People of Truth in the Age of Disinformation

A passage in the prophet Isaiah seems to me to capture the current state of our nation: “Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”

The journal “Science” published the peer reviewed paper, “The spread of true and false news online,” by Soroush Vosughi and others in 2018. The authors drew on an exhaustive study of Twitter feeds from 2006 to 2017, which examined around 126,000 news stories tweeted by 3 million people more that 4.5 million times.

The authors classified news stories as true or false based on the conclusions of six different fact-checking organizations. What they found is that false stories were diffused to more people and spread more rapidly than true stories.

The New York Times Magazine recently published an article by Emily Bazelon titled, “The First Amendment in the age of disinformation.” Bazelon makes the case that conservative news media, including social media, spreads more disinformation than liberal media, partly because conservative groups do not compete for accuracy in reporting.

In commenting on the article, Ms. Bazelon admitted that disinformation spreads from both conservative and liberal sources but insists that the data indicate the problem is more widespread among conservatives. To that, conservatives may answer that Ms. Bazelon and the editors of the New York Times Magazine are liberals, their conclusions are biased, and may therefore be dismissed.

I spend hardly any time on either conservative or liberal news sites, so I do not have an opinion regarding the accuracy of Bazelon’s conclusions. I do frequently, however, take in the news summary on the classical music station. It would not be too much to say that the organization behind this news prides itself on its fair and accurate reporting. Nevertheless, for a couple of years now, I have noticed the extensive use of emotionally ladened words in what is purported to be an account of current news events.

At best, such language reflects a new staffs’ unrecognized biases. At worst, it exposes a calculated attempt to shape listener’s views and influence their actions. Such news may not be false but it is manipulative.

To complicate matters, liberals, who were once the defenders of free speech, are now the ones telling us that speech that could lead to societal harm should be curtailed. These are the heirs of free speech champions who once defended pornographers publishing rights and neo-Nazi’s First Amendment right to assemble.

Added to all this is the feeling, shared by both the right and the left, that the nation is doomed if the other side wins. This is war and all is fair in love and war, including deception and censorship. Those who repudiate such means are likely, in Isaiah’s words, to become prey.

Nevertheless, as followers of Jesus, Christians must be people of truth. Even Jesus’s enemies acknowledged that he spoke what was right in accordance with the truth. His followers ought to do the same. They are called to “put off falsehood” and to speak “the truth in love.” They ought to follow St. Paul’s example and renounce the use of deception. They must not only speak the truth but, in St. John’s phraseology, “do the truth.”

How do we go about living this way in our day and age? We begin by determining that we will not knowingly pass on misleading information. This means we cannot take the news, especially news commentary, at face value. We must question conclusions, even when they fit our own views – especially when they fit our own views.

We must stop demonizing people who think we are wrong, even if they demonize us. As soon as we classify someone as evil, we can excuse ourselves from listening to them and justify our own misuse of the facts.

We should avoid “groupthink.” To do this, we must ask ourselves how someone from “the other group” would frame the same facts or rebut the argument. We don’t do this so we can answer them but so we can understand them.

A passage in the prophet Isaiah seems to me to capture the current state of our nation: “Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”

The journal “Science” published the peer reviewed paper, “The spread of true and false news online,” by Soroush Vosughi and others in 2018. The authors drew on an exhaustive study of Twitter feeds from 2006 to 2017, which examined around 126,000 news stories tweeted by 3 million people more that 4.5 million times.

The authors classified news stories as true or false based on the conclusions of six different fact-checking organizations. What they found is that false stories were diffused to more people and spread more rapidly than true stories.

The New York Times Magazine recently published an article by Emily Bazelon titled, “The First Amendment in the age of disinformation.” Bazelon makes the case that conservative news media, including social media, spread more disinformation than liberal media, partly because conservative groups do not compete for accuracy in reporting.

In commenting on the article, Ms. Bazelon admitted that disinformation spreads from both conservative and liberal sources but insists that the data indicate the problem is more widespread among conservatives. To that, conservatives may answer that Ms. Bazelon and the editors of the New York Times Magazine are liberals, their conclusions are biased, and may therefore be dismissed.

I spend hardly any time on either conservative or liberal news sites, so I do not have an opinion regarding the accuracy of Bazelon’s conclusions. I do frequently, however, take in the news summary on the classical music station. It would not be too much to say that the organization behind this news prides itself on its fair and accurate reporting. Nevertheless, for a couple of years now, I have noticed the extensive use of emotionally ladened words in what is purported to be an account of current news events.

At best, such language reflects a new staffs’ unrecognized biases. At worst, it exposes a calculated attempt to shape listener’s views and influence their actions. Such news may not be false but it is manipulative.

To complicate matters, liberals, who were once the defenders of free speech, are now the ones telling us that free speech that might lead to societal harm must be curtailed. These are the heirs of free speech champions who once defended pornographers’ publishing rights and neo-Nazi’s First Amendment right to assemble.

Added to all this is the feeling, shared by both the right and the left, that the nation is doomed if the other side wins. This is war and all is fair in love and war, including deception and censorship. Those who don’t use such means are liable, in Isaiah’s words, to become prey.

Nevertheless, as followers of Jesus, Christians must be people of truth. Even Jesus’s enemies acknowledged that he spoke what was right in accordance with the truth. His followers ought to do the same. They are called to “put off falsehood” and to speak “the truth in love.” They ought to follow St. Paul’s example and renounce the use of deception. They must not only speak the truth but, in St. John’s phraseology, “do the truth.”

How do we go about living this way in our day and age? We begin by determining that we will not knowingly pass on misleading information. This means we cannot take the news, especially news commentary, at face value. We must question conclusions, even when they fit our own views – especially when they fit our own views.

We must stop demonizing people who think we are wrong, even if they demonize us. As soon as we classify someone as evil, we can excuse ourselves from listening to them and justify our own careless use of the facts.

We must avoid “groupthink.” To do this, we must ask ourselves how someone from “the other group” would frame the same facts or rebut the argument. We don’t do this so we can answer them but so we can understand them.

We also “should always pray,” for we are easily deceived and self-deceived people. Such humility is required of those who would be true and speak truth.

We also “should always pray,” for we are easily deceived and self-deceived people. Such humility is required of anyone who would be true and speak truth.

(First published by Gatehouse Media.)

This entry was posted in In the News, Truthfulness, Worldview and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to People of Truth in the Age of Disinformation

  1. Florence says:

    Thank you for putting into words what I, too, have seen over the years and am noticing on our local classical station’s news broadcasts. We know that God is sovereign and His plans will not be changed, but He does want to see His children walking in truth and living as children of light, not in the darkness of hate. I can say with confidence that God has this, no matter who is elected this year, so there is no need for me to stress over results. Our place is to continue to love one another and to respect other people as those who also bear the image of God. ALL people are made in His image.

    Like

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