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Truth in a World of False Information

Below is the transcript of a talk I did for the 2022 French national congress of the "Union Evangelique Medicale et Paramedicale" (The Medical and Paramedical Evangelical Union). The theme of the conference was "Christians Facing New Technologies" and the title of the talk was "Truth in a World of False Information".

We live in virtual world, and social media is transforming modern life in ways we are only beginning to understand. In 2022, people can make millions as full-time Instagram influencers and TikTock artists. When we hold work meetings we often have to clarify if it is physical or virtual. 20 years ago, trolls were mythical creatures, a feed was something you gave to birds, and filters were a type of coffee.

Now we could easily fill a whole conference looking at the topic of social media and life in this virtual world. There are many important topics we could explore for example: the impact of social media on mental health, or how social media is changing the way we do church, or the role of social media during the Covid-19 pandemic. But in the time we have now I thought it would be good to focus on just one issue within this area, and that is the issue of truth in a world of false information.

Christian medics, should have two stakes in the championing of truth over falsehood. Medics believe that there are medical truths than need to be propagated and defended, and lies in medicine can be very dangerous. And in the past 2 years, we have seen a pandemic of fake news and false information about the pandemic- from the origins of the virus, to its effects and illness severity, through to all sorts of conspiracies about the Covid vaccines. So doctors have a vested interest in truth. But Christian medics also have a vested interest in truth because Christians believe in objective truth about reality, and follow a saviour who called Himself “the way, the truth and the life”.

And so in the remaining time we have together, I have three headings for you:

  1. Truth in a Virtual World

  2. Truth in the Bible

  3. Speaking Truth in a World of Fakes News

1. Truth in a Virtual World

Without doubt social media has greatly enhanced our abilities to communicate and propagate information. Now, because of social media, anyone in the world with access to a phone or computer can propagate any message they like around the world in real time. In many ways this has been an immense force for good. For example we can look at the #MeToo movement which began with small number of women blowing the whistle on the appalling predatory behaviours of Harvey Weinstein, but which subsequently grew to a huge global movement rolled out on social media. And because of #MeToo, literally hundreds of high-profile men who have used their power to abuse women have been brought to justice and held accountable for their actions. I think this is social media at its best and most effective- when it gives a voice to the voiceless and enables people to speak truth to power.

However, everyone having the ability to communicate globally, completely unchecked and unfiltered is obviously not always a good thing. People, particularly with large followings, have historically unparalleled power to lead people away from the truth. And it is difficult to think of a better example of this than the former President of the US Donald Trump. Here is a selection of his posts on Twitter, before he was banned, that have been proven demonstrably untrue:

  • The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive. (November 2012)

  • Mexico will pay for the wall! (September 2016)

  • We believe these people [Democrats] are thieves. The big city machines are corrupt. This was a stolen election. (November 2020)

  • Great. Most corrupt election in history, by far. We won!!! (December 2020)

Social media allows anyone to propagate truth around the world, but it also allows anyone, including some of the more powerful people in the world, to propagate falsehood.

However, social media sites are not merely neutral platforms on which people can spread ideas. When people have tried to hold social media platforms responsible for the content that is communicated on them, a common argument in their defence is that Facebook and Twitter are just like libraries that hold the works of others. You wouldn’t blame the owner of a library for some of the bad ideas found in their books. Expect this argument completely ignores the algorithms and artificial intelligence systems that lie behind these online platforms. Social media algorithms are programmed to constantly and increasingly feed us with content that will hold our attention and keep us clicking. And so they are constantly collecting data from our online footprints, and increasingly our offline footprints, and using these to keep us on their sites.

This leads to what I call a "community of echo chambers", where users are constantly fed material and opinions that reinforce and entrenched their own pre-existing ideas. And this is having big effects on Western society.

For example, I think this is a major contributing factor to the polarisation of political discourse in Western countries, especially in the US, and the rise in popularity of both far left and far right wing politicians and political parties. If social media is constantly feeding us with whatever reinforces our political leanings, it is perhaps unsurprising that it will lead some to increasingly extreme views.

I think this echo chamber community is also responsible, at least in part, for the rise of conspiracy theories in recent years. On social media, beliefs that most of the world would find totally insane- such as “there are data chips in Covid vaccines” or “there’s an evil secret cabal running the country”- these beliefs are suddenly much more credible if everyone in your social media sphere believes the same thing, and critical voices are hidden from view. And penetrating these echo chambers from the outside is extraordinarily challenging, as those involved in public health for example have found during the pandemic.

And furthermore there is now significant evidence that algorithms that are focussed on getting clicks rather than finding truth, are more likely to propagate lies. In 2018, a study published in Science found that on social media, false claims and fake news stories spread much faster and much more widely than true news stories. For example false news stories are 70% more likely to be re-tweeted than true stories. I suppose we shouldn’t be overly surprised by this. Fake news stories are naturally more likely to be dramatic, exciting and surprising, and therefore predictably get more clicks.

All of this is had led to what some now call “truth decay”- a phrase popularised by a book of that title by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich, published in 2018. Truth decay describes a culture in which lies are spread with increasing impunity, facts and opinions are increasingly conflated, and truth itself has begun to lose its currency.

And so how do we begin to live and speak in this social media, truth decaying world? How can we speak and receive truth in a world of false information?

2. Truth in the Bible

Before we look at some practical ideas and applications, I thought it would be worth spending a little bit of time looking at what the bible says about truth. It does not take much study to figure out that that truth is a very common theme in the bible. In the New International Version English translation of the bible, the word "truth" occurs 137 times, and that is before we get to the condemnations of falsehood and deception. I won’t go through all 137 references, but here is a selection of some of the mentions of truth and falsehood in the bible.

In Genesis 3 we meet the serpent who tempts Eve, and he does this by spewing lies:

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5). Lies are at the root of the Fall.

Then in Exodus we have truth-telling engraved in stone in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.” (Exodus 20:16). Lying is put alongside murder, adultery and theft, as behaviours that should have no part amongst the people of God.

In the Psalms we see that honesty is a core hallmark of the righteous person of God.

“Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart”. (Psalm 15:1-2)

Living righteously is paralleled with speaking truthfully. They are inextricably linked.

We then come to the New Testament and we meet the ultimate embodiment of truth in the man of Jesus. “The Word [Logos] became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Jesus is the Logos- the creative power and intellect behind the universe, who became the human incarnation of grace and truth.

In Romans 2 we read that God Himself is driven in His actions by the principle of truth: “Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.” (Romans 2:2). Truth is intrinsic to the character and actions of God Himself, particularly in his judgement of sin.

In Philippians 4, Paul teaches that we are to constantly fill our minds with truth: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8) We, as Christians, are to meditate o, and fill our minds with, all that is true, as well as all that is good and beautiful.

And finally in Revelation 13 we see the image of the Dragon that is Satan, and his two beasts. The first beast attacks the Church through conquest and persecution. But the second beast attacks the Church through deception. It mimics Jesus in its appearance and actions, and gives life to the image of the first beast. In other words, it makes what is fake become real. There is something deeply evil about deception and the degradation of truth.

Truth is woven into the fabric of the biblical narrative. It is one of the core characteristics of God, that should be reflected in the lives of His people, and deception and falsehood are at the heart of evil.

Perhaps one way we could summarise all these biblical references is with this phrase: “All truth is God’s truth”. This phrase has been attributed to various authors. The idea is found in various places in the writings of Augustine of Hippo and later of John Calvin. And the idea here is that it is not only biblical truths that come from God but all objective truths- because He is the source of all of them. The gospel is true because God wrote it. But the same can also be said about the speed of light, the life cycle of the mosquito and the mechanism of penicillin. All truth is God’s truth.

So what should we do? How should we live and speak as followers of the God of truth?

3. Truth in a World of False Information

Now I do not pretend to have all the answers on this issue. Like everyone else, I am still trying to get to grips with this new social media world and being faithful to Jesus within it. But I do have some suggestions that I hope are helpful, and that may spark some of your own ideas.

a) The Defence of Truth

Firstly I think Christians should be on the forefront of defending and championing the importance of objective truth.

In the West we live in a post-modern society which often suggests that truth is relative- “what’s true for you doesn’t need to be true for me”. Furthermore, with the dawn so-called “cancel culture” debate and disagreement are often prevented from taking place in the public square. As many public figures have found out over recent years, if you publicly put forward an unpopular belief, people often don’t respond with arguments and refutations, but with de-platforming and campaigns to get you removed, all in the name of “tolerance”.

And I would suggest that in this culture, Christian should be those contending that objective truth is still important- we need to debate things and figure out what is true. Or to put it another way: tolerance only means something if you tolerate people you disagree with.

And of course we need to model this in the church. We need to be able to debate and disagree with each other as Christians in a godly way that maintains the unity of the body of Christ. And we need to be willing to have our own beliefs and views be challenged, rebuked and corrected by others, because truth matters.

b) Proactive Truth-Telling

Secondly, I think we need to work hard at communicating things we know to be true. If false news stories are 70% more likely to be re-tweeted than true stories, then we ought to be working 70% harder on getting those true stories out there.

Doctors can’t just say: “take your Covid vaccines because us doctors say so” and expect everyone to obey. They can’t just quote a randomised control trial or meta-analysis and assume that that will debunk all the fake news articles swirling around. No, in this world of false information, truth-telling needs to be much more proactive.

One way some people are attempting this now is by anticipating false news stories ahead of time, and attempting to undermine the false narratives by getting the truth out there first. This is sometimes pleasingly referred to as “pre-bunking”. And one area that this has been remarkably effective is in the coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has now turned out that Western intelligence agencies have known for a long time that Russia was planning on invading Ukraine. And so, when Russia starting moving its military equipment and personnel towards the Ukrainian border, several intelligence agencies made the decision to release a lot of their intelligence into the public domain. They told the world, including Russia, that they knew exactly what Russia was currently doing, and planning on doing in the future.

And so when events unfolded as predicted, the world was primed with the truth, ahead of the propaganda that subsequently came from the Kremlin. And now very few nations outside of Russia believe Putin’s narrative that this is a “special military operation” to remove Naziism from Ukraine.

I think this is a striking example of the need for almost aggressive propagation of truth in anticipation of lies to come- something that we all could probably learn from.

c) The Power of Story Telling

Thirdly, I think social media is highlighting the power of story-telling. In a social media culture in which facts and statistics are thrown around by everyone, one thing that still captures people’s hearts and minds is stories. This also fits into our wider post-modern culture in which personal convictions and lived experiences often hold greater sway than evidence, reason and facts. Here is a quote from the evangelist Sam Chan in his book Evangelism in a Sceptical World:

“In modernity, people preferred hearing propositional data: “Give me the facts!” But in postmodernity, people prefer hearing stories: “Show me what this looks like.” But stories also work well because they invite the hearer to see the world through our eyes... The hearer has to suspend their disbelief and enter my world...”

Perhaps we all need to get better at conveying truth in stories.

d) Having a Balanced Social Media Diet

And finally I think we need to be aware that as users of social media, and as inhabitants of this modern culture, we are certainly not immune to false information. Protecting ourselves from deception is difficult in a world so saturated in falsehood. But perhaps one possible idea would be to ensure we follow a range of views and opinions on social media, in order to crack open the walls of the echo chamber. So on Twitter I have consciously tried to follow both right wing and left wing politicians, Christian and non-Christian individuals, and charismatic and conservative Christian teachers. Granted, I don’t follow Covid-deniers and homeopathists but this is my attempt at least to maintain a broad range of views in my social media bubble.


And so as we draw to a close, we’ve looked at the effect of social media on truth and truth decay, we have seen the that bible has a lot to say on the topic of truth and falsehood, and we’ve given some thoughts on practical ways we can navigate this world of false information.

Now as I draw my time at this platform to a close, I’d like to end with some brief broader comments on Christian living in our modern, technological world. We as Christians are called to be salt and light. These images come from Matthew 5, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus preaches:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

One of my favourite comments on this verse came from the English theologian John Stott who wrote this in his commentary on the Sermon the Mount:

“God intends us to penetrate the world. Christian salt has no business to remain snugly in elegant little ecclesiastical salt cellars; our place is to be rubbed into the secular community, as salt is rubbed into meat, to stop it going bad. And when society does go bad, we Christians tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not rather reproach ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat from going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is; where is the salt?”

When meat goes bad you don’t blame the meat- you blame the salt, or rather, the lack of it. And if our world is not going in a desirable direction, whether this is on social media, in healthcare, scientific research or any other area, we should not blame the culture- we should blame the lack of Christian presence in the culture. Christians are called to be the salt of the earth, and today that means being deeply engrained in this modern world of technology, and influencing and shaping it, for the Kingdom and glory of Jesus.

God bless and thank you for listening


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