How a post-truth society is vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracy theories

March 8, 2023

We are frequently faced with the realities of misinformation, disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories. Social media has opened up a new world of connectivity and access to information. But for all of the good that these tools can bring into our lives, these benefits also have also come at a cost to the very foundation of truth in our societies today. Often when breaking news happens and many details are yet to be known, battle lines are drawn and talking points are promoted as many in our society jockey for influence, power, or control over others.

Propaganda and disinformation are not new phenomena but are exacerbated in a technologically driven society. These derivations of truth are not simply relegated to one voting bloc or even a particular political ideology. According to [Jacques] Ellul—one of the most prescient figures and astute observers of the cultural and moral shifts taking place in the 20th century with the rise of modern technology—they are pervasive throughout all of society and often outside of public awareness. But these concepts have taken on a particular relevance given the rise of social media platforms and the ease of sharing unverified information to the masses.

In the age of social media, a single individual without any real authority or standing in society can falsely claim something is fake news or share a conspiracy theory widely without any real recourse or accountability. What once was the exclusive domain of government and various institutions in society with access to technological tools—like that of the radio, press, and motion pictures—is now available to anyone with a smartphone and rhetorical savviness. This marked shift in the democratization of communication techniques paired with the breakdown of traditional gatekeepers in society helped to usher in a new era of post-truth.

The breakdown of truth

Historically, the breakdown of traditional forms of truth and morality began with the rise of empiricism during the Enlightenment and the perceived failures of traditional religious belief and medieval philosophy to bring about order and peace in an increasingly pluralistic society. 1See James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, Foundational Questions in Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), xiii–xv. There was an intentional push toward the pursuit of technological and scientific innovation in nearly every area of life, which kicked off a surge of cultural, political, and social changes that society is still grappling with today. Throughout the Enlightenment, modern scientific pursuits began to take root as humanity sought to understand the biological and cultural underpinnings of our world and why things work the way they do. But an unfortunate stream of Enlightenment thinking was the rejection of religion and faith as a moral and epistemological foundation for a society.

Neil Postman argues that this drive toward empiricism and rationalism ultimately led to the subsequent rejection of many traditional control mechanisms of truth and a breakdown of trust in institutions like the church, government, and press. 2See Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 71–91. Postman builds up the work of Beniger and his discussion of the various control mechanisms that helped to build our information society. 3See James Ralph Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). Society no longer had a shared understanding of truth unless it could be empirically verified through science. Not surprisingly, this development had a chilling and disorienting effect on many people trying to perceive the fullness of reality outside the physical world. One of the most tragic losses for civilization was the wholesale rejection by many of the prior foundations for morality and truth.

This shift to empiricism also brought about a new stream of thinkers who sought an empirical basis for morality in the “new moral science,” which James Davidson Hunter and Paul Nedelisky aptly show in their work Science and the Good. They conclude that this shift in our culture has in many ways led to an embracing of a nihilistic utilitarianism today because there is no real moral epistemological foundation for judging between what is right and wrong. 4See Hunter and Nedelisky, Science and the Good, 168. For more on how technology and nihilism can be intertwined, see Nolen Gertz, Nihilism and Technology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018).

The use of social media

As communications scholars Johan Farkas and Jannick Schou describe, echoing Postman, “the traditional gatekeepers of truth, such as editors, journalists, and public intellectuals, have lost their monopoly on public issues, and in this process, so-called malicious actors and misinformed citizens have started to spread their own lies, deception, hate, propaganda and fake information on a previously unseen scale” due in large part to the rise of the public’s use of social media. 5Johan Farkas and Jannick Schou, Post-Truth, Fake News and Democracy: Mapping the Politics of Falsehood, Routledge Studies in Global Information, Politics and Society 19 (New York: Routledge, 2019), 2. They go on to argue that “Truth and Reason have been superseded by alternative facts and individual gut feelings,” which in turn leads some to claim that the very fabric of democracy is rupturing. 6Farkas and Schou, 2.

Public theologian Russell Moore describes this post-truth understanding of individual gut feelings as the basis for truth as a “secular Azusa Street” revival, where personal feelings of morality and truth are prized as more influential than traditional sources. 7Personal correspondence with Dr. Russell Moore, public theologian at Christianity Today and former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore is referencing the famous Azusa Street Pentecostal revival that occurred in Los Angeles, California, between 1906 and 1915.

This rise of expressive individualism paired with the bifurcation of truth and morality gives way to a post-truth society, where gut feelings and personal desires override the sense of reality and truth in society. This phenomenon combined with the rise of disruptive technologies—such as television, the internet, social media—function as a perfect recipe for the current climate of dis/misinformation, conspiracy theories, and propaganda that society is experiencing today. 

Adapted from The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society, edited by Jason Thacker, and published by B&H Academic.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24