We are living in the age of fake news, a term made popular by President Donald Trump. It has become so dominant every time something is said in the media that one side or the other doesn’t like, it’s called fake news. When did all of this start?
Some point to the election of George W. Bush and the controversy over the Killian documents, which claimed Bush had gotten around some of his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard because of his family. The letters were the basis for a news story on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Anchor Dan Rather and producer Mary Maples went with the story without validating the authenticity of the letters. Maples was fired and Rather, after a long, distinguished career in journalism, was forced to retire. CBS issued a strong apology.
Actually, fake news, or yellow journalism as it was known before Trump, has been around for a long time. It is defined by the New York Times as propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.It is the inevitable result of flawed human efforts. You see, we all lie, some better than others. Scientific research suggests we are born to lie.
Children do not have to be taught to lie. They just do what comes naturally. But to tell lies convincingly, that is a learning process, one which has been carefully observed by scientists.
At the University of Toronto, different age children were placed in a room with a curtain hiding a toy. They were asked to guess what the toy was. Before they could guess, the researcher left the room to take a phone call (a lie for the sake of research). Would the child cheat and look? Would the child lie about it?
Yes, a child will cheat, and then lie about it. However, the older they get, the more cleaver their lies get. A toddler cheated and could not lie about it. A four-year-old peeked, and then told the returning researcher that she had not. When asked to guess the toy, the child asked if she could reach under the curtain and feel the toy. After feeling, she correctly “guessed” that the toy was Barney. When asked how she knew, she said the toy felt purple, with no awareness that her answer gave away her cheating.
A six-year-old child who cheated gave the wrong answer on purpose. An eight-year-old child faked surprise when the toy was revealed.
The older they get, the more sophisticated their lying gets. But here is the startling discovery – the higher functioning children were just as likely to cheat and lie as the lower functioning children. Only, they lied more effectively.
Who are the best liars in our culture? Those in positions of great power and influence. They are also, as a rule, very high functioning adults. They have learned to lie, and they do it well, as do most of us. On average, we tell three to four lies a day. Most are innocent and designed to protect the feelings of others.
The flip side of all this lying is believing lies. Here is where the prevalence of fake news hits so hard. Someone we like who says the things we tend to agree with, we believe. We will even excuse their dishonesty because they side with us on certain issues. Awareness of this tendency has led to the effective use of fake news on social media and in the media world.
If President Obama says something intentionally misleading, like, “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” it is ok with those who love him. Obama supporters turn defensive when this is pointed out. When President Trump says something outrageous, the true believers accept it or overlook it, and get very defensive. They both cry, “fake news!” What is missing in both instances is the willingness to think critically.
From a Christian perspective, none of this is unexpected. The Bible tells us about the human heart, that it is desperately wicked, who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9) The main tool of the enemy is deception. The Bible says of the devil, that he is the father of all lies. (John 8:44)
As Christians we are called to be slaves of the truth. Yet, we cannot be slaves of truth if we blindly follow another human being, who, like us, is a liar. The best thing we can do is follow Him who is, “the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:16)
A utopic society free of fake news is not going to emerge. Propaganda has been around and will continue to be around as long as human beings are human beings. We naturally lie. Truthfulness must be learned. We naturally believe those who echo our views. Discretion, too, must be learned, especially in the age of fake news.