Of Fake News and Conspiracy Theories

| March 24, 2020 | 0 Comments

On February 22, 2020, “Mad” Mike Hughes strapped himself into his homemade rocket and was launched into the California sky. His goal that Saturday was to reach a height of 5,000 feet in his steam-powered contraption, but something went wrong: the rocket’s parachutes didn’t deploy, and the rocket crashed into the sagebrush half a mile from the launch site, killing Mike Hughes.

Mike was known as a daredevil and appeared to enjoy risking his life doing crazy things. He was also one of the more colorful and widely known characters of a group of people who publicly claimed that the world is flat. Mike’s eventual goal with his homemade rockets was to fly high enough so he could see for himself whether the world was round like all the science books say, or whether it was flat. He said he would have to see it with his own eyes before believing anything to the contrary. His statements may well have been mere publicity statements, as people who know him now say that he really didn’t believe it to be true. However, there are people who do actually believe it, and Mike was at least playing on their beliefs to get some attention.

You have all probably heard about flat-earthers. There’s a surprising number of them around. There are even flat-earth societies: groups of people who say the idea of the earth being a globe is hogwash. Some are serious in their belief; others appear to promote the idea just for kicks and giggles. The most widely accepted flat-earth theory portrays the earth as a disk with the North Pole at the center. The continents are arranged around the North Pole, and an ice wall at the perimeter of the disk keeps the oceans from spilling over the edge. The sun and moon both orbit the earth at the height of several thousand miles.

Pretty crazy, huh?

Conspiracy Theories

The belief in a flat earth is an example of a conspiracy theory. What is a conspiracy theory? A conspiracy theory is an explanation of a theory or event that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, when other explanations are more probable. In the flat earth example, the powerful actors are NASA and the governments of the world, who all say the earth is round. NASA (according to the flat-earthers) guards the Antarctic ice wall surrounding the earth and alters its satellite images to make the earth appear to be a sphere. Only a few powerful people have access to the “truth” (truth being that the earth is actually flat), but they perpetuate the idea of a spherical earth. What motives do the powerful actors have? I haven’t a clue, but they probably vary from flat-earther to flat-earther. And the more probable explanation referenced in the above definition? That the earth actually is a sphere, of course!

There are plenty of other conspiracy theories being passed around and believed. A 2016 study found that 10% of Americans genuinely believe that the contrails that appear behind jetliners are of manufactured chemical composition. Some believe that men have never set foot on the moon. Other conspiracy theories speculate about the real actors behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the 9/11 attacks. All these positions are usually speculative, and often plain irrational, but they are held despite evidence to the contrary. So why do people keep believing them?

Fake News

Related to conspiracy theories is fake news. Fake news is just what it sounds like: information presented as truth/facts, when in reality it is false or distorted. Fake news is a growing problem in the world, as technology and worldwide instant communication make it increasingly easy to create and distribute.

In 2016, the country of Russia (or at least Russian computer servers) was the suspected source of dozens of news articles surrounding the United States presidential election. Much was quickly proven to be completely or partially false, but it was read by millions, passed on by thousands, and believed by at least a few. To this day, some opponents of Donald Trump say that it was this fake news campaign that got him elected. (Careful about believing this, it could be a conspiracy theory!)

There was plenty of fake news circulating in the United Kingdom over the time of the infamous Brexit vote. Wales was the special target of a misinformation campaign, and some think this fake news affected the vote, tipping the scales in favor of the UK pulling out of the European Union.

Currently, there is plenty of fake news related to the coronavirus outbreak. Information of unknown origin claims that so-and-so has the coronavirus (turns out they don’t) or that a national lockdown is imminent (nothing like this has been announced by the government.)

Other misinformation makes helpful suggestions about how to keep yourself from contracting the disease. “Heat kills the virus, so drink hot liquids frequently," or "blow up your nose with a hair dryer.” (I don’t know if any people actually did the hair dryer thing, but I did not make this up.) These “remedies” have been passed on and apparently believed by many people, despite the fact that they are not endorsed by any reputable medical organizations, and could be outright dangerous. Plain News has already been on the receiving end of many of these “helpful suggestions.”

Some people claim that the novel coronavirus does not come from wild animals, as medical researchers believe to be probable. Instead, they claim that the United States military spread the virus in Wuhan, China, with malicious intent. Another conspiracy theory says that it may have escaped from an alleged Chinese chemical warfare plant that is supposedly only 20 miles from the breakout site of the virus.

It is bad that this kind of misinformation is created. It’s awful to think that someone may have deliberately fabricated these lies to deceive. And the results are terrible when people read it, panic, and pass it on so their friends and relations can be deceived and panic and pass it on as well.

Conspiracy theories, fake news, and rumors in general are nothing new. They have been created and circulated for thousands of years. If you read the book of Nehemiah, you will discover that Sanballat and Tobiah created fake news in an attempt to thwart the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. In the incident of the Trojan Horse, the Greeks used a clever trap, along with a disinformation campaign, to destroy the city of Troy. In recent decades, researchers have noted an uptick in the number of people who subscribe to conspiracy theories and believe the fake news. In the age of information, people seem to believe more and more unfounded stories.

Researchers have studied the relative travel speed of real news and fake news. It turns out that fake news almost always travels faster, often much faster. It ends up being read, repeated, and sometimes believed before the truth manages to catch up. A quote of unknown origin says, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.” This is a somewhat humorous analogy, but too true to be very funny.

Why is this a problem in the world? Where do conspiracy theories and fake news come from? Why are they passed on so quickly? Why are they believed? Is there anything that you and I can do to help the problem?

The Why

Secular sociologists and psychologists have spent plenty of time studying the human tendency to believe conspiracy theories and have come up with some interesting ideas. Political scientist Michael Barkum says there are three main reasons people believe in conspiracy theories.

  • First, conspiracy theories claim to explain what institutional analysis cannot. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing.
  • Second, they do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source: the conspirators and their agents.
  • Third, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge, unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracy theorists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracy theorists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters' deceptions.

I think Barkum summarizes it very well. The truth is often complicated, and the reasons for certain occurrences might involve years of backstory. Some things are hard to explain and take much time to be discovered. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are so much easier to comprehend and explain. They are conveniently short and often provide a handy way of blaming a person or group of people, whom you don’t really like anyways. This, of course, is not a good excuse for believing what is false. The truth is worth the time spent discovering and pondering it.

Another reason false information is attractive is simply because the devil makes it so. The Bible calls Satan the “Father of Lies.” Satan is also the “Prince of this World.” Satan controls many people in the world today and does all he can to influence those he does not directly control. If Satan is so big into lies, it stands to reason that he would make them as attractive and damaging as possible.

The Where

Some fake news and rumors are intentionally generated. There are people or groups of people in the world who apparently take advantage of world events to create and spread false information. This might be to promote a personal or group agenda, or it may simply be a desire to create a bit of information (no matter that it’s false) that gets spread all over the world, just for the fun of it.

There is another more subtle way in which misinformation is created. In his book “The Psychology of a Rumor,” sociologist Gordon Allport presents three steps that true facts go through on their way to becoming a false story.

  • First, the true story is leveled. The important, true facts are brought down to the level of the irrelevant; some true facts are eliminated altogether.
  • Second, the story is sharpened. The details that remain are made more specific by the addition of new information.
  • Finally, the story is assimilated. It is changed to make more sense to those spreading the rumor. The original, true story is now so distorted as to be hardly recognizable. However, you could say it is “based” on a true story.

In reality, any of the three steps above could warp a story. A “sharpened” story can be spread without being “leveled” or “assimilated.” It would still be a rumor though, because the truth has been adulterated. It should be apparent how rumors and fake news can be generated so easily from what were once true facts. When written out, the “creation of a rumor” steps look clumsy and unlikely to occur, but when you add human bias to the mix, stories can change VERY fast.

Why Are Rumors Believed and Repeated?

We already discussed some reasons why conspiracy theories and other falsehoods are believed. There’s more, though. Researchers have proven that we are more willing to believe information that comes from a source that is close to us. If the social media post or email is forwarded from a friend (or, a letter arrives in the postal mailbox), it feels like it has their stamp of validation on it. If it’s your brother or sister telling you some interesting tidbit, it must be true because you know they are honest. They thought it was worthy enough to pass on to you, so there must be something to it. You trust your friends and family members.

It’s good and right to trust friends and family members, but even so, it can get one into trouble sometimes. From where did that piece of information originate? If your friend is the seventh recipient in the information’s line of transmission, the information did not come from him, and how much you trust him should not be too heavily reflected onto the information.

We pass rumors along for similar reasons. If it was important enough for someone to tell you, it must be important enough for you to tell someone else, right? Maybe the information is helpful, like blowing hairdryers into the nose for killing coronavirus. If you can potentially help someone by passing along the information, surely it would be the right thing to do?

It is always good to be helpful. However, please, please be sure that what you are passing along will be truly helpful before you repeat that story. Growing up, I often heard that “it’s the thought that counts.” Sometimes this is true. However, much damage has been done by well-intentioned people, and, yes, the fault does often rest on the well-intentioned individuals.

Do Plain People Have This Problem?

Jesus told His disciples to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves. I believe this command is also for us Christians today. This means having the wisdom to discern falsehood. This means not harming others by passing along false information. There a few things we should realize before we talk about how to do this.

I know I’m sticking my neck out by saying this, but I believe there is something about Plain communities that makes them susceptible to rumors. We have been raised in varying degrees of separation from the world, and often with a distrust of anything to do with “the world.” There is an enormous amount of good in this, and I am not at all advocating that we lose this separation. God has called Christians to be a holy people, not participating in the world of darkness and its works.

We are taught that Christians should not participate in politics and so we easily become distrustful of all politicians. Maybe some are deserving of this distrust, but this distrust is bad if it leads to us believe conspiracy theories involving them. We might distrust the non-Christian world so much that we hesitate to believe any information of secular origin. This distrust extends to all arenas: scientific, medical, political, and sociological. As a result of this distrust, we are far too quick to believe anything that portrays the secular world as being of malicious intent.

When the Bible accuses the world of malicious intent, this is truth. We should believe it. However, when an unfounded story accuses the world of malicious intent and we believe it, this is a conspiracy theory.

This belief that Plain groups may be vulnerable to misinformation is largely based on my own observation. Blame me for it. However, it is corroborated by a story told by author and speaker, David Bercot. The story occurred over Y2K. For those who are too young to remember Y2K, during the last months of the year 1999 it was suddenly realized that some computers were set up to have their internal clocks go back to 1900 instead of roll over to 2000, because when some early software was developed, they used only the last two digits for the year. So, 99 would then go to 00, which would then mean 1900 to the computer instead of 2000.

The air was thick with conspiracy theories about planes falling from the sky and power grids failing when the calendar flipped to 2000 on the night of December 31. The airline and power industries were portrayed as concerned and unknowledgeable about what exactly would happen. Bercot talked to individuals in both of these industries. He learned that they had looked into these matters and were not worried. Bercot reported his findings to his Bible study group with the hope of allaying their fears. The group listened all the way to the end and then sadly said, “It looks like you have bought into this also.” This story along with other similar examples have led Bercot to conclude that two of the most gullible groups of people are hippies and conservative Bible-believing Christians.

Here’s a truth we should all understand: Christians (no, not even we Plain people) do not have a monopoly on truth. God is truth. God is the source of truth and wisdom. God’s people should be full of truth and wisdom, but we are not the only ones with access to truth. The secular news reporters, researchers, scholars, and politicians were also made in the image of God, with the ability to discover truth, although they will be extremely limited in discovering spiritual truth until they surrender to Him. The discovery process may be more difficult for non-Christians and they may have biases that hamper their search, but they can discover some truths … truths that we may not have discovered yet.

There are times when the information from secular sources is biased against God or stands in opposition to the Bible. In these cases their information is not to be trusted. However, there is plenty that secular scientists have discovered while living in and researching God’s world. We should not hesitate to draw from their work, using the necessary precautions, of course.

Why am I saying all this? I believe that we Christians should never be the ones to propagate or pass along inaccurate information if we can possibly avoid it. If we have some bias that is hindering us in this, we need to change our thinking. If we are believing falsehoods because we refuse to accept truth from certain sources, we need to repent of our pride and acknowledge that these other humans have access to the same truth as we do about the things God has created for man.

Stopping Falsehood in Its Tracks

So, the best way to avoid helping the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news is to fact-check anything that sounds the least bit questionable. First, check it against the Bible. Check it against the truth of God. Check it against Philippians 4:8. We can even check it against a trusted brother or group of brothers who are more informed than we are in a particular field. (Note that I’m making a difference between fact checking with brothers and passing “news” along to brothers.)

After we have checked it in this way, then let’s not hesitate to go to reputable secular information sources to check the accuracy of what we have heard. Note I said reputable. There are plenty of information sources that have been infiltrated by purveyors of fake news. Search out and discover which ones can be trusted. Scholarly research has been done on thousands of topics, and access to the results can be found online or at the local library. Let’s take advantage of this, maintaining discretion and wisdom as we study.

There are times when the right thing to do is simply be quiet when we receive information. There is so much information coming at us from so many directions. Is what we have to pass along (whether true or not) important enough to take up our friend or family member’s time? If we decide to keep it to ourselves, maybe he/she could use the time gained to hear something that is truly important and helpful. Or maybe they would benefit from a quiet space in their life.

I feel strongly that Christians should never pass along false information because of laziness. There may be times where all our fact-checking seemed to confirm what we heard, but we found out later it was false. Those things happen. However, let us not be guilty of repeating that story or forwarding that email without doing a little bit of work to check the origin and accuracy first. We will fulfill our obligation to “walk as children of light,” and do the world a favor as well.

If this sounds like a lot of work to you, you’re right. Discovering the truth is not always fast and easy. It takes time and effort, and it might not feel worth the effort just to confirm that little piece of information. Keeping our mouth shut is difficult, and we may just be itching to repeat that rumor. However, if it isn’t going to bless, why not keep it to ourselves?

In search of truth,
~Leonard Hege~

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The Y2K story referenced earlier can be listened to in the topic, "How to Be a Thinking Christian."  CD available from Scroll Publishing | P. O. Box 122, Amberson, PA 17210 | Ph. (717) 349-7033 | www.scrollpublishing.com  | customerservice@scrollpublishing.com

Our writer began this article two days ago. Till he got it researched and reviewed by several people, the stories regarding cures for COVID-19 have made their way around the world several times.  Leonard is correct that a well-researched topic and a discovery of truth is rarely fast or easy. Here we are, two days later.
Granted, we all have the freedom to experiment with our health with the goal of finding solutions. Our concern at Plain News has to do with the spreading of “cures” and “testimonials” that are based on “bad science.” We encourage people to follow the admonitions given by government health professionals and trusted international health organizations. Some politicians and talk show hosts have perspectives and motivations that are not in alignment with those of the aforementioned organizations.
Our goal is to present the truth to the best of our knowledge in a manner that avoids the sensationalism of many secular news sites while avoiding information that is of doubtful origin or unsupported by experts in the field in question. Our goal is to not scare people too much nor make people complacent too much. Thank you for having grace with us as we may not get this done perfectly.

Ernest Eby
Managing Editor

 

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