Fake news has hit the headlines and the word of the year chosen by the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘post-truth’. What’s going on? Are the masses being willingly duped?
Or are they really knowing enough to discern truth from lies?
I put it all down to a uniquely 21st Century sin called confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is the strong tendency to only see events, news and people in a way that confirms an existing bias or prejudice. We’re all guilty of it to some degree but now in our interconnected age where news (and rumour) is spread to millions of people in seconds, the power of false information is huge and destructive. This is the world we live in now, eerily reminiscent of some Orwellian dystopia.
A lot of recent focus has been on the ‘noise’ surrounding the two historic political events of 2016, Brexit and Trump’s election and the way news, commentary and information surrounding these campaigns have been used, misused and abused in their campaigns.
But also it’s important to note the massive changes in the way news and information has being consumed in the last decade, especially with the rising popularity of alternative news sites such as breitbart.com and BuzzFeed. The old media giants are reeling, their business models looking like, well, last century’s news.
News and comment are been created more and more by was once considered to be fringe opinions. The ‘alt-right’ is trending right now and we need to know why, because its sensational nature is creeping into popular opinion and spreading around the world.
The main reason is largely due to our habit of only reading news that supports our pre-existing views. It’s never been easier to filter out alternative opinions and feed our bias with a bad diet of whatever it is that’s ‘out there’. In fact, the more ‘out-there’ the more sensational and ‘shareable’.
What’s hard too is that we all like to have our opinions validated. It’s something that makes us feel good, clever and knowing. And the more things we see that ‘proves’ our pre-existing views the better. Right?
Every lie we consume and accept that ‘confirms’ our existing opinion is nothing less than the promotion of falsehood and the pushing back of truth. And when truth becomes obsolete or unrecognisable, evil reigns.
Would it ever be right to stay silent when you hear something false being spoken about a good friend? Of course not. It’s an injustice. Yet through social media and other outlets, the false news is promoting just that about many people in public life, on a massive scale.
As Christians the call for us is clear.
It is a fight to honour and defend truth, wherever it is. It’s a fight to resist falsehood in all its guises. It’s the rejection of straight out lies because lies have a habit of snowballing and gathering a momentum of their own that when left unchecked becomes an avalanche.
It means the turning away as much as we can, from our confirmation bias.
Here’s what I see are the main kinds of lies to be aware of and to what we need to shield ourselves from to prevent confirmation bias.
The Big Lie
If you are told that black is actually white, when it really is black, then it is a deliberate lie that is masquerading as truth. This is usually a daringly outrageous claim that catches on and slowly spreads even though it is 100% false.
The lie of denial
A lie of denial is the promoting of an idea when there’s more than enough evidence to falsify it. Holocaust denial would fall into this category.
Lots of little lies
Lies have a strategic purpose, they can be arrows that undermine your opponent. The more you fire them, the more effort is needed for your opponent to defend themselves. This appears to be a very effective technique in politics today, barrage your opponent with a twitter wall of innuendo and some of that mud will stick.
This is perhaps the most common and most dangerous lie. The half-truth is a repeated assertion that has some truth but is only a small part of the bigger picture. For example, the belief that immigrants ‘take our jobs’ is a half truth. It’s true that immigrants do work but ‘taking’ implies non-immigrants have an automatic entitlement to a job. It also implies an injustice, a theft even. That’s wrong when the majority of immigrants in most countries have a legal right to work. Even more wrong because immigrants also create jobs. A case in point is the Ugandan Indian community who were expelled from their own country by then dictator Idi Ami, in the 1970s. Many fled to the UK and because they were educated with businesses in their home country they made a massively important economic contribution to the UK economy when they resettled. They didn’t take jobs they created them.
How language is used reflects the beliefs and agenda of the user. So if I was to say that the United State is being ‘flooded with entrepreneurs’, that would change the nature of the debate for most people would see that as a good thing due to more positive associations around the word ‘entrepreneur’. And surely the fact that anyone wants to leave their native home, language and culture to seek a better life has something entrepreneurial about it, has it not? So the reality is always more complicated than first appears or mere words suggest, which is why the half truth is so popular and insidious. It gives a reason to stop thinking and for that reason alone, it’s a particularly insidious lie to fight.
The wise thing to do
The devil is called the ‘father of lies’ (John 8:44) so to fight lies in all their forms is to fight evil itself. It doesn’t matter what your politics or convictions are, lies will come in all shapes and sizes so they should be resisted and responded to with truth. But how?
A Christian must do everything to hold their worldview or politics lightly compared to their total commitment to truth and Jesus, ‘the way the truth and the life’.
Here’s what we can do:
We need to be prepared to have our own viewpoint challenged on occasion. That can simply mean having good-natured discussions with people of a different viewpoint or more simply reading an alternative writer or columnist on any particular issue, avoiding those who deliberately sensationalise because of their own agenda, to shock and sell papers, magazines and therefore advertising space. So long as they are trustworthy with the facts.
We need to to be on constant watch so as not to fall for lies that confirm our opinions, no matter how innocent or trustworthy they may first appear. And we need to gently correct any lie we see repeated or spoken by those in our social circle (especially social media circle).
We need to recognise when the media we consume could get compromised by vested interests or an agenda. Again, another reason to read the opposite viewpoint on any issue of the day.
And finally, none of this means we need to tie-up ourselves in knots obsessing over whether something can ever be fully true. Nor does it mean we give up on our convictions. In fact the very opposite. By allowing ourselves to be challenged we can often turn out more sure of our convictions because of the weakness in that challenge.
Not only that we can even be more empathetic to differing views and people and understand why they hold the convictions that they do.
‘A witness saves lives when he tells the truth; when he tells lies he betrays people’ (Proverbs 14:25).
A lie never sits in isolation, it has an effect on society. It corrupts and misguides. As Christians and citizens, we must uphold the value of truth because;
5 God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another (1 John 1: 5-7)
So my prayer in this so called post-truth, fake news world, is that God guides us all in truth and light, so we can live in peace with each other.
© Not Only Sundays, November 2016.
Images CC0 Public Domain – Sourced on pixabay.com under a creative commons licence.