by Rev. Dustin Bartlett
“That’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen – the gut. Did you know that you have more nerve endings in your stomach than in your head? It’s true. Look it up. Now, somebody’s going to say, ‘I did look that up, and it’s wrong.’ Well, mister, that’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time try looking it up in your gut.”
– Stephen Colbert
It was all the way back in 2005 when Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness.” Colbert defined truthiness as believing in something that feels like it’s true, even if it’s not actually true. Jump ahead twelve years. “Post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016 and, according to my computer’s spell check, truthiness is now a real word.
In our society, objective facts are becoming less influential in shaping people’s opinions than are emotions and personal beliefs. To put it simply, people believe what they want to believe. They ignore evidence to the contrary, and exaggerate evidence that supports their pre-conceived ideas.
We see this in the fake news phenomenon. People come across some piece of “news” that they want to believe is true because it supports beliefs that they already have, so they accept it as true. They share it on Facebook and Twitter, and never stop to evaluate whether or not it’s actually true. During the 2016 election cycle, I saw headlines that claimed Pope Francis had said, “Anyone who votes for Trump cannot call themselves a Christian,” and headlines that Pope Francis had officially endorsed Donald Trump for President. The Pope, of course, didn’t actually say either of those things. But those stories were widely shared on Facebook, the former by people who opposed Trump and the latter by people who supported him.
It’s not just outright false stories, like the ones about Pope Francis’ views on presidential candidates. Even when the information is factual, it’s often cherry-picked to support one set of assumptions and beliefs over another. Do you know which President oversaw the biggest increase in the national debt? Barack Obama. Do you know which president oversaw the biggest reduction in the annual deficit? Barack Obama.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend to come out of the increase in fake news is that people have taken to calling real news “fake” if it doesn’t agree with their worldview. When a friend of mine, a Trump supporter, saw the first story reporting that Donald Trump’s campaign was being investigated for colluding with Russia, her only response was “FAKE NEWS!” We know, now, that news is very real.
The tendency to evaluate information that confirms our beliefs uncritically is well documented. There’s even a term for it – “confirmation bias.” We want to be right. We don’t want to be wrong. So we seek information that makes us feel right and ignore that which might prove us wrong.
This era of “post-truth” and “fake news” is obviously problematic for a democratic society. Democracy requires that citizens be informed and make decisions based on facts. Different political parties might see different solutions to a problem, but they need to at least agree to base their solutions on objective facts and not just ideology.
But “post-truth” is also problematic for me as a Christian pastor. Christians are encouraged to seek the truth, because “the truth shall set you free.” In the context of that passage from the 8th chapter of John, it’s clear that the truth isn’t always easy to accept. In fact, those who heard the truth Jesus was trying to tell them decided they’d rather try to stone him to death than listen to his words.
But the truth is essential. In an increasingly fractured culture, the truth is what binds us together in a shared reality. And we all have a responsibility – the politicians, the journalists, and the citizens – to the truth.
Remember, friends don’t let friends post fake news.