons for its spread around the world. As seekers after truth, Christians should be looking for evidence and robust investigations rather than fabricated ideas that intrigue us.
Fourth, support independent journalism. News organisations are under pressure from free material offered on the internet from unreliable sources. If independent journalism is to survive, readers are likely to have to pay an increasing price to support media outlets. The cover price of a newspaper, or an online subscription, can help to ensure that professional journalism survives.
Journalists are under increased pressure from governments around the world. In a lecture given last year in St Bride’s, Fleet Street, in central London (known as “the journalists’ church”), Dr Courtney Radsch, director of advocacy of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said that individual believers could champion quality journalism by being willing to pay for their news, by refusing to decry reporting with which they disagreed as fake news, and by valuing the part that journalists played in bringing new information to light.
Fifth, take a stand against disinformation. The US academic Dr Lee McIntyre writes: “The issue for me is not to learn how to adjust to living in a world in which facts do not matter, but instead to stand up for the notion of truth and learn how to fight back.”
In an era of post-truth, Christians are called to challenge every attempt to obfuscate a fact and challenge falsehoods before they are accepted as true. How you take action will depend on your circumstances, and where you see the truth being undermined. It could be in your place of work or education, in the media that you consume, or in the social-media posts that your friends are circulating. Small actions taken in workplaces or friendship groups can have a ripple effect in drawing people back to the truth.
POST-TRUTH, fake news, and disinformation together pose a serious threat to societies around the world. Citizens can feel powerless in the face of their demoralising and demotivating effects. But Christians can play their part in bringing truth and integrity back into the centre of public life.
This might call for concerted action over many years. It will need co-operation from local churches with national structures, and the voice of the Church in Parliament, Whitehall, and in the media.
We will need to work with partners and people of good will across the political spectrum. But, given the negative impact of post-truth on our society, we need to be acting now.
The Revd Peter Crumpler is the SSM Officer for St Albans archdeaconry, and a former Director of Communications at Church House, Westminster.
This is an edited extract from his new Grove Books booklet, Responding to Post-truth (E197). It is available from the Church Times Bookshop for £3.95.