Friday, December 01, 2017

Fake News, Myths and Lies

Over the past two years I have become increasingly concerned about how we, as followers of the Messiah, express ourselves and how we relate to 'fake news'. So what is fake news? Wikipedia defines it as follows:
Fake news is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention. Intentionally misleading and deceptive fake news is different from obvious satire or parody which is intended to humor rather than mislead its audience. Fake news often employs eye-catching headlines or entirely fabricated news stories to increase readership, online sharing and Internet click revenue. In the latter case, it is similar to sensational online "clickbait" headlines and relies on advertising revenue generated from this activity, regardless of the veracity of the published stories. Fake news also undermines serious media coverage and makes it more difficult for journalists to cover significant news stories.

Disclaimer: Fake news or not...

A friend of mine posted this on their Facebook page with the disclaimer 'I don’t know if this is false news or not, but I’m very happy to put this picture on Facebook.' However it wasn't true that Facebook were trying to get people to remove the picture from their profiles because it was offensive.

There then followed what became a gently heated discussion with the person who posted it stating...
Given that our Christian heritage is being eroded from our society at an alarming rate, I can’t see who would be “inflamed” by my comment, except those who are anti-Christian anyway. We had in Birmingham the council replacing Christmas with “Winterval” until there was protest. As a convinced Anglican (despite certain internal unbiblical trends) I am pleased to be part of the state church which reaches vast areas of our population. We are still basically a Christian country, so why should we put up with the pc trend and not resist. That’s as much as I will say lest this “molehill” thread becomes even more mountainous!
Unfortunately, the example he used to justify his position was in itself fake news! 

Debunking the fake news

Snopes and Hoax Slayer are two websites that aim to debunk fake news, myths and lies circulating on the Internet.

Snopes begun in 1994 as an expression of David Mikkelson's interest in researching urban legends that has since grown into the oldest and largest fact-checking site on the Internet, one widely regarded by journalists, folklorists, and laypersons alike as one of the world’s essential resources.

Hoax Slayer's mission statement is to make the Internet a safer, more pleasant and more productive environment by:

  • Debunking email and Internet hoaxes
  • Thwarting Internet scammers
  • Educating web users about email and Internet security issues
  • Combating spam
In the case of the claim that Facebook was trying to get people to remove the picture from their profiles, Hoax Slayer unequivocably stated 'No, Facebook Is NOT Trying to Get Users to Remove a Nativity Scene Picture' and Snopes stated 'Not only is that rumor both old and long-debunked, but the source of this most recent version (Associated Media Coverage) is a fake news site that typically spreads falsehoods regarding to non-existent laws or statutes which would affect a specific subset of the population.'

The story of Birmingham City Council rebranding Christmas as Winterval had gone viral some years earlier, but the Daily Mail admitted the story they had published was not correct, and the Guardian described Winterval as the unpalatable making of a modern myth. Indeed there are many citations proving that the story was, in fact, fiction.

So why does this matter?

Many Christians are responding emotionally -- they often feel under attack regardless of the truth or otherwise of actually being attacked so stories that support their position do not get adequate levels of 'due diligence' of checking the veracity of the article or news item.

A significant number of people, particularly those in the west, see Jesus as a myth, something maybe not quite fake news, but certainly not rock solid fact. So if we, as followers of the Messiah, knowing Him to be alive and not mere myth write things that would not stand up in a court of law, we will be demonstrating that we are people who don't check our facts. As such we appear unreliable witnesses and thus our testimonies as followers of Jesus are rendered invalid. It is thus of critical importance that we fact-check stories. 

Where does it start and where does it end?

The problem we increasingly face is that Fake News, Myths and Lies are not merely about whether or not Facebook has or has not banned an image of the nativity, nor whether or not Birmingham City Council has or has not renamed Christmas to Winterval, but it affects many more serious issues like the UK membership of the EU and the USA potentially going to war with North Korea.

Every day we are affected by it. And some people have decided to just go with the flow. For Brexit I get told 'it is a done deal so just accept it'. No, that is not defensible. There is a quote widely attributed to Edmund Burke: 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.'

Who can you trust?

I spent 7 years working for the BBC, the last two of which were for BBC TV News. Back then we struggled to give both balance and truth to our reporting.

John Simpson in Cardiff (c) Wales Online
John Simpson is World Affairs Editor and veteran journalist with the BBC who has reported from 120 countries during his career. In an interview for Huffington Post, he believed that 'the BBC failed its viewers in its coverage of the EU referendum'.

In an article written for WalesOnline he is quoted as saying, 'We have seem to have got a kind of dislocation between truth and fiction. Which I really find very it very disturbing... You get sheer, sheer, untruths fired away at you and nobody knows what is correct and which isn’t... 
Organisations which were obliged by law to be balanced and not to take sides, like all the broadcasters, that business of balance just simply led to ‘on the one hand, on the other’.'

He expressed that a really good friend of his, Christiane Amanpour, a journalist of similar position to him but with CNN, 'is moving away from the balance idea and towards what she says is truth-telling. That’s fine but we have got to put a hell of a lot of faith in the truth teller.'

We, as Christians, should be 'truth tellers', after all, we follow the person who is the way, the truth and the life.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby...

Thoughts from Terry Pratchett:
'There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,' said Oats.
'And what do they think? Against it, are they?' said Granny Weatherwax.
'It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.'
'There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.'
'It’s a lot more complicated than that—'
'No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.'
'Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—'
'But they starts with thinking about people as things…'
THERE’S NO GRAYS, ONLY WHITE THAT’S GOT GRUBBY... no, I'm not speaking as Death, just realising that this sentence expresses what I've been thinking about a lot recently. Man was created perfect, but all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

What matters is what direction are you heading. Towards the white or away from it... towards relationships with people or towards people as things.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Open our eyes, LORD, so that we may see you

Let me ask you to put to one side where you are, who or what you vote for, whether you think the EU, the USA, ASEAN or whatever is a good thing, a bad thing or who the heck knows what thing... and consider this: There is a creeping evil in this world, which is subverting people and governments. As Christians, it is our duty to stand and fight that. We live in the world, yet we're not of the world, we come bringing Good News that is sometimes rejected because it's the steep and narrow way, but it is indeed the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Realpolitik... a creeping evil

I have been struggling to find words to express what we have been increasingly seeing in politics in the last few years, culminating in Brexit and Trumpism. I've realised the problem is that politics has morphed into realpolitik. Make no confusion about it; this is not the way of Christ. It is immoral and a form of idolatry, subverting following the Way and replacing it with following the choice facing Adam and Eve; the choice of a life led by the Spirit or a life where moral choices are determined by expediency.

There is a creeping evil in the UK, USA and many other nations. I almost hear from every friend I have worldwide how evil is creeping over their land. Our ability to govern ourselves, and by this I mean worldwide, not merely in the UK, in an endurable ongoing fashion, has not developed much over the past two centuries. Our weapons have become more targeted but more prolific. Refugees are running from increased terrorism and we see Christians in the UK wanting to bolt the door and pull up the drawbridge to keep these innocent terrorised people out. 

It's 2016 and approximately the same number of people as the combined population of England and Wales are refugees worldwide! Obviously the UK cannot welcome them all in, but compared to countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan they are doing pitifully. It’s a horrendous indictment upon British Christians that they are more prepared to vote for isolationism than to care for the sojourner in their midst. They want 'the Jungle' to be in Calais so that the poor, the weak and the needy are kept at arms length.

A spiritual battle

We need to realise that this is a spiritual battle. You need to be a follower of Christ and to see with spiritual eyes. You need to experience Jesus in your life, it's not logic, it's not common sense. Yet even the disciples were baffled at times. Jesus said to them,  'Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember?' We're talking about the indwelling Holy Spirit. Yet many followers of Jesus are blinded to the creeping evil they are embracing.

The European context

In my context, born as a European in the UK, the battleground is Brexit and Remain. The Christian founding fathers of the EU, Christian democrats like Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Joseph Bech and others would be horrified at the UK deciding to turn it’s back on building bridges that rebuff the division and hatred that tore Europe apart in two world wars during the 20th century and the xenophobia sweeping across the continent. Now we hear demands for counting foreigners working in British companies, for checking ethnic identity and country of birth for kids in British schools, for passport identity before you can give birth in British hospitals… this is an ugly repeat that Brits along with other European peace lovers fought to shun 70 years ago.

We are Europeans, we have wider natural ties than being island isolationists. To spurn that unity is to reject God’s call on our lives, to turn self-centred. There is a need for Christians who voted Brexit to repent of that sin. We need to hear again the call of John the Baptist in the desert to repent because the Kingdom of God is near - as close as your hand! The Kingdom of God is not some nationalist and isolationist structure, but an open bringing together of people and reconciliation of God and man. 

Open our eyes

Repentance is about a change in direction not an apology. That change in direction needs to be towards bridge building and unity, yes, towards an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe and the peoples of the World. They are not clients to be sold things, this is not some trade contract but about humanity. It's totally wrong to see Brexit and Remain in terms of trade! All the trade discussions I have heard tend more towards expediency than morality.

Make no mistake about it, the EU is not the Kingdom of God, nor is the UK, nor the USA, nor any man made nation state. The Kingdom of God is spiritual. Nevertheless, we Europeans, we Christian Europeans, through the EU, are modelling Christ's way on earth, not isolated inward-looking nationalism, but community embracing transnationalism.  Like Elisha, we pray, 'Open their eyes, LORD, so that they may see.' When the LORD opened Elisha's servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. This is indeed a spiritual battle.