Fake News – Good News
Over the Christmas period there was a fake BBC twitter feed tweeting: ‘BREAKING: Buckingham Palace announces the death of Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 90’ which was swiftly followed by the hash-tag #mediablackout reaching the top of the Twitter’s trends list in the UK. The man behind the account tweets mostly about football and everyday life and since has told Trending that he was merely repeating a rumour that his wife saw in Facebook post days before.
Of course, fake news has always been around – in wartime disinformation and false propaganda are as potent weapons as bombers and tanks. The New York Sun claimed to have discovered that there was a civilisation on the moon in 1835. Indeed, space stories are a staple of fake news providers – in the 1980s the Sunday Sport’s front pages claimed to have found a World War II bomber on the moon and a statue of Elvis on Mars.
'In 2016 Facebook was a much bigger place for news than it has ever been and the US election was very partisan with both sides consciously creating stories that are not true' explains Craig Silverman, media editor at online news site Buzzfeed. Facebook's news feed has no fact checkers and boosts stories according to their popularity. 'On the Facebook news feed the only thing that’s different from one story to the next is the headline and thumbnail image', Silverman points out. 'The most sensationalist drive the most clicks. In your news feed, stories have already been shared by people you know, making it a judgement on relationships rather than the credibility of the story – is this a person that I trust sharing this?'
At the end of December Buzzfeed published the top 50 fake news stories of 2016 by the number of Facebook shares and comments. The top-performing story, with 2.1 million shares, was a hoax from October claiming President Obama had banned reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Other high scoring political stories included Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico For Those Who Wanna Leave America; ISIS Leader Calls for American Muslim Voters to Support Hillary Clinton; and FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.
These may seem obvious fakes – but with 62% of the US population now getting the majority of their news from social media and a recent Stanford University study showing more than 80% of students couldn’t tell the difference between a real news story and a fake piece of sponsored content, fake news risks damaging public debate, warns Dr Clare Birchall, senior lecturer in contemporary culture at London’s Kings College. 'People are always looking for information that confirms their beliefs', explains Professor Patrick Leman, executive Dean at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience. 'In the short term, even fake news can help with self-esteem. But it’s a quick fix - the more you do it, the more you need it and the more you move away from reality'. Some politicians are now saying that Facebook is undermining the democratic process.
Intended fake news sites, according to Philip Howard, a professor at Oxford university’s Internet Institute, are split between the purely ideological and those driven by cash – hoping to maximise clicks on their link or site to secure advertising dollars. It’s impossible to tell the difference on Facebook of course. Just before the election, online news teams discovered that hundreds of fake news sites were operating from the Macedonian town of Veles - population 45,000. One young site founder claimed to earn '$5,000 per month – or $3000 on a good day'. He said the Veles sites experimented with pro-Bernie Sanders content but 'people in America prefer to read news about Trump'. According to fact checking site Snopes.com founder David Mikkelsen, the desire for sensational false clickbait from these money-driven operations forced partisan political sites to push their news further into the extreme – 'it’s the only way they could compete', he explains.
Of course, fake news operates at local level too. When I came here I used to pray for people by name in church on Sunday in the intercessory prayers. However this led to people buying bereavement cards and taking them round to the families of people who were thought to have died. A few years ago we had a holiday in Suffolk and towards the end I caught a cold. A few weeks later someone told me ‘I heard that you went to Australia on holiday and that you were very ill and ended up in hospital’. I remember being told confidentially that Bill Grieve had been in the SAS and worked for MI5. Fake news is a way of life. Gossip is more interesting if it is sensational. Tabloid newspapers function on that basis. There used to be something called ‘A Buckingham Palace denial’ which meant that what was denied was most certainly true. Politicians and civil servants are often ‘economical with the truth’ as Sir Robert Armstrong and Alan Clarke admitted. Most of the film industry is fake news. Fiction. Fake news is big money. Lots of advertising claims are fake news too. Read the small print. Most humour is fake news. Billy Connolly admits that he is a liar. His stories are made up to be funny. The atheists and secularists of our time regard Christianity as fake news. They think the whole Christian story is made up. They cannot prove that of course but they think if they keep saying so, their own fake news will take hold and to some extent they have been proved right.
The prophet Isaiah begged God to show himself and prove that what Isaiah was saying was true. 'Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!' We long for something like that in our own time too. Some Christians devoutly wish that Jesus would return to earth and make everything right and good. He did not manage that the first time he was here. He ended up being crucified. Jesus was a victim of fake news and more besides. He was falsely accused, unfairly condemned and executed horribly. How Jesus would rule humanity on earth is beyond my mental capacity and imagination. If his coming again brought about the end of human existence I could not reconcile that with the life giving, creating and redeeming of the Jesus of the New Testament either. It is profoundly Good news that Jesus rose from the dead and is alive for evermore. It is profoundly good news that we may share in his eternal life. It is profoundly good news that so many people for so long have been able to corroborate the Christian Good News in their own lives of witness and service. As Paul testified in Romans 5. 'Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand... And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us'. This is not fake news. It would have been found out long before now. More people are convinced of the Good News of Jesus Christ is this world than there have ever been.
Peter in his letter refers Christians back to the writings of the Old Testament prophets as evidence of the consistency of God’s revelation. New Christians he is saying have a heritage of Good News on which to base their own commitment to Jesus Christ. They are not on their own. They do not need to be afraid. Nor do they need to think that Christianity will not survive even in a hostile environment. We could say the same today. Peter encourages Christians by saying that the prophets did not speak of their own accord. They did not make their prophecies up. They did not invent them for money. They did not sell fake news. They spoke by the Holy Spirit. Paul said the same thing in Corinthians. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus be cursed', and no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord', except by the Holy Spirit. Lots of people mention Jesus Christ in ordinary conversation but they are not being inspired by the Holy Spirit because they are not saying ‘Jesus is Lord’.
Peter also warns Christians that even that early in the life of Christianity there were false prophets and false teachers going round preaching in churches. Their fake news was that Jesus is not Lord. But Peter sees the harm and danger that such people can cause to Christian churches. They can disrupt and wreck congregations and they can hinder and even sabotage the missionary outreach of the Good News. Not everyone in congregations sings from the same hymn sheet. They may appear to do so but have a different agenda, their own agenda and they can be damaging to the unity and peace of congregations. This is not surprising. We are a family of people with differing backgrounds, experiences, views and opinions. What binds us together is the Lord Jesus Christ. We moderate our own wishes and wills to maintain a collective witness for His name and sake. We try to respect others even when they are disagreeable. It does not always work. We know of neighbouring congregations is real difficulties at present through strife and argument and fallings out.
Peter describes fake news sellers thus: 'In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping'. Peter’s two letters are not tolerant of opposition to Jesus Christ. There is a strong either-or, heaven or hell, salvation or damnation about them. Paul who surely has had a very bad press many-a-year was actually a bit more circumspect and inclusive. He tended to accentuate the positive in order to win souls for Christ through the positive consequences of being a Christian rather than frightening people through fear of hell fire and eternal damnation. That cutting edge has been lost to the churches of this land in our time. The Christian Brethren may still say so in their worship but they no longer challenge people at street corners and open-air services as to their eternal future. Roman Catholics should I suppose not expect to see any of us in heaven – according to their own teachings. But although they make us feel like second-class citizens of God’s kingdom, they do not treat us personally as doomed to spend eternity in purgatory. And people go along with the folk religion that assumes that all will be well and the afterlife will be just like this one – somehow – somewhere with football and bingo and karaoke.
I say with Isaiah 'Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near'. The Good News is that there is eternal life in Jesus Christ and that we can receive him and find this and know it in our hearts and minds. No need for doubt or confusion or for fake news about eternity. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not fake news and we are not fake people. As assuredly as we are hear worshipping the Lord – he is here in our midst.