Fake News, The Church, and the Complicated Usefulness of Facebook

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on November 20, 2017

So, I’m not on Facebook, but several of my congregants are—and over the years some of them would e-mail me these little stories, jokes, and “factoids.”  Many of these e-mails were neither funny nor factual. Some were patriotic or religious in a schmaltzy-superstitious way. Many were racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and/or Islamophobic. Many were conspiratorial. Many attacked President Obama. All of them had been copied and re-copied—probably off of Facebook—and sent and re-sent, until, finally, they made their way into my inbox.  I deleted them as soon as they came in.

I don’t receive those e-mails anymore—perhaps because Barack Obama is no longer President;  or maybe because my congregants figured out that I’m a liberal and stopped sending them. But after almost forty years of ordained ministry, I have learned something about how “fake news” can spread in a nation and in a faith community.

The term, “fake news” has gained notoriety in American journalism, politics, and pop culture over the past couple years, largely because President Trump uses it repeatedly to accuse the news media of lying or distorting the truth—but also because, as Time editor Nancy Gibbs notes, the President himself “says a great many things that are demonstrably false” (“When a President Can’t Be Taken at His Word,” Time, April 3, 2017, p. 5).

Writer and New York Times book reviewer Hanna Rosin notes that Americans’ addiction to “fake news” and “alternative facts are not momentary perversions but are [deep-rooted] habits baked into our DNA.”  From the earliest days of our history, we have given ourselves over to “florid, collective delusion[s].”  Recall our Thanksgiving mythology concerning the gentle Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock—they were actually “Puritan zealots” who “vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic they found” in America.  Or think of the “mystic visionaries” of the 1700s—who insisted “that they didn’t have to study any book or old English theologian to know what to think, that whatever they felt to be true was true.”  Or consider the “explosion” of hucksters and hucksterism that took America by storm in the 1800s—like P. T. Barnum, who boasted that “nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public,” and “William Cody, [who] toured the country playing Buffalo Bill, fake-scalping actors playing Cheyenne warrior chiefs, and then actually scalping and killing real Cheyenne warrior chiefs” (“Fake News: It’s as American as George Washington’s Cherry Tree” [A Review of Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (New York: Random House, 2017)], New York Times, September 5, 2017).

For radio talk show host Kurt Andersen, Americans’ “promiscuous devotion to the untrue” is directly related to their faith in God and their belief in the Bible.  Americans believe in all sorts of things—“telepathy, ghosts, angels, and demons;  that the Genesis creation [story] is the word of God;”  that “heaven [and] God exis[t];  that global warming is a hoax;  that the pharmaceutical industry has hidden evidence of natural cancer cures;  that extraterrestrials have visited Earth; that vaccines cause autism;  that [President Obama] was (or is?) the anti-Christ;”  that the “government adds mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals;” and that “U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.” 

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at https://carducc.wordpress.com/2017/11/20/fake-news-the-church-and-the-complicated-usefulness-of-facebook/

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Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.