If the Truth Sets Us Free, Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories?
- Brent Rinehart www.apparentstuff.com
- 2021 9 Mar
Disinformation has always been around, but there’s no question that it spreads like wildfire today. We’ve all seen it – someone sends out a newsy tweet with incorrect information and it goes viral. The correction tweet walking back that same information barely gets shared at all.
The rise in the use of social media is a big factor in the spread of false information, but it’s not entirely to blame. After all, it’s only the medium. It’s largely us humans (Russian bots, notwithstanding) on the other end of the keyboard propagating it.
In 2013 following the Boston Marathon bombing, Twitter became a main source of news and information. Unfortunately, as everyone hungered for updates, rumors and untruths began to spread. This caused three MIT scholars to conduct a study on this phenomenon. The findings are not all that surprising: false news spreads more rapidly on Twitter than real news does--and by a substantial margin.
“We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” says Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of study. As it turns out, it’s the novelty factor that draws people to share false information. People desire the attention of being “in the know” and that leads to hitting the share button.
The last couple of years, we’ve seen a dramatic a rise in the sharing of false information and conspiracy theories. It’s invaded all of our Facebook feeds, as we’ve seen “news” articles or documentaries spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election, the COVID-19 pandemic and more. The group QAnon is a household name now, as the conspiracies they champion eventually led to the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6. And, it’s not just a problem out there in the world--it has invaded the church.
I’ve really been burdened by this, as I’ve witnessed how easily captivated many of my friends, family members and fellow Christians are by false information. I’ve seen people I love and respect, people who I believe are committed followers of Jesus, share debunked information that is blatantly false. I’ve even seen pastors on my social feed sharing such information, and it’s heartbreaking.
In a recent Lifeway Research study, 49% of U.S. Protestant pastors say they frequently hear church members repeating conspiracy theories. But, how can we be followers of the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), and be so captivated by lies?
For starters, let’s take a closer look at the makings of a conspiracy theory. Aaron Earls, writing for Lifeway Research, defines conspiracy theories as “descriptions of an event that reject the standard explanation and credit a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot.”
Mary Jo Sharp, author of the book “Living in Truth: Confident Conversations in a Conflicted Culture,” says there are two main reasons people are drawn to conspiracy theories—ease of understanding and escape from the ordinary.
“In some ways, conspiracy theories provide people with a neat-and-tidy box in answering a question or issue,” she says. “While the theory may seem outlandish or complex, it typically limits the scope of the issue in question.”
They often ignore the complexity of an issue so it can be easily explained and digested. In that way, Sharp refers to conspiracy theories as “fast food for the mind.”
We, even as Christians, are drawn to these types of conspiracies because they reinforce things we want to be true. We don’t want to accept the outcome of an election, so we share false information about it being rigged. We don’t want to accept the reality of the pandemic, so we advance conspiracies that contradict doctors’ recommendations. Just as the MIT researchers found, we share these little-known “facts” with our audience out of pride in showcasing our own ability to discern and the desire to puff ourselves up.
So, what is the big deal? After all, Christians who share this type of information would argue that God has given us the ability seek after the truth, and the reason they share it would be out of an earnest desire to find it.
Spreading false information isn’t just a bad idea. For Christians, it’s sinful and it is devastating to our Gospel witness.
Rich Stearns, author and former president of World Vision recently tweet this: “Probably the most dangerous threat to our nation in my lifetime - Not Trump, not Biden, not climate change, not socialism, not Covid - disinformation and the death of truth.”
God commands us in Exodus 23: “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil…” (Exodus 23: 1-2).
God has given us an important job: to share the good news of the Gospel to those around us. We are called to share Jesus--the Truth--with the world. To do that, our credibility matters. The world is watching, so when we share false information, we are building walls, not bridges. No matter how earnest we may be, sharing conspiracy theories communicates that we have little regard for facts and we are primarily interested in advancing our own agenda. Why would someone listen to us talk about Jesus?
Practically speaking, what should our posture be to sharing information on social media? Pray before you post. We need to examine our own motives to find out if we are advancing God’s agenda or ours.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139: 23-24).
Rich Stearns is right. Disinformation and the death of truth is a dangerous threat in our world and in the Church.
Fortunately, the Truth with a capital T, is alive and well, and He alone can set us free (John 8:32).
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/gorodenkoff
Brent Rinehart is a public relations practitioner and freelance writer. He blogs about the amazing things parenting teaches us about life, work, faith and more at www.apparentstuff.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @brentrinehart