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Would I lie to you? How Christians can fight back against fake news
There’s an unholy trinity of post-truth, alternative facts and fake news pervading our culture. Former tabloid journalist Sarah Lothian explains how Christians should respond
The then Republican candidate for President of the United States of America, Donald J Trump was clear: “You’ve got to go back and look and study and see what happens,” he said.
Trump was referring to footage of President Obama reacting to a heckler at a rally. It was November last year, shortly before the election.
“They never move the camera and he spends so much time screaming at this protestor,” Trump told a crowd at Hershey, Pennsylvania. “And frankly it was a disgrace. He was talking to the protestor, screaming at him, really screaming at him. By the way, if I spoke the way Obama spoke to that protestor, they would say, ‘he became unhinged.’”
I remember the rage I felt when I saw how Obama had actually dealt with that protestor. He’d acted with dignity and grace, calming the crowd: “I’m serious, now listen up, you’ve got an older gentleman who is supporting his candidate. He’s not doing nothing…we live in a country that respects free speech.”
Obama had urged respect for the heckler, who was elderly and who appeared to have served in the military. He encouraged people not to boo, but to vote instead.
Trump’s misrepresentation of what happened was a total distortion of the truth. The audacity of inviting his audience to watch footage that clearly exposed his lie compounded the offence.
A month later Oxford Dictionaries named ‘post-truth’ as its international word of the year. They described the phrase as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Its use had increased by around 2,000 per cent in 2016 “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.
We're talking about deliberate attempts to distort the truth
Oxford Dictionaries believe the first time the term ‘post-truth’ was used was in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich. In writing about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War, Tesich had said “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world”. “There is evidence of the phrase post-truth being used before Tesich’s article,” said the dictionary’s editors, “but apparently with the transparent meaning ‘after the truth was known’, and not with the new implication that truth itself has become irrelevant.”
Some politicians and journalists have been known to play hard and loose with the facts, but Trump’s bare-faced lies have shocked some of his most ardent supporters.
In recent months, the President has lambasted mainstream news outlets such as CNN and the BBC. But Fox News is generally seen as a friend of the President and Trump has often reserved his praise for the media for that television network alone.
One of the station’s anchors, Shepard Smith, recently launched into a frustrated live on-air rant. Chairing a discussion with a Reuters news agency correspondent, he told his viewers: “It’s our job to let you know when things are said that aren’t true especially by people we’ve elected and this President keeps telling untrue things…He [Donald Trump] said he had the biggest electoral win since Ronald Reagan. He said this repeatedly. He didn’t. He says it over and over again and it’s not true…It’s up to people like you and the rest of us to point it out when the President of the United States keeps saying things that are demonstrably, unquestionably, opinion aside, 100 per cent false.”
We’re not talking about postmodernism subjectivity here, where my truth is my truth and yours might be a bit different. This is not a clash of views, we’re talking about deliberate attempts to distort the truth.
Another phrase which is being thrown around by the President is ‘fake news’. What is it? You would be forgiven for assuming that it is news that is…err…fake, but as the Media Blog website puts it: “When Trump says Fake News, he doesn’t mean the entirely made-up stuff that boosted his campaign, he means genuine news that he doesn’t like.”
So far so very confusing. In my days as a tabloid reporter it was relatively simple – when you confronted a politician with a story, asking, “Is this true?”, the answer would often be, “How much proof do you have?” It was a game, and the resulting ‘true story’ was based on what we knew, what they knew we knew and what they could get away with.
But what didn’t generally happen was complete fabrication of facts. Recently Jane Collins, a UKIP MEP, cited a police statement as evidence of her claim that hundreds of illegal immigrants arrive in the UK every week. The Home Affairs spokeswoman told her party’s conference in Bolton that these “hundreds” were not being arrested when caught. When later challenged about this she claimed her comment was a “direct quote” from Sussex Police. But it wasn’t true and Sussex Police went on record, and Twitter, to say no such statement existed.
UKIP’s leader Paul Nuttall was recently forced to apologise after claims made on his website that he had lost close personal friends at the Hillsborough disaster were found to be untrue.
The fact big lies are being told should chill us to the core
I know politicians have a less than shining reputation – but this is a new thing, surely? And in case it seems that ‘post-truth speak’ is something only right-wing politicians are afflicted with, for balance I should point out that those on the left can be affected too. (I remember one particularly awkward story involving a very left-wing politician known for his litigious nature, but I can’t tell you about it or he’ll sue me.)
Flippancy aside, the phrases ‘post-truth’, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ are starting to take on a kind of comfortable feel. Remember, we're not talking about spoof websites such as theonion.com where stories are invented purely for comedic value. Fake news is when the public are deliberately misled by falsehoods which are presented as the truth. We’re in danger of becoming used to this when surely the fact big lies are being told should chill us to the core.
Longing for truth
Most Christians would say that truth is an important part of their faith. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says he is the truth (John 14:6) and tells the Jews who believed in him, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:31-32).
Paul also urges the Philippians to strive for the truth: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (4:8). And to the Corinthians he says: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (13:6).
Of course, if you asked several Christians from diverse backgrounds about their version of truth, you could receive very different replies. Anyone spending ten minutes on social media sites in the past couple of months will have seen Christians arguing about all kinds of issues, not least those relating to the LGBT community.
Natalie Collins, 2016 National Sermon of the Year winner, recently wrote that “we wrestle with the challenges of being a people united by the truth of Jesus in a world where universal truth is rejected”. She also points to a lack of critical engagement with culture, saying that for her the ideal is “not just to take things on face value but to give a robust rationale for why we think like we do”.
How to spot fake news
Fake news is made-up nonsense delivered for financial gain, political power or influence. Most fake news sites deliberately pass themselves off as real, offering false and sensational stories to lure traffic. Stories spread misinformation like wildfire through social media, so think before you click:
Are other outlets covering the story?
If not, ask why. Is the reporter quoting a source – is there more than one? Check the quotes in a search engine. Read the research if it’s referenced.
Does this sound too good to be true?
Does it give an easy answer to a difficult question?
Check the domain name
Too long, too complex? Strange endings? Some sites will try to mimic a reputable website, for example nbc-real-news.com or they may replicate the same URL but miss out a letter or two – abcnews.com is a legitimate news source, but abcnews.com.co is fake.
Check the ‘About Us’ section
This should be transparent and give straightforward information about the site’s owners and administrators.
Reverse image search
Images recently used to depict Islamist violence in Sweden were actually unrelated pictures taken from a local newspaper and were all at least five years old. Reverse image search was used to prove this. By reverse searching you can often find the original context or source of a photograph which has been used to illustrate a story. To reverse search, right-click on the image and choose “search Google for this image” or use tineye.com
This can be a challenge for Christians – are we willing to engage with our own preconceptions and are we prepared to question a culture of unreality in our own circles? Does it matter if that miracle healing story we heard in church on Sunday is true or not?
In 2004, Tony Anthony became prominent in evangelical circles after his autobiography Taming the Tiger (Authentic) was published. The book told the story of how Anthony was taken to China when he was four years old to be schooled in Kung Fu techniques, subsequently winning world championships and later becoming a bodyguard in Cyprus where he was convicted of theft and converted to Christianity in prison.
However, doubts were raised 21 about the veracity of the account. In 2013 an independent panel – set up by Anthony’s ministry Avanti and following discussions and nominations by the Evangelical Alliance – concluded that large parts of Anthony’s testimony were untrue. The publisher withdrew the title from sale (although Anthony protested his innocence and his since republished with New Wine Press).
Reactions to the investigation – which was first prompted after journalist Gavin Drake looked into Anthony’s story – had ranged from shock to downright disbelief. But others were of the view it didn’t matter. People converted because of his testimony. So the end justified the means.
Does it matter if a story is false if it brings people to faith? Does it matter if a photo used to illustrate an article is not what it purports to be? Does it matter if a politician is lying if he or she promotes policies that fit with the culture and beliefs of my church community?
Yes, it does. Watching the video of Obama and the protestor I was asked to deny what was I was seeing with my own eyes by one of the most powerful people on this planet.
We must not lose sight of reality and forgo our ability to be critical. If Christians are serious about saying that Jesus is the truth, we need to be able to recognise fact from fiction.