In 1855, Charles Spurgeon shared what he called an “old proverb” about the truth and falsehoods: “A lie will go round the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.”
That has never been more true than it is today in the digital world.
A study published in Science found that false news spread farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than real news. According to reports from the study, fake news is more likely than truth to go viral. On average it reaches 1,500 people six times faster than a real story. A tweet containing a fake story was 70 more likely to get retweeted than accurate news.
But even the study itself has its own interesting story of the spread of fake news surrounding it. The original story was supposedly debunked, but maybe not … it gets complicated. Still, we all recognize the prevalence of false information spreading online. What should we do?
We can’t just blame bots
The easiest way to dismiss this type of news would be to pass it off as the work of software robots manufactured to spread fake news or Russian trolls working to sabotage our society.
But the research discovered that bots spread real news at the same rate they spread fake news.
The reality is that humans, actual people interacting online, are the main culprits behind the spread of false information.
We also can’t just blame “the world.”
It would be nice if we could say this was a phenomenon that happened strictly among non-Christians. That’s not the case, however.
A recent Lifeway Research study found half of U.S. Protestant pastors (49%) frequently hear members of their congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard about why something is happening in our country.
We can blame politics … some.
While fake news spread faster than real news on Twitter, fake political news spread the fastest of all.
The study found it to be the most viral of any category of false information. It reached more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than all other types of false news reached 10,000 people.
But the researchers found the fake political news wasn’t a top-down phenomenon. It didn’t originate with an established hyper-partisan with thousands of followers.
Fake political news was spread primarily through users with few followers, who followed fewer people, and who were less active on Twitter.
It’s the everyday person who tweets occasionally and only follows a handful of people that most often causes fake news to go viral.Fake news spreads fast, but may it never outpace the good news of the Gospel from the lips of Christians. Click To Tweet
But we also have to blame our emotions, too.
False stories are much more likely to evoke feelings of shock, fear, and disgust. True stories, on the other hand, generate anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.
Virtually everyone on social media complains about what it has become, but as users, we are responsible for it. We spread stories that often rely on fear and disgust and allow our emotions to be manipulated.
What should we do?
Where does that leave us as users of social media and content producers? It leaves us in a place of responsibility.
Quite simply, the first step is we have to avoid sharing fake news. We cannot just pass on something because it catches our attention or seems like it could be true. We shouldn’t share something on social simply because it seemingly confirms our suspicions about those with whom we disagree. We can’t share something just because it comes from a website or commentator we like.
Yes, news media get things wrong, and conservative Christians can often (rightly) feel as if their perspective doesn’t get a fair hearing in the court of public opinion. But the solution is not a rejection of truth as our standard. It’s to be even more diligent in preserving truth in the things we say and share.
If you can’t confirm something to the best of your ability, then just don’t share it. There’s nothing requiring you to post that wild story that sounds a little off to your Facebook feed. If it’s true, they’ll be more corroboration in the future. If it’s not, you’ll have escaped trading your long-earned trustworthy reputation for nothing more than disappearing digital thumbs-ups.Don't trade a long-earned trustworthy reputation for nothing more than disappearing digital thumbs-ups. Click To Tweet
And, not to get overly dramatic, you could be avoiding potentially deadly consequences for others.
In recent years, conspiracy theorists began harassing Pastor Frank Pomeroy, who lost his 14-year-old daughter and 25 other members of his church in the deadliest church shooting in American history. The harassment started online and through phone calls. Eventually, two armed conspiracy theorist came to Pomeroy’s church yelling death threats at the pastor and asserting his murdered daughter never existed. Thankfully, police arrested the two and found an illegal handgun in the floor of their vehicle and a cache of weapons in a later raid.
Our online activities have real world consequences. We don’t know the mental state of all those reading our words. Your repeating of a conspiracy theories may be the last thing it takes for them to decide to “take action.”
In addition to avoiding the spread of fake news ourselves, we can hold each other accountable when we see friends and family share those stories. Don’t let false news stay unchallenged online. Politely ask the person where they heard that story or how they came about the information. Sometimes people just need to be reminded that others do read their words and they need to be careful about what they say.
As followers of Jesus, this issue should be an even higher priority. Our goal is not to win an argument. Our calling is not to show how horrible the “other side” is. For the Christian, we are to make disciples as ambassadors for the One who said He is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Before you share another culture or political story, ask yourself the last time you shared a Bible verse. Think about how frequently you speak to friends or family about what God has done for you.
Yes, fake news spreads fast, but may it never outpace the good news of the Gospel from the lips of Christians.