Christians and Fake News

Christians and Fake News

Christians and Fake News

There is an epidemic of fake news in the global polity.

Some say it is down to the democratisation of journalism – where non-professional individuals can share and curate news just as much as professional journalists. Others point to the polarisation of politics – where everything is a war between right and left (or its equivalence). And then there are those who believe it is the unregulated nature of social media that made fake news predominant.

Of course, all three explanations are true to some extent. Perhaps a combination of all three will explain the fake news pandemic. Everybody is now a journalist, partisan politics has become so divided that everyone tries to score cheap points (putting ideological nuances on even the simplest of news reports), and social media is a free-for-all space where anyone can originate viral reports.

Fake news has deepened our divisions, undermined trust in even our most cherished institutions, and made us slaves to our worst impulses.

How should we as Christians deal with this situation?

Treasuring truth

The Christian faith has always placed a premium value on truth. Jesus said he is the way, the truth, and life (John 14:6), that knowledge of the truth is liberating (John 8:32), and that truth sanctifies (John 17:7). Grace and truth came through him (John 1:17) and he constantly told people the truth that he heard of his Father (John 8:40). When he was about to leave this world, he gave his people another comforter, the Spirit of truth (John 15:26).

Consequently, we are to fasten on the belt of truth (Ephesians 6:14), speak the truth to our neighbour (Ephesians 4:25), know the truth and give true answers (Proverbs 22:20-21), speak the truth to one another (Zechariah 8:16-17), speak the truth in our hearts (Psalms 15:2), and give honest evidence (Proverbs 12:17).

Negatively, we are to avoid bearing false witness (Exodus 20:16), spreading a false report (Exodus 23:1), and lying (Proverbs 12:22).

Rejection of the truth and a commitment to lies is the hallmark of Satan, the father of lies and the deceiver of the whole world (Revelation 12:19). Those who reject the truth and speak lies therefore show themselves to be his children (John 8:44).

Satan’s deception is manifested in the false prophets and teachers who will characterise the last days (that is, the period between Christ’s death and resurrection and his second coming).

This Christian calling to love and speak the truth and reject lies and false reports is total. That is, this is not just a call to doctrinal discernment. Yes, we must know how to separate false doctrines from true ones (which is the primary context of the truth-falsehood dynamics in the New Testament) but our commitment to the truth must extend to the news and reports we believe and share.

Not spreading false reports, not bearing false witnesses, and not lying are moral imperatives that must colour all of life.[1] Said differently, speaking the truth to our neighbours, giving honest evidence, and speaking the truth to one another must extend beyond doctrinal issues.

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Dealing with biases and emotions

The fake news we believe tends to be the ones that reinforce our biases. If you believe that the government can do nothing right then you are more likely to trust any news report that reinforces that belief, and vice versa.

This is a product and yet an effect of the polarising nature of our politics today (which is itself a result of treating politics as ultimate). If your side of the political divide can do no wrong, then you will tend to disbelieve anything that paints it black. On the other hand, if the other side can do no right, then you will tend to believe anything that paints it black.

Consequently, you can easily predict which side will believe a fake news report by considering which side it is painting in black.

But this is not entirely a new problem. In Jeremiah’s time, the people were always willing to believe “positive” prophecies that speak of their deliverance – those who prophesy peace – while rejecting Jeremiah’s “negative” prophecies (see Jeremiah 28 for example). They wanted deliverance and freedom, so any message that reinforces that must be true while the one that doesn’t must be false.

It’s the same thing with Ahab and his litany of prophets. He loved those who prophesy good concerning him and hated Micaiah who only prophesy evil against him (1 Kings 22).

In essence, our emotions and biases blind us and make us easy targets of fake news.

What then shall we do?

As believers, our commitment and duty to the truth must be greater than our devotion to a political party, politician, political ideology, etc. Relatedly, we must refuse to treat politics as ultimate. We must reject all utopianism and affirm only the relative importance of politics in the scheme of things.

Secondly, we must refuse to believe that the line between good and evil runs through our side and theirs. “The line between good and evil runs not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart,” said Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. [2]

In essence, the other side can do good and evil, just like our side. By imbibing these two truths, we will be emotionally free to read, hear, or watch every news report and discern what is true and false.

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Following the crowd

We no longer live in a world of truth but that of narratives and optics. “Truth” has become democratic where the most prevailing narrative is the “truth.” And as we have seen, the most prevailing narrative tends to follow the political divide. In the end, what is “true” becomes a matter of numbers (which side has the greater media-savvy number at what time).

It’s therefore apropos that after commanding Israel not to spread a false report, the next verse warns them not to “fall in with the many to do evil” or to side “with the many so as to pervert justice” (Exodus 23:2).

In essence, God is saying that the most popular narrative may or may not be true and that justice may fall on the side of the minority. Therefore, what is true and just must be determined independently of what the majority is saying or doing.

But we live in a world where the affirmation of the mass is so important to many of us. We dread to believe, say, or do anything that is contrary to the zeitgeist. To protect ourselves, then, we just fall in with the popular narrative.

What is the solution?

First, we must come to affirm that truth does not necessarily depend on popularity. What is popularly believed can be true and it can be false.

Second, our commitment to truth and the God who is true must be stronger than our desire to please the crowd. One with God, they say, is a majority. “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). 

Dealing with FOMO

As our world becomes more digitally integrated, we are getting to the point where many people derive their identity from their online presence. They must always be online, engage with every breaking news (quickly), and interact with every trend (ASAP). Their fear of missing out on anything often makes them captive to digital media.

The solution here is James 1:19: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” This command reflects similar exhortations in Proverbs:

“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3).

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27)

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19).

It’s our failure to reckon with these instructions that have put us in danger of being the sharers and repeaters of fake news. Perhaps this is because we reduce these instructions to what we do with our mouths forgetting that these days our fingers transmit our thoughts and words as much as our words.

As believers who value truth, we must be willing to choose knowing and sharing the truth even if it means we will be the last set of people to share the news or even miss out on it altogether. “Being aware” itself is not a virtue if it makes us purveyors of fake news that weaken the chords holding societies together.

It is true in most cases that “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

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Must we share?

And this leads to my next point: we don’t need to share news reports when we are unsure of their veracity.

That is, when we are unsure if something is true or false, we should prefer to not share it or participate in discussions about it than take the risk of sharing fake news.

Since we live in a world of democratic journalism, no one needs our particular tweet to know what’s going on. So why become reporters of potential lies in the name of being trendy?

Even if we are professional journalists, wouldn’t our integrity (and that of our company) be better served if we are trusted as sharers of true news reports? And isn’t it better to be the go-to media for true news (fast or slow) rather than fast news?

All of these go back to James 3:1 (though the verse is situated in another context). The point of this verse is that those who teach bear greater responsibility than those who are taught. Therefore, those who have influence over others must be the most wary of sharing fake news.

Doing independent research

Most fake news can be disarmed if people will just take the time to read beyond the headlines. But in our fast-paced world, we feed on sound bites and headlines and propagandist media players are always willing to profit from that fact.

This is where lovers of truth tow a different line from lovers of narratives. Those who cherish the truth are willing to read beyond the headlines and get the full (fuller) gist. And those lovers of truth who don’t have the time to dive deep will refrain from sharing so they don’t end up enabling propaganda and fake news.

In 1 John 4:1, we are admonished to test every spirit and not to believe every spirit. John 7:24 instructs that we judge with righteous judgement and not by appearances. Solomon also notes that only the simple believe everything (Proverbs 14:15) and Paul states that it is the naive that are easily deceived (Romans 16:18).

The point here is that we must not be too simple-minded and naive to believe everything we read, hear, or watch. We must go behind sound bites and do some independent research (critical thinking). And in most cases, this is as simple as reading the entire news report.

Two or three witnesses

The Old Testament law provided that a single witness was insufficient to try someone for a crime (Deuteronomy 19:15). Paul applied this law to the church when he instructed Timothy that an accusation against elders must not be believed except there are two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19; see also 2 Corinthians 13:1). 

A similar principle is enshrined in Proverbs 18:17: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

These two principles suggest that Christians should be wary of depending on a single source for their news reports. Instead, they should have multiple credible sources (a function of historical performance rather than mere branding).

It will also do some good if these sources cross the partisan or ideological barrier. This goes back to our first point about biases. If you believe that the other side can have no credible media source, then that is a problem. On the contrary, diversity can help to filter through ideological lenses in arriving at the truth.

In fact, an important task of a consumer in today’s media space is to know how to separate bare facts from ideological wrappings. Many journalists today don’t even believe that objective reporting of facts exists.  They are not ashamed to acknowledge that their reports are biased by their own ideological leanings. It is our task then to separate “what actually happened” from the reporter’s interpretation.

And this is where a diversity of credible sources can come in handy.

Similarly, waiting until all your chosen credible sources have reported the news can be a good way to deal with the FOMO. Even then, you still need to read beyond the headlines and separate facts from ideology. And if it’s a very explosive issue, you might even do more independent research before joining in the discussion or sharing.

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Even when we are very careful, it is still possible for us to believe and spread fake news. As believers, we must be willing to acknowledge our wrongs and repent of them (which will include telling our audience that the news is fake rather than just deleting it).

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

While fake news of all kinds can destroy communities, false gospels are the worst since they destroy both body and soul in hell.

Therefore, while we strive to avoid believing or sharing false news of all kinds, we must even be more on guard to ensure we don’t believe or share different gospels (fake gospels) contrary to the one Christ and his apostles taught. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).

We are saved by the doing and the dying of Christ and any other gospel different from that is fake news. It is this faith once for all delivered to the saints that we must contend for while avoiding ungodly people who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 3,4).


[1] For an extended commentary on Rahab lying to save the spies, the Israelite midwives lying to Pharaoh, and David feigning madness, read Doug Wilson, Rules for Reformers (Idaho: Canon Press, 2014), p. 82-90.

[2] Quoted in N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2006), p. 32, Scribd.

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