This article is reprinted from the Summer, 2018 Adventist Today magazine. If you would like to receive the quarterly magazine, become a member here.
by Lindsey Painter | 12 November 2018 |
We are in a social media age! At least, that’s what all the articles say that pop up on Facebook and Twitter (oh, the irony…). Class reunions are no longer a suspenseful surprise, because you already know what’s happening to the people you went to school with.
But the biggest social media buzzword is “fake news.” Everyone seems to be throwing the word around—even the president of the United States.
In a social media world, what does it mean to tell the truth? Does sharing an article on Facebook make you a crusader? Does not sharing controversial articles mean you are silent in the face of injustice?
And what exactly is truth? Are police unselfish public servants making our communities safer, or are they corrupt, racist tyrants killing black people without remorse? Is abortion killing a baby, or is it offering women a choice? Is comprehensive sex education promoting immorality among young people, or is it protecting them from making foolish mistakes? Is the church upholding scripture by refusing to ordain women, or is it oppressing women?
Even things we thought were clearly and generally agreed upon are now up for debate. Are vaccines, in fact, harmful? Is the Earth actually flat?
Never before has truth seemed so elusive. Bias has always been a problem, of course, but social media exacerbates the difficulty. We all have that one uncle who shares every ridiculous political article and meme without bothering to check whether or not it’s true. Not to mention the cousin who shares Onion pieces, not realizing that they’re satire.
But even those of us who are better at critical thinking than Uncle Joe are sometimes fooled by fake news.
One thing that often seems missing in this discussion is that sharing something that isn’t true is, in fact, lying. It’s not just online or just forgetting to check. It is lying. We’ve simply gotten so used to it that it doesn’t always register.
This isn’t innocent. If I look someone in the eye and give them information, shouldn’t I be sure that my information is true? We can find lots of rules in the Bible, but the ninth of the 10 most well-known set of rules is about this very thing: don’t tell lies.
What is it about social media that makes us so fast and loose with the truth?
The Nature of the Medium
Facebook is a fickle friend. In 10 minutes of scrolling, you could laugh, cry, feel touched, feel disgusted, be furious, be overwhelmed, feel pity, feel your heart warm, and judge another person. I might be feeling anger about some political thing my friend posted, and then a moment later I’ll be saying “awwwwwww!” to a picture of a kitten and a turtle who made friends. What does this kind of whiplash do to our brains? What does it do to our perception of truth?
One day I scrolled through my Facebook news feed and saw that an acquaintance needed an emergency liver transplant, a friend had shared a memorial post about her 8-year-old who died last year of a brain tumor, and another friend had a baby who is receiving urgent life-saving care in NICU. I felt sadness and sympathy.
But for how long? A minute later I was laughing at a joke my cousin made.
Facebook doesn’t lend itself to nuance or reflection. We’re addicted to reaction, to flashes of shallow emotion. This lack of depth isn’t just about emotions, though; it also contributes to a cavalier attitude toward truth.
Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, in an article in The Atlantic, says that the digital tools themselves contribute to our dishonesty: “Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning. They rarely interrogate history or philosophy; as a rule, they demand information relevant to their immediate practical needs. In the process, search-engine algorithms acquire the capacity to predict the preferences of individual clients, enabling the algorithms to personalize results and make them available to other parties for political or commercial purposes. Truth becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.”1
Social media is, by its nature, epigrammatic: concise, short, to the point, but also with generalizations and a general lack of nuance. An amusing epigram says, “All generalizations are lies, including this one.” When we generalize—that is, simplify complex issues—we have the immediate reward of emotional satisfaction, but at what cost? In one keystroke we have spread misinformation, demonized or dehumanized our opponents, and removed a bit of truth and goodness from the world. Says Dr. Kissinger, “Inundated via social media with the opinions of
multitudes, users are diverted from introspection.”2
What if, instead of pressing a handy “share” button, we had to meticulously copy or type everything by hand in order to share it? Would the process of slowing down and reflecting make a difference in what we shared?
Hearing What We Want to Hear
Confirmation bias means that our brains are designed to believe things that confirm what we already believe. Conversely, our brains are designed to reject information that does not fit our current beliefs. So if Uncle Joe believes that there is a government conspiracy and then reads an article saying the attack on 9/11 was actually an inside job, he is more likely to believe it.
The surprising thing about confirmation bias is this: our brains are so averse to information that contradicts our current beliefs that when presented with evidence against our belief, we are actually more likely to continue believing what we believe rather than to change our beliefs. This means that all of the evidence we painstakingly present to Uncle Joe will only make him believe in the conspiracy more.
A pastor friend of mine once saw one of his very pious and deeply conservative church members post a totally false political quotation on her Facebook page. In an attempt to be helpful and prevent her from embarrassing herself, he commented with some reputable sources, including Snopes.com, proving beyond question the falseness of the quote. His reward? She was furious. She unfriended him, deleted all of his comments, and wrote him a nasty private message.
Before we judge her too harshly, please remember that none of us are immune to this impulse. When we see something that supports our previously held beliefs, we are less likely to factcheck it and more likely to believe it. All we can do is be mindful of it and try to overrule the initial impulse to interact only with things that reinforce our preconceived notions.
A Post-truth Society
We now live in a world where the president of the United States tells us lies that are so obvious and easily disproved that we scramble to fact-check him. Was his inauguration crowd the biggest in history? It takes only minimal effort to see that isn’t true. So why do so many believe him? Because his beliefs confirm their own.
I once had a friend who dismissed Trump’s lies by countering that Obama also lied in office. I showed my friend an article from a fact-checking website about the lies Obama told compared to the lies Trump tells.3 Obama did lie in office—18 times to be exact, during his eight years in office, according to The New York Times fact-checkers. In his first year Trump lied 103 times. My friend was not swayed. “I don’t believe that’s true.” he said. And that was the end of the conversation. Because how can you ever resolve anything if there’s no source material both sides can trust?
This is the equivalent of saying (something I’ve often heard), “Well, that’s my opinion,” as though that settles everything. The statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with saying, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Would you want a physician who said, “I have no facts to back up this diagnosis and treatment, but my opinion is just as good”? Your opinion may make you feel good, but it really isn’t worth very much if it is simply untrue.
In the fifth Harry Potter book, The Order of the Phoenix, a government that is afraid to accept the rise of tyranny and terror decides to wage a media smear campaign against Harry Potter, the truth-teller. Harry refuses to stop telling the truth even when they make him out to be crazy, war-mongering, and attention-seeking. He undergoes torture in which he must repeatedly carve the words “I must not tell lies” into his skin, but his greatest hurt isn’t from the authority figures who are trying to make his life hell. It’s from his peers and friends who don’t know what to believe. Friends who once trusted him now give him wary glances and a wide berth in the hall.
Harry is living in a post-truth society, and so are we. The lies are so believable, so seductive, that they are easier to believe than the truth. The lies make us feel good. They make us feel rage, but the satisfying kind—the us vs. them kind of rage where our primitive brains roar with the satisfaction of having an enemy. They make us believe that an issue as complicated as poverty or race is simple, and not, in fact, nuanced, multifaceted, and very difficult to change. Poverty is too abstract an enemy to fight, whispers the lie: let’s blame the Democrats, or the Republicans. Or let’s blame poor people for being poor. That’s easier, whispers the lie.
We choose to be lied to. We like it.
Facebook, I love the way you lie to me.
The Ease of False Logic
The political comedian John Oliver called it “#whataboutism.” I call it the “Two wrongs make a right” tactic. Trump had an affair? Well, what about Bill Clinton? It has become a social media joke to follow any criticism of Donald Trump with, “But what about her emails?” (#ButHerEmails).
The whatabout tactic is a way to distract from a real problem by complicating the issue with something unrelated. Do Trump’s affairs not matter because Bill Clinton also had an affair? Are none of the criticisms of Trump’s campaign legitimate because Hillary Clinton used a private email server? Bill Clinton’s indiscretions and Hillary’s emails are genuine problems that should be debated—on their own. How does it help one argument to bring up something entirely different?
A game I like to play when I’m reading about the inconsistencies of one side or another is to flip the inconsistency around and see if it yields any truth.
Let’s try it now:
Inconsistency: Republicans were outraged when Bill Clinton had an affair. But now it’s none of our business what the president does in his private life?
Okay, let’s flip it around and see if it tells us anything.
The Democrats said it doesn’t matter what the president does in his private life when Bill Clinton was under fire. But now it’s suddenly a critical issue?
Hmmm…looks like both sides are guilty of inconsistencies.
My game doesn’t always work, though. Let’s try one I can’t seem to make work:
The Adventist denomination refuses to accept the authority of women called by God, but it was founded by a woman who was ordained and frequently spoke with authority to men.
What’s the reverse inconsistency? The Adventist church should accept women as ministers, but…I got nothing.
Yet, even that tells us something about truth and the strength of our argument.
Can We Trust Anything?
So what’s the answer? Should we all be cynical all of the time? Constantly mistrustful of every new bit of information that crosses our path? I sometimes wonder if the end goal for some propagandists is to undermine everything and make us believe there is no actual truth, only opinions. If there’s no truth, we are easier to control. It’s harder for us to organize.
But maybe now I’m the one going down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole.
I feel funny writing about this at all, because I love my social media. I check my Facebook many times a day and stay connected with a wide variety of people that way. And I’ve been known to scoff when I see dire warnings about how social media is ruining us all.
So it’s not about hating Facebook or going on a social-media-is-evil rant. But if we are going to interact with social media, let’s be smart about our interactions. Let’s be, as Jesus said, as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. We can use social media to help fill the world with love and beauty. Or we can use it to destroy everything we hold sacred and precious.
Most importantly, I’m a Christian, which means I have to hold myself to a higher standard than run-of-the-mill Facebook posters. Micah 6:8 seems appropriate here: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV).
1Henry A. Kissinger, “How the Enlightenment Ends, The Atlantic, June 2018.
3David Leonhardt, Ian Prasad Philbrick, and Stuart A. Thompson, “Trump’s Lies vs. Obama’s,” The New York Times, Dec. 14, 2017.
Lindsey Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie.