A guest writer for JoshGen from our Four12 Partners, Oxygen Life Church in Port Elizabeth, Shaun Brauteseth was a speaker at the 2019 Four12 Conference in Cape Town. Shaun writes on how we, as believers, need to be vigilant about thoughtless sharing on our social media platforms, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.
A few years ago, the day after a shock victory in a presidential election, a man was driving around his city. He wasn’t an important or influential man; he was just a citizen going about his business. But he’d been thinking. He’d heard that people were planning large protests against the new president, and he wondered what that would look like. As he drove around, he saw something he thought was unusual – a large group of buses parked together. So he photographed them. Suddenly, he had a thought: What if these were buses filled with people who’d been organised and transported into the city in order to protest the new president? What if this wasn’t an organic, reasonable protest but an unfair, rent-a-crowd one?
There was no logical connection, but he decided that there had to be one. So he posted his conclusion onto his Twitter feed. Here are the buses the protesters came in, he definitively stated, before adding hashtags like #fakeprotests. In an article by the New York Times titled ‘How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study’, he was quoted as saying the following: “I did think in the back of my mind there could be other explanations, but it just didn’t seem plausible… I’m also a very busy businessman and I don’t have time to fact-check everything that I put out there, especially when I don’t think it’s going out there for wide consumption.” Besides, he reasoned, he was posting as a private citizen with a Twitter following of only 40 people.
Several hours later, his photos were posted onto a site called Reddit, and then onto a discussion forum called Free Republic. Before long, the director of corporate affairs for the bus company in the photos was contacted by Fox News. By the end, the original post was shared 16 000 times on Twitter, 350 000 times on Facebook, and the actual president had Tweeted about it, igniting a media firestorm of hatred and conspiracy theories.
350 000 people on Facebook assumed he was right. And they were all wrong. It was a complete misrepresentation; a ludicrously speculative, clueless observation that was passed along as if it were gospel truth. And worst of all, it was just another day in the life of the global media, that virtually unrecognizable ecosystem in which up is down, left is right and lies are truth. The wheels of the machine simply trundled on.
Of course, fake news is nothing new. From Rameses the Great’s victorious propaganda about battles he didn’t win in the thirteenth century BC, to Mark Antony’s suicide after hearing a false report about Cleopatra taking her own life, to the violent deaths in Trent of fifteen people after a false accusation of child murder in 1475. History’s list is extensive, and the world has long been a place of unreliable information with tragic consequences. In the age we live in, the ability to generate misleading, ignorant or plainly deceptive news has increased dramatically, and continues to increase with each new device that is invented and each new social media platform or website that springs up. The fact is that things are happening right now that we simply do not understand, and we are expecting knowledgeable people to tell us how they work; the difficulty is that we have no clue who actually knows what they’re talking about and who just drove around their city taking photos of parked buses.
Think, for example, of the slow-motion hissy fit that is the climate change debate, in which one side dismissively declares that there’s really nothing to fuss about, while the other side nominates a Swedish schoolgirl as their doomsday spokesperson. That barrage of information, though, has taken a backseat to the biggest world crisis in living memory, in which a virus has forced nations into a standstill, and seemingly every person with a social media account has become an expert with the latest stats and facts. Anonymous, apocalyptic voice notes are forwarded from phone to phone, while fake photos are sent around social media by those who don’t realise they were taken years ago. Every dark conspiracy theory under the sun is being aired in whispered tones, and while there may be some truth in the various allegations and suspicions, it’s often mixed with some very real lies.
“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal,” wrote James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem. “Or take ships as an example,” he went on.
He knew something about the power of the tongue; after all, he was evidently part of the family group that declared Jesus out of His mind in Mark 3:21, as well as mocking Him about His public ministry in John 7:3-5. It must’ve made for a fairly awkward encounter with the risen Christ, at which point James became, understandably, a believer. But he held a strong view of the power of words, continuing his letter by insisting that “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
I know many decent Christian people who will have petty, biting or straight-up rude exchanges with others on social media, or forward alarmist, fear-mongering or racist views. Somehow we seem to feel that if we’re not verbalizing something face to face there’s less accountability for it, but that’s not true. We are conveying or endorsing thoughts, ideas and worldviews, and that matters.
Sending on conspiratorial headlines, negative depictions or frustrated rants is an explicit endorsement of what is being posted; it’s a personal stamp of approval. And blindly, ignorantly forwarding alarmist news that can feed the fears of others is something we’ll have to answer for, because it’s the same thing as using our tongues. We’re going to have more things to answer for than the generations before us, because we have more ways to say things than they did.
But now for the good news. As much as we are capable of doing significant damage by perpetuating the fake news cycle all around us, we are also capable of doing significant good by taking our platforms and consecrating them to God. If one small spark can create a fire that destroys a forest, then a different type of spark can ignite fires of faith and conviction in others. If we’re going to give an answer for the things we post and forward on social media, then let’s give an answer for testimonies, for words of encouragement, for words that challenge, for words that take a stand for righteousness.
“Then I heard another voice from heaven say: ‘Come out of her, my people,’ so that you will not share in her sins,” wrote the apostle John about Babylon’s fall and the end of the ages in Revelation 18:4. But that’s always been the call from God, from the moment we were born again: Come out from the world. Remove yourselves. Make a distinction. Let it be seen that you are not part of its system.
No one can stop the flurry of fake news. It’s too late; the toothpaste is out the tube, and it’s going to be part of the world for a long time to come. But we can decide to leave it as just that – part of the world, not part of us. We can decide to have nothing to do with endless controversies and speculations. We can decide to stop wasting so much time on the endless stream of unreliable words, and spend more time in the reliable Word of God. We can preserve ourselves, and use our words and our platforms to build something different – something reflecting another kingdom. Something fitting of those who have come from darkness into light.