Fake news, false ideas, and the knowledge of God

The latest buzz word since the 2016 election is “fake news.” Just what is fake news? Well, like a lot of words in pop culture, there’s no precise definition. Here’s what we know. Fake news is, according to most, a bad thing. Sometimes it is even used to say, “Well, you know what? You are fake news, and your mother smells like one too.” I realize that makes no sense, but neither do many who talk about fake news in the media!

I think that there are at least three different uses of the term “fake news,” and I argue that it is not always bad. There is some fake news that is actually quite interesting, and of course, some that is morally wrong. There are also false opinions, and we need to approach these differently than we would fake news.

Fake News

Let’s look at three different kinds of fake news.

The first is what we will call satirically fake news. Satirically fake news includes publications like The Onion and the Christian satirical site The Babylon Bee. These are sites that intentionally, and in clear view, write stories that are false, but they do so for a point—sometimes a very powerful point. People are occasionally duped by these stories (let’s be honest, we’ve all been there), but fooling people doesn’t seem to be the primary point of these publications. The point seems to be to help people have ears to hear and eyes to see a critical point. What I mean is that we don’t typically welcome criticism, especially criticism of our sacred cows. The Babylon Bee is able to criticize, say, how we do worship music in many of our churches. One article is entitled, “Worship Leaders With Ripped Jeans Show Significantly Higher Levels Of Authenticity, Study Finds,” and another, “Hillsong United Renegotiates Contract, Will Now Split Glory With God Fifty-Fifty.” These are fake, and yet they sting us a bit. But, we kind of can’t help but smile all at the same time.

Though I enjoy satire, there is satire that takes it too far. When satire is downright cruel, perverse or damaging, it fails at its intended purpose of critique. We just come away offended. There can be a fine line between satire as an interesting form of criticism and satire as cruel mockery.

Secondly, there is entertainingly fake news. These are publications that are found in most supermarket checkout lines, and they are meant simply, I think, to be entertaining. You’ve probably seen publications that, with a straight face, announce the discovery of Bat Boy or that space aliens have endorsed the Republican candidate for president. Who knows what the precise point of these publications is, except to make us smile at the outlandish. But (let’s hope) everyone knows these are fake stories and may be worth a chuckle or two. I wouldn’t myself ever subscribe or even peruse most of these magazines beyond glancing at their covers. But this isn’t because I think it would be morally wrong to do so. It’s more that I don’t find them all that interesting and I just don’t have that kind of free time.

Third, there is what may be called deceptively fake news. These are stories that are written in order to deceive readers. Typically, these are intentionally false stories that aim at damaging someone’s reputation.

This phenomenon did not suddenly arise in our latest election. Deceptive fake news has been around for a long time. Deceptive fake news includes tabloid magazines (also found in supermarket checkout lines) that dish on the latest Hollywood gossip, much of which is untrue. But there are also political stories that are put out there and sometimes referenced by political candidates and other news agencies since they score political points. So what if Hillary Clinton is not actually dying from some disease, or Donald Trump hasn’t owned slaves? If people believe it, even if momentarily, then this can impact an election or provide some small political advantage. It seems to me that the Christian should have nothing to do with deceptively fake news.

Is this a big problem worthy of all the current airtime that it is getting? No, not in my view! Again, this is nothing new. Politicians have been scoring political points with fake news stories since ancient times. The internet, of course, enables these stories to disseminate more quickly. But the internet also allows us to take 30 seconds to make sure the news article is reputable. If the site is one you have never heard of, or no one else is running the story, then it is probably not credible. Disaster averted! To be sure, it is sometimes difficult to tell, but this is the very rare exception.

False ideas

What is sometimes confused with fake news is just simply (what we take to be) false ideas. In fact, fake news, as a term, is sometimes used as a pejorative to slam a view with which one disagrees. So, a more liberal individual might claim that FoxNews trades in fake news. The conservative will say that MSNBC is often faking the truth. But using the term this way is a mistake. What people are labeling “fake news” is often political commentary. But this can’t be fake news since it is not even news to begin with. Now, there is no question that pundits are often wrong about what they claim. Just think about how many media figures expected to be talking about President Hillary Clinton right about now. But it is not fake news when a commentator makes a mistake, even when it is an egregious mistake.

The real problem with labeling something with which we disagree as “fake news” is that this seems to be nothing more than name-calling. Using “fake news” as a slam strikes me as an attempt to shut down another person’s perspective. But, beyond being morally inappropriate, this is rarely effective. One reason that we should value the freedom of speech is that a bad idea is not typically stopped by calling it (or the person) a name. Trying to stifle a view often emboldens proponents of that view, since there are now emotions standing guard around the view. Thoughtful and careful discussion rarely happens in this case.

Now, there are clearly false ideas out there. I’ve claimed that we shouldn’t merely disparage these views, but what should we do? Should we just accept these ideas as equally valid? Certainly not! We need to be biblical and demolish these ideas. Paul says we are to destroy speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Paul uses battle language here to describe the fact that, in one sense, the Christian’s engagement in the world is a war of ideas. We need to destroy the arguments (imagine the walls of a fortress) and then take captive the thoughts (the inhabitants of the fortress). Part of engaging the world, it seems, is to point people intellectually to the knowledge of God. This is, of course, not all that is involved in coming to or being a disciple of Christ, but surely it is part of it. Paul is saying that we need to dismantle, destroy and demolish the arguments and ideas (not the people who hold these ideas) that stand in the way of this knowledge. This requires us, among other things, to refute those ideas.

I think that Christianity is true. So, if an idea runs contrary to this truth, then it follows there is a refutation for the idea. Now, I don’t think this is all about what’s sometimes called “pure reason.” After all, Paul is clear that the weapons we use in this endeavor are ones with divine power. The point, however, is that, given the truth of Christianity, ideas set up against the knowledge of God are false and need to be shown as such.

In sum, fake news, in its many manifestations, has been around for a long time, and it seems it is here to stay. But let’s be careful what we call fake news. Let’s not disparage others by calling them fakes. Let’s, instead, engage those ideas and show them false in contrast to the surpassing value of knowing Christ.

Travis Dickinson

Travis Dickinson

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Dickinson serves as Associate Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics in the School of Theology. He is married to Shari and they have four children: Kaelia, Delaney, Emery, and Kade.
Twitter: @TravDickinson
Travis Dickinson

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