Fake News in a Post-Truth World

Monday, December 12th, 2016

English continues to be the fastest growing language in the world. This is a sign of a healthy, robust language. Newly emerging words also act like a cultural thermometer revealing where we are as a culture. We are aided in this analysis by the Oxford Dictionary staff who each year chooses a “word of the year” because of its emergence and rise in English usage. The 2016 word of the year is the word (or phrase) “post-truth.” It is defined as follows: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.”

The word post does not mean “after” as much as an “atmosphere”—a vague, but pervasive realization that people are no longer swayed by public facts as they once were in reaching decisions. The word “post-truth” had a roughly 2,000 percent increase in English usage and was particularly evident in the US election cycle, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, and the rise of “fact checking” which, remarkably, had little effect on the electorates evaluation of their vote.

In addition to the rise of the word “post-truth” we experienced the concomitant rise of what is known as fake news. Fake news is the handmaiden of post-truth. Entire stories were published which were blatantly fake, or mostly fake, but which had a significant impact on the election. One example was the story which circulated stating that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. The story was blatantly fake, but was difficult to quell because so many people wanted it to be true. We are experiencing the subtle shift from “whatever is, is” to “whatever I want to be true, is.” The former is a truth statement rooted and grounded in public facts. The latter is the projection of what we want to be true, even if it has no grounding in public facts at all.

This has long been documented as a weakness in the popular Islamic world-view. A classic example is the infamous statement made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran who said on September 25, 2007, “there are no homosexuals in Iran.” The media didn’t understand that, from his perspective, if there shouldn’t be homosexuals in Islam, then there, quite obviously, are not any. What many of us failed to fully appreciate was that this is not isolated to Islam, but it is, more fundamentally, a human response in the absence of divine revelation.

As the western world slips with ever increasing rapidity into a post-Christian cultural milieu, I am afraid that we will need to be ever mindful that, we are in a post-truth cultural context, which stands in stark contrast to a Christian world-view which affirms truth claims rooted in God’s self-disclosure. Because God is the creator of the universe, the whole of creation is founded on the bedrock of truth. Therefore, we must become the new vanguard of cultural truth-tellers who adamantly resist all forms of demagoguery which shroud truth for any desired outcome, even if it is a so-called “Christian end.” It would be easy if our struggle were simply over who sits on the Supreme Court, without a deeper regard for a broader discourse about the nature of truth itself.

Lesslie Newbigin was prophetic when he alerted us to the sign of the post-Christian malaise when “public facts” are trounced by personal preferences. We are then lost in a sea of ever divisive assertions of preferences—or projected fake news—rather than a serious encounter with public facts. In post-modernity, the pluralization of ideologies grows exponentially, creating a society hopelessly divided by seemingly endless personal preferences which are increasingly difficult to accommodate, but coupled by an ever increasing demand that we do so. It is naïve to think that now that the election is over, things will “return to normal.” On the contrary, it appears we are in a new norm—a post-truth generation. It is not merely a new word, it is an emerging cultural reality which cuts across every sector of society and all our institutions.

The church must find our rightful voice which rises above the din of partisan politics, post-truth discourse and fake news. We are those who are rooted and grounded in not only the truth of God’s revelation, but also we are those who still embrace the very notion of truth itself. That, in the end, may be our most valuable contribution to an ever fragmenting culture. This is also why we could very well be entering a very hopeful phase of Christian witness as we proclaim the gospel through word and deed. Post-truth may be the newest hot word in the English language, but truth will never lose its currency. We may be descending into a world of fake news, but there is plenty of cultural space to share the true news of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.

Comments

  • Thank you, Dr. Tennent! I think this is the biggest threat to democratic life as we have known it in the U.S. Unfortunately, a not-insignificant number of American Christians seem already to have rejected almost all mainstream media in this country as overtly “biased.” They have developed an allergy to the media’s leftward tilt (which always requires us to read with a mental filter, as well as to try to balance sources), and embraced alternative sources that do not adhere to traditional journalistic standards such as fact-checking and even-handed headline writing. (“Trump Destroys Clinton in Debate” is more the style of the typical alternative news source.)

    In advocating for truth as you rightly recommend, I have been hard-pressed to find sources of reporting that 1) have a true goal of balance, and 2) are respected at all by the large segment of Christians who have abandoned the bastions of American journalism. The Atlantic seems to be one such rare source. From a faith perspective, I would count Christianity Today. Finding others would help in holding up the truth. I can read the New York Times and derive truth from it because I can identify the “lean,” while knowing the facts are essentially reliable. But I find that those vulnerable to far-right fringe sources have shut out such mainstream sources altogether. An alarming and dangerous trend, and one I can’t figure out how to remedy.


  • Today’s Reading
    On silence
    [The demon Screwtape writes:] Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell—though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express—no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise— Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it.
    From The Screwtape Letters