Fake News! Social Media Hoaxes Revisited

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Fake News! Social Media Hoaxes Revisited

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Oh, has Facebook been a "fun" place to be since Election Day! I remember scrolling down my news feed about a week after the election, and I found an article. The article said that after all the votes were counted, Donald Trump (R) had actually won the popular vote and defeated Sec. Hilary Clinton (D) there in addition to the Electoral College! I was really surprised by these results. The article went on to describe the powerful mandate Trump now had to govern and enact his agenda.

But then I took a step back.

That report originated from a website called "70 News," which I had never heard of before. They had listed no source for their numbers, so I went to check elsewhere. Other sites (correctly) showed Trump still behind Clinton in the popular vote. And to date, Clinton defeats Trump in the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. "70 News" was no good at all (CBS News, "Google's Top Search Result for 'Final Election Numbers' Leads to Fake News Site," Nov. 14, 2016).

So what happened?

About a year and a half ago I wrote a blog about the many misleading hoaxes that seem to constantly float around social media. Those certainly haven't gone away. In some ways, however, they have given way to another deceptive phenomenon: fake news!

In this "post-truth" era, Christians must continue to be vigilant regarding the information we are given and told to accept, especially on social media.

Fake news is the deliberate proliferation of falsehoods through social media or traditional media outlets (TV, newspapers, etc.), a kind of the "false report" described in Exodus 23:1. People often create fake news in hopes of furthering a political agenda, as satire, or to gain ad revenue based on a website's page views. They seek to do this by appealing to specific group of people with a "hot" (but phony) story and convincing them to believe it, share it, and get others to jump onto the digital bandwagon.

At least, that's how it started. Now accusations and arguments about what is or isn't fake news fly back and forth. The phrase has been applied to anything from slightly misleading headlines and opinions on an editorial page to completely made-up "facts" and bogus conspiracy theories.

And it has an impact. In the case of the popular vote, only 68 percent of Republicans correctly stated that Clinton won the popular vote, compared to 81 percent of Democrats, an important find according to Pew Research Center ("Low Approval of Trump's Transition but Outlook for His Presidency Improves," Dec. 8, 2016).

In my last article I explained what to do if you realized you'd already been fooled by a social media hoax. Now, let's examine how to avoid being duped by fake news in the first place by reviewing a few pieces of timeless, biblical advice.

1. Just wait

"The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him" (Proverbs 18:17). Initial reports are often inaccurate and incomplete because it takes time for information to be read through and released--or, in the case of fake news, proofread and debunked. Get in the habit of waiting before posting to social media, a hard skill to learn in our instantaneous, "live-as-it-happens," "breaking news" society.

Furthermore, God instructs us to be slow to anger (Proverbs 16:32). Even just a few hours of patience can save you an ounce of online credibility and a pound of outrage.

2. Get the facts

Never simply accept what just one person or website can tell you. See if you can back up what they're saying with other sources. In ancient Israel God required the word of "two or three witnesses" to administer the death penalty (Deuteronomy 17:6). And in the case of fake news, a quick Internet search for another "witness" can often confirm or deny what you're reading.

Proverbs 15:22 says, "Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established." In preparing this article, for instance, I read from a variety of sources to gain insight and deepen my understanding of topics at hand.

One of the advantages of the Internet age is the massive amount of knowledge we can access. Want to learn more about a high-profile court case or hot-button piece of legislation? The relevant documents are often published as PDFs online. Wonder if a public figure was taken out of context in an interview? Run over to YouTube and search for the video. Use technology to your advantage as you work to get the facts.

3. The value of a good name

"A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, loving favor rather than silver and gold" (Proverbs 22:1; see also Ecclesiastes 7:1). People spend their whole lives and careers building up a good reputation for themselves. Repairing a damaged reputation is a thousand times easier said than done.

Consider the reputation of the source of your information. What are they known for? Have you even heard of them before? If you haven't, it's definitely worth confirming their story with another site. How seriously would you take a absolute stranger's word for something without backing it up? Regarding bias, if you know a source slants a particular way, you might try searching for the same topic from a source that slants the other way and then compare what they've both written.

Even fake news websites recognize the value of a good reputation. Sometimes, they will even imitate well-known outlets by using a slightly different logo or deceiving Web address. Be vigilant and keep reputation in mind!

4. Be critical

Nearly 3,000 years ago, King Rehoboam of Israel had a decision to make. The Israelites were clamoring for lower taxes than they had faced under Rehoboam's father, King Solomon. These funds had helped make Solomon a wealthy, prosperous king, and Israel a plentiful nation. So Rehoboam went to his advisors with the decision. The advisors who worked with his father told him to lower the tax burden. However, the younger advisors who grew up with Rehoboam told him to not only maintain but increase the taxes!

Disastrously, Rehoboam chose the latter. The Israelites felt utterly rejected and rebelled against the king's leadership. The chief of Rehoboam's revenue service was brutally murdered. And the unity and prosperity Israel enjoyed under Solomon was tragically lost (1 Kings 12:1-24).

So what does this have to do with fake news? More revenue and a cushy lifestyle sounded pretty good to Rehoboam, in the same way the fake news is designed to sound pretty good to you and me. It seems Rehoboam's judgment was clouded by the appeal of luxury and riches. Our judgment must not be clouded when we evaluate the news. We have to learn be critical, letting go of what pleases us the most and what validates our preconceived notions. Sometimes what is true isn't always what sounds good. Sometimes, the truth hurts.

God admonishes you and I to test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Human nature is to only intensely question information we don't like, but that isn't what God says to do. He says to test all things, even when we like what we are hearing or take something for granted. The lie Satan developed for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was designed to sound good to them, but it was just that: a lie (Genesis 3:1-7). Watch for appeals designed to make you feel very strong emotions: outrage, fear, disgust, validation and so forth. Question and think critically about the information you're given to avoid falling for any fake news.

With America's deep partisan divide in mind, it's hard to see the fake news controversy going anywhere soon. In this "post-truth" era, Christians must continue to be vigilant regarding the information we are given and told to accept, especially on social media. Wait, take a step away from what you're reading, and get a second, third and fourth look at the topic. Evaluate how reputable the sources you're using are. And always stay critical; don't be afraid to ask questions. May you never fall sway to the lies and deception of fake news.