It used to be that the news media was a highly revered, highly trusted American institution. Often referred to as the “Fourth Estate” the media was always looked to as the unofficial watchdog that helped to hold our government accountable to it’s citizens. They were (and are) protected in their efforts by the Constitution itself.
The information that people received via respected broadcasters (Edward R. Murrow), the nightly television news (Walter Cronkite “the most trusted man in America”), or the newspaper that was delivered to their doorstep each morning was accepted with little or no question. Journalism and the news industry were all about integrity. Discerning between real news and fake news was pretty easy. If you wanted the real deal you consulted your city newspaper. If you wanted the fake stuff, you grabbed a tabloid in the checkout aisle at the grocery store.
Journalism has suffered greatly in the past few years as reverence for honesty, unbiased reporting, and professional objectivity have slowly given way in many organizations to reverence for profits, ratings, and audience share. People started questioning the sources of the information they were receiving as it often seemed to be in service of advertising dollars over literal truth. With the rise of the Internet, pretty much anyone could publish whatever information they wanted for any reason they wanted. Bloggers pushing agendas often played fast and loose with actual facts.
And then came the American presidential election of 2016. News organizations seemingly became more politicized than ever before and their reporting on the issues and concerns of the left and the right was often called into question. The prolific spread of outright false and misleading information soon came to be known as “fake news.”
It seems as though these days you can’t always believe what you hear anymore. Or read. Or search. The wide proliferation of biased and fake news has worked to undermine the public’s confidence in a previously highly trusted media. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true.
What exactly is fake news”?
Fake news is literally information that is put out that is not based on actual facts. It’s the deliberate spreading on non-factual material or biased factual material in order to mislead, misinform, or slant people’s understanding of events towards a particular agenda. It can also be published in order to trick readers into exploring nefarious website links (clickbait).
Fake news has always been around in one form or another. Nazi Germany famously relied on fake news propaganda stories to sway and confuse the masses and its enemies.
Satirical news (such as that published for years by “The Onion” and “The Harvard Lampoon”) has been a source of entertainment, amusement, and political commentary for years.
But fake news as it is known today, news that is specifically published to deceive, corrupt, and coerce the reader, has taken on insidious levels like never before. The 2016 American presidential election saw an explosion of fake news that has stayed with us and continues to thrive.
Fake news spreads across the various media, but especially thrives on the Internet. Stories with inflammatory, eye-catching headlines presented under the banners of seemingly legitimate news sources disseminate lies, agendas, deceptive information, and even hate like never before. Fake news that specifically seeks to draw the reader in to get him to click on links to generate ad revenue, potentially steal information or spread viruses is epidemic.
John 8:32 And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
And while fake news is spreading across the Internet, it seems to have opened the doors for the growth of extremely biased news. Biased news is reporting that is heavily skewed in one particular direction or another in order to present the facts in as favorable a light as possible to a certain agenda. Media outlets may report factual information, but they present it such a way so as to be as favorable as possible to whatever ideology they support. The so-called “mainstream media” is continuously under attack for having a whole host of supposedly hidden agendas. In recent years FOX News is a good example of a news outlet that is considered reputable, but is known to support/promote a politically conservative or right wing bias.
Why are we so vulnerable to fake news?
The simple answer is that we are wired to accept, believe, and stay loyal to the groups we belong to.
Our brains would rather believe than question. When we process information, our brain has a natural inclination to accept and believe. Understanding something feels good. Skepticism, critical analysis, and questioning make our brains work harder and don’t provide that good feeling.
In a like manner, our brains do not like the tension that comes from holding two conflicting ideas at the same time. It’s easier for us to argue against the facts, than to face the prospect of changing our deep beliefs. When presented with information that contradicts what we believe, we’re more likely to dig in and resist the new information.
Proverbs 11:3 The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.
And then there is confirmation bias – we tend to be drawn to information that reinforces the way we already see the world and that supports our own particular views and opinions. We follow websites and blogs that express opinions that we already agree with. Fake news often preys upon this and is designed to stir up strong emotions by challenging our loyalty to these views.
Also, we are at heart tribal animals. As a social species we subconsciously want to signal to others in the group that we can trusted. We value being in agreement with other group members. It also means we are pre-disposed to rigorously defend the groups we belong to against the attacks of opposing groups.
Finally, lots of information comes flying at us on a continual basis. No one has the time or energy to analyze every report, investigate every source, or cross check every fact. We do the best we can to absorb what we can and to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, often the easiest things to absorb in this environment are fake news.
All of this creates the perfect environment for the proliferation of fake news, trolling us about our beliefs, and using fear to ramp up our emotions about issues and opinions.
Why fake news is of particular concern to Christians
For many of the reasons above, as humans we are very susceptible to being drawn into the games that the purveyors of fake news try to drag us into.
Moreover, as Christian believers we are protective of others who share our beliefs. We want to be good members of our church. There are issues in the world today that challenge our Christian beliefs and sensibilities. As we seek to be loving and to share the Word, we can be easy bait for those who wish to polarize us and spread mis-information.
But, probably most important, being a Christian means being bound to Truth. We need to be all about honesty and integrity. We represent the very personification of Truth, Jesus Christ.
When we participate in creating and/or sharing fake news, our credibility and our witness suffers.
Fake news relies on polarization, fear and hate-mongering to spread. The good news of the Gospel spreads via love and faith and promise. Participating in the proliferation of fake news diminishes the efforts we make in spreading the good news of the Gospel. Our friends and family and the people we come in contact with may not trust us with the good news when they see how we’ve been handling the worldly news.
Although we may not intend to, when we don’t do right by Truth, we don’t do right by Jesus. So we must be doubly vigilant.
Proverbs 10:9 Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.
Here are some tools that can help…
How to spot and protect yourself against fake news
1. Does the source of the article seem legit? — Is their name suspicious? Does the URL look strange? Fake news sites often have reputable sounding names, but their URL looks suspicious. They use strange suffixes such as dot co or dot ru or there are third party platforms in their name. Rather than just relying on the article, check the source website. Sites that are covered with ads and pop ups and hidden links are usually not legitimate news sites.
2. Does the information in the article match the headline? — Fake news articles often suck you in with a provocative headline and opening paragraph but the remainder of the article has little or nothing to do with that first information. Be sure to read through the entire article instead of just accepting it on face value.
3. Is it a current story, or an old one that has been recycled? — A favorite technique of fake news writers is to drag up an old article and pass it off as legitimate current news – e.g. a politician’s support of a bill 15 years ago is presented as evidence of support of a current bill dealing with a similar subject.
4. Are the supporting elements of the article legit? — Are the photos or videos used legit? Are they truly pictures of the people and locations discussed in the article? Are they current? Does the article credit the photos?
5. Is this the only outlet reporting the story? — If a news story is truly news, it’s most likely going to be mentioned in several places by several different outlets. Check to see who else is publishing the same story.
6. Is the author legit? — Do you recognize their name? If you Google their name, what do you find?
7. Are you thinking before you share? – Beware of your own confirmation bias. Are you accepting this story because it supports what you believe? Or have you paused and checked it out to see if it’s real news?
8. Is the source flagged on an unreliable websites list? — Has it been debunked by a reputable fact-checking organization?
Check out sites such as FactCheck.org, Snopes, or Politifact. They abide by the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of ethics. They are reliable fact checking sources.
Also check out these comprehensive listings of sites that regularly publish misleading news. Check to see if the source of your article has been blacklisted by these agencies.
Zimdars — False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources
Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors
9. Use the charts in this article to help you — These charts differentiate between popular news organizations and their credibility, biases, and relative levels of quality.
10. Above all, if you can’t or won’t confirm a story, don’t just believe it, and certainly don’t share it.
(Credits: Top chart via: imgurdot.com; Bottom chart via: whealyivtpigcast.com)