In early 2020, we simply didn’t know what we didn’t know about COVID-19 and the impending pandemic. As of today, over 4.2 million lives have been tragically lost worldwide. Wild theories, mask mandates, experimental treatments, and origin stories abounded as our society tried desperately to gain ground against this silent killer. As we sought answers, many of us naturally turned to social media and its instant connectivity to share and learn more about this virus. Yet, those very platforms were littered with misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories — which are themselves reflective of the divisions we face throughout our social order.
Even as the platforms sought to label and remove much of this misleading and fake content, it became increasingly clear that identifying what was what became increasingly difficult since so much was unknown about this pandemic. And while we know so much more than we did last year, these challenges of identification and moderation did not relent even as the widespread deployment of vaccines began and a sense of normalcy returned. If anything, these challenges became more difficult given the polarization surrounding the life saving vaccines, the rise of COVID variants, and yet another wave of infections sweeping across our nation and the world.
In the last few weeks, there have been countless headlines about the fight against COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation, largely because of renewed calls for meaningful action to mitigate the spread coming from congressional leaders, the U.S. Surgeon General, and even the Biden administration. Many of these calls are directed at major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It’s argued those who run these platforms aren’t doing enough to curb the spread of manipulations online, especially during a worldwide health crisis.
While social media obviously aids the spread of misleading and false information, calls for more moderation often fail to account for the difficulty of combating this and the divergent opinions on how to do so. They also fail to see how these issues fall under a larger cultural narrative on both sides of the ideological divide. Responses to this pandemic have become a microcosm of some of the larger issues in the digital public square, such as the limits of free speech and the efficacy of truth.
What is mis/disinformation?
While conspiracy theories and disinformation may have become a household term in recent years, they are not entirely new concepts. Mentioning these terms tends to elicit deep and powerful emotions, often stemming from the polarization and division that we face today. Much of this polarization is due in part to decades-long disputes over the public nature of ethics, the role of faith in the public square, and breakdown of trust in institutions. Cultural narratives have been built around these issues and are tough to shed, especially during tense times such as a pandemic.
Misinformation broadly refers to the spreading of misleading information — whether it is simply missing context or is blatantly false. While disinformation refers to the intentional manipulation and distribution of facts, often for personal, corporate, or state gain. Conspiracy theories function as grand disinformation narratives based on some type of secret knowledge used to explain conspiratorial and often corrupt behavior by powerful figures in society. They are often designed to exploit the existing fissures in society and widen the gap between certain social, religious, and political groups for personal or social gain.
While some misinformation and disinformation is easy to spot, other examples are notoriously difficult to identify and stop. The technical capabilities of the last couple decades with the internet and social media have made the believability of these manipulations of truth more widespread, particularly as public trust continues to fray. Social media was originally designed to connect various people around the world and champion free expression. But it also tends to thrive on the lack of context, nuance, and complexity, making it deleterious to our public discourse.
Given the intensity and dangers of misinformation online, many social media companies have sought to minimize its spread and even remove it from public sight entirely, citing the negative effects on public discourse and even our physical health. Given the complexity and gravity of the issues at stake, it is slightly ironic that many calls to curb the spread of misinformation online never actually define what it is, nor talk about how to balance the call with issues like free speech. And when definitions are given, they become increasingly divisive and disjointed as platforms seek to implement these policies.
In an age of expressive individualism based on the idea that the individual is to determine their truth or the state of reality, whose truth is actually truth? Is there a standard and widely accepted definition of reality? Who is to decide? And who gets to decide who decides?
After President Biden called on Facebook in particular to curb the spreading of this false information online — where some reports indicate that 60% of COVID related misinformation came from just 12 individuals — Facebook responded that they had already taken action on all eight recommendations from the Surgeon General about what is considered misinformation and what is within the limits of free speech. This balance is notoriously difficult to strike, though, since very few actually desire unfettered and absolute free speech online because of the immense issues it can cause to public order and community safety. Content moderation is a key feature of social media because without any type of moderation, these platforms would simply be unusable, unsafe, undesirable, and unsustainable. But at the same time, this does not mean that content moderation is without ideological bias or within the appropriate scope. The questions are: Where is that line drawn? And who should draw the line?
Drawing the line
The line of disinformation and free speech is notoriously difficult to identify in our digital age due in large part to the ambiguities surrounding what actually constitutes truth. Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote, “Misinformation is often in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to political speech.” This sentiment is regularly espoused by many across the ideological perspective as a way to argue against certain forms of content moderation due to the ambiguities of defining it. The challenges are especially prominent with COVID-related misinformation and disinformation because of how little was known earlier on about the virus — including treatments, origins, and even the vaccines themselves.
While it is increasingly popular in our post-modern society to champion your personal truth and discover yourself under the auspices of expressive individualism, this pursuit is fundamentally at odds with a Christian understanding of truth and ultimate reality. Thus, it is imperative that Christians stand against these mischaracterizations of reality, regardless of how truth is abused or misused by others throughout our society. We believe in a transcendent reality, a fundamental basis for truth, and ought to reject claims to “truth” that are often more defined by retaining or gaining social capital than they are about Christ himself.
Misinformation and disinformation are not truly in the eye of the beholder, unless we deny the ability to actually discern truth. This is difficult to implement in a world driven by sound bites, instantaneous news, constant outrage, and the onslaught of information we are exposed to without any real hope of actually processing. But these challenges shouldn’t keep Christians from engaging in this space and standing against the rising tide of disinformation.
Navigating these manipulations of truth
It can be difficult to know how to move forward in this age of misinformation and disinformation — especially during a deadly pandemic. Christians are a people of truth and should have nothing to do with spreading falsehoods (Eph. 4:25). And wisdom calls us to slow down in a society that prizes efficiency over reality and to evaluate the words we speak or share online so that they carry the fragrance of Christ (James 1:19-20). As we seek to develop a public theology and ethic for the digital age, we must remember that in a society ravaged by sin, certain allowances and trade-offs must be made in order to champion the rights of all people to freely express themselves, but in a way that upholds the safety and well being of all people. Here are a few steps we can take toward that goal.
First, we must keep freedom of speech front and center in these debates. This is particularly important given the power of these tools over our public discourse. It is far too easy and convenient on social media to publicly mock or denigrate those on the “other” side of the ideological or religious spectrum. This is a perennial problem throughout society. People from across ideological perspectives fall prey to these lies or willingly promote them in order to attain status or notoriety.
In our secular age, it is common for those without explicitly religious claims to function as if science explains all things or that secular ideals are somehow non religious in nature, even though many conclusions in science — especially moral claims — are accepted by faith as well. Everyone operates inside some set of social values that are not inherently founded upon empirical evidence. Even those who believe in a purely materialistic or naturalistic worldview have a set of beliefs that must be taken on faith.
No matter one’s ideological perspective or worldview, mocking, jeering, and looking down on our fellow image-bearers is unbecoming and should be seen as completely anathema to what it means to follow Christ. This condescension exacerbates the growing polarization of our society, driving members of the public further away from one another. Free speech not only helps to uphold the dignity of all, but it also can help bridge the growing divides in our society. So often these manipulations of truth thrive in environments that seek to eliminate them from public discourse with a heavy hand because they can use that suppression as fuel to spread faster since some will claim that these lies must contain some level of truth that your enemies simply are trying to cover up.
An additional danger with disinformation is that many in our society tend to use that label on the speech we simply don’t like regardless of what truth may actually lie within them. We see a similar trend in the ever widening definitions of hate speech that seem to be more about stamping out dissidents than pursuing physical safety or truth. But this doesn’t mean that free speech trumps everything else, especially during isolated seasons like a public health crisis. A balance must be maintained, but that can only happen when we recognize how our narratives of culture drive how we see one another.
Second, we must begin to seek out information and insight from sources other than social media. Although traditional sources of news are often ideologically biased as well, these news organizations and periodicals do have some level of accountability that is often absent of random users on these platforms. Even some of the most blatantly partisan sources have issued retractions, apologies, or set the record straight on the past spreading of misinformation. Recently, I read a helpful book by Jeffrey Bilbro that helps Christians practically navigate news consumption in our daily lives. Much more can and should be said about our media consumption habits and Bilbro’s book is a helpful place to start.
As Christians, we must strive to verify the information we share online, for the sake of our neighbors and the way in which we represent Christ to the world around us. It is unbiblical to speak in ways that are contrary to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) and to spread misleading information in order to gain a political edge. In reality, it is also a rejection of Christ’s atoning work on our behalf; if we are people changed by the gospel, then we should reflect Christ throughout our lives, especially in how we interact online. Truth will always be better than any short-term gain from misinformation.