One of my professors from seminary, Sam Wells, compares living faithfully to doing improv. That's because, he says, "we face new circumstances in each generation that the Bible doesn't give us a script for." There's no eleventh commandment about how to vote, online pornography, carbon footprints, or even gambling. The direct commands in scripture just don't always speak directly to our day-to-day struggles following Jesus in the 21st century. So we have to take what we do know, take how our faith has shaped us, and then improvise when the world presents us with new challenges.
Well, I believe one of those new challenges for Christians in America has become painfully clear over the course of this election season.
Brian Stelter wrote a short piece for CNNMoney last week that everyone should read, called "The plague of fake news is getting worse -- here's how to protect yourself."
The rise of social media has had many upsides, but one downside has been the spread of misinformation. Fake news has become a plague on the Web, especially on social networks like Facebook.Have you ever seen someone share a link with a title like "Trump's Worst Nightmare Just Came True..." or "Hillary's Campaign Will Be Over When This Video Goes VIRAL"? That kind of stuff is circulated on social media constantly (it's on my Facebook news feed, and I doubt I'm special). It's called "clickbait." These are sensational headlines designed to draw in web traffic to increase a site's advertising revenue.
But often these articles go beyond outrageous, exaggerated titles. Have you seen the article about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for President? Or how about the one about Pope Francis endorsing Hillary Clinton for President? I've seen both. Both of them are totally false—the pope doesn't endorse political candidates—but both of them were nevertheless shared widely on social media as if they were true.
And that wasn't a fluke. Just last week Sean Hannity, who works for an actual news station, had to apologize after he read a fake news article on his live radio show (I understand he got it off of Twitter). That's how wide-spread this problem is.
But the B.S. stories hurt the people who read and share them over and over again. Many of these fakes reinforce the views of conservative or liberal voters and insulate them from the truth. The stories prey on people who want to believe the worst about the opposition. [emphasis added]Sure, lying is bad, but this is the heart of the problem: these fake stories only tell us what our "itching ears" want to hear, not the truth. As social media users imbibe more and more of this as if it were true, it reinforces their prejudices and shapes their opinions and even their worldview, and it can then have real-world ramifications that materially affect other people: friends have an argument; someone buys another gun; a business is boycotted; a vote is cast. All influenced by lies.
The solution is pretty simple: verify that a story is true before you pass it along. Stelter's advice is to "triple check before you share." All it takes is a quick Google search to substantiate a story (or not). If you can find it being reported by a legitimate news outlet (NBC, FOX, CNN, The New York Times, etc.), then it's safe to share.
Yet, we don't do that, either because we aren't aware of the lies, or we're too lazy—or we just don't care.
But Christians have to care.
Because we're commanded not to bear false witness (Ex 20:16).
Because we're called to put away falsehood and speak the truth to our neighbors (Eph 4:25).
Because we worship a man who said, "I am the truth" (John 14:6).
And because the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). When Christians participate in all of this, when we don't take thirty seconds to check a source or verify a quotation, we're doing the devil's work for him. We not only deceive people, but, as Stelter pointed out, we appeal to a person's urge to believe the worst about others, to denigrate and vilify and pour scorn on her opponents. The devil's been called "the deceiver of the whole world" (Rev 12:9), and, with job title like that, mass communication and social media must come in pretty handy. Also, it probably helps when God's people volunteer to spread falsehoods for you, which is what happens every time we share a fake news article, post a meme with a fabricated quotation, or retweet made-up statistics.
I've seen pastors perpetuate political lies on Facebook and leave them up even after they're proven false. There's no way around it: that's a snare of the devil. And, again, these lies can have real effects on real people in the real world.
I can't speak to the situations in other nations, but for Christians in America the internet is the new frontier of discipleship. We have to learn how to follow Jesus online—in the obvious ways, like staying away from pornography, and in the less obvious ways, like fighting the temptations to troll, to shoot off emails in the heat of the moment, to indulge in impulsive spending, or to thoughtlessly spread lies in news's clothing.
This is when believers need to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16), because these traps are as abundant as they are novel. Thankfully, the example of Jesus and the teachings of scripture are more than rich enough to equip us to face these new challenges. If we recognize the dangers and seek wisdom from above, looking to Jesus and letting scripture correct and train our speech and conduct, the Spirit can guide us through the ethical minefield.
But right now, we've got work to do. Because, from what I'm seeing, wise and innocent we are not.
If you want to learn more about the epidemic of false and misleading "news" on social media, you can read this article from BuzzFeed.