Election drama is unfolding before our eyes. Now more than ever, we need calm and sanity. Every time I venture onto social media, it seems we are nowhere close to either one. This is due to a variety of factors—not least of which is the plethora of false information being shared. A lot of news coming from a variety of “sources” is being passed around right now. If we are not careful to practice discernment in what we share, we will spread fear and anxiety, not to mention needlessly further the division that already exists.
The constant barrage of unsubstantiated “fake news” is exhausting. I am convinced a person is more likely to see fake news on social media faster than they would contract a disease by licking a urinal. Gross, I know, but you get my point. Sadly, many professing Christians are participating in—even spearheading—the hoopla, too. This is terribly unfortunate.
This is nothing new, though. For a while now, I have seen conservative evangelicals share some of the most uncorroborated things on social media—whether it was a YouTube video claiming Barack Obama was the antichrist or that COVID-19 was ushering in the mark of the beast. I’ve seen it all. I call this “unfortunate” because Christians are people who are, at least in theory, committed to spreading the truth. Sadly, many have not lived up to that calling.
I understand that we live in an age of skepticism. People everywhere—not just Christians, mind you—tend to question anything and everything these days. Some think we have become too skeptical, but I disagree. The problem is that we are not skeptical enough. You see, most of the skeptics on social media are not true skeptics. Seldom, after all, do they express skepticism about their own skepticism. (Hat tip to the ineffable G.K. Chesterton for this insight).
This sort of skepticism tends to be drawn largely along socio-political lines. That is, we are only skeptical of the other political party, of the other people who believe differently. It is tribal. Tribal skepticism urges us to question others while giving ourselves a pass. Tribal skepticism is quick to see weaknesses in the other side’s arguments, but it blinds us to the gaping holes in our own.
The problem is not when a tribe thinks it is right. The problem is when it does not think it can possibly be wrong. The problem is when its own skeptical approach is half-baked—always turned outward, making self-reflection an impossibility. The fact of the matter is that, if we wish to be true skeptics, we ought to be humble enough also to question our own views, our own motives, our own assumptions. But that is obviously no fun, especially when the joys of tribal skepticism are conveniently available.
The extremely sad thing is that the politics of our day encourages—indeed, thrives on—tribal skepticism. It feeds on it. In fact, the politics of our day has become so twisted that it cannot possibly function without tribal skepticism. This is disturbing on so many levels. It does nothing but breed fear, panic, and anxiety as it lauds its own ignorance as a virtue. This tribal skepticism does well on places like social media. It is, after all, so easy to spread: With a simple click of the share button.
Let me be as clear as I possibly can: Christians should have no part in it.
So, what are some practical steps we can take to discern better which things are worth sharing on social media? How can we test the information before we pass it onto friends and family? In other words, how can we better discern real news from fake news?
Here are some questions worth asking yourself before you hit the share button:
(1) Have I taken the time to verify the source(s) of my information? When you see something juicy, the first question you should ask yourself is: Where did this come from? If it is something controversial, your first priority is to verify the source of that information. If you cannot reasonably establish the credibility of the source, then do not share the information that came from the source.
(2) Have I checked to see if the source(s) have been transparent about their own source(s)? In some cases, you may have to do more than simply research the source. It could be the case, after all, that that “source” may not be the ultimate source. Ask yourself: Who was my source’s source? Always be sure to verify the sources behind your “sources.”
(3) Have I verified the method of my source’s interpretation of the information? Let’s suppose your source is an authentic source. Is that enough? No, it’s not. Just because you have established authenticity does not mean you have established accuracy. Your source may very well have had personal access to the data and information, but that does not mean they have processed the information accurately or responsibly. This is why you must work hard to establish the source to begin with (steps 1-2 above). You need to track down the data itself so that you can independently assess it. Your sources may have been authentic, but they might not have done a good job putting into check their own bias and/or potential conflicts of interest in the way they summarized and passed on the information to you. You will never know until you verify.
(4) How can I be honest and humble about my own limitations of knowledge? As I said in step 3 above, it is super important to independently assess your source’s data and assess your source’s interpretation of the data. But this step may be the most difficult because, on some issues, you may not have adequate training to do this. Suppose, for example, that you receive a YouTube video from a source that uses the Hebrew Bible to “prove” that Barack Obama is the antichrist. How can you verify the accuracy of your source’s handling of Hebrew if you yourself have not been trained in Hebrew? The answer is that you can’t. The same goes for medical advice. I see a lot of people sharing medical advice on social media. But how can they do so with such confidence (or in some case, with hubris) if they have not been trained in assessing the data? Again, they can’t.
I get it, though. It’s a free country, so you should be able to share anything you want, right? The answer is no. Just because you can do something does not mean you should do something. It is obvious, after all, that “freedom” requires a level of responsibility. If you do share something on social media—something in which you have no real training—then you should do so responsibly and this means you ought to share with a sense of caution and reserve. Of course, you can always sign up for training. If you are passionate about sharing medical advice on social media, then by all means, get training in medicine. Until then, hold your opinions with humility and loosely.
If you still insist on sharing information without doing any of the above, then you are either (1) a poor researcher or (2) an irresponsible person who lacks integrity. Or both. In either case, there is little reason to trust you, and people are under no obligation to go along with what you say. In this case, the opposite is true: People are obligated to doubt your conclusions, to be skeptical about your opinions—to not take you seriously. It’s nothing personal; it’s just the better option.
At the end of the day, if you are a Christian, you must take your new name (i.e., “Christ-ian”) seriously and with a sense of holiness. Passing on unverified and unsubstantiated silly information on social media undermines your desire to be a sincere follower of Christ. It damages your witness.
We all have a lot to learn (everyone does), so give yourself some grace. If you have participated in sharing false information in the past, resolve to be wiser in the future.
As people who are committed to sharing truth, we Christians must take great care to first pursue the truth so that we can properly determine what the truth is. Having done so, then—and only then—are we capable of sharing it.
+ + +
For those who are interested in thinking about this topic more, I highly recommend Tom Nichols’s excellent book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. He rightly decries the sort of skepticism I’m talking about. It’s worth reading.
If you find my writing helpful and encouraging, please check out my Patreon page for ways you can support my ministry. Here’s the link: Patreon.com/MatthewHalsted