Why media literacy matters for Christians

January 25, 2021

If you’re like me—and I’m hearing from more and more people that they are—you have family and friends in your life who are believing some very interesting things about what is going on in our world today. Whether it’s COVID-19 related or a belief that the election was part of some conspiracy on the right or the left, many of our Christian brothers and sisters are being deceived and believing things that simply aren’t true. I am not God, and neither are you, so I can’t refute every false claim that comes at me with a counterpoint of truth. But Christians can and should exercise discernment as we engage with any and all forms of media. 

The need for discernment

Currently, there are some people who passionately distrust any information from the “mainstream media.” And yet, some of those same people are quick to believe what a random individual says on his YouTube channel or social media account. It’s true that there is broken trust between media outlets and the general public. People are tired of fear mongering and bias and many other things. I acknowledge that exists. Afterall, we are a capitalist society and when something sells—whether it’s good for people or not—someone will sell it. And fear sells. Thus, the 24 hour news cycle exists. So hear me say that I understand that distrust exists between the media and their audience. 

However, I don’t believe the answer is to disregard all forms of media and turn to the vocal, independent (and random) actors out there on the internet. Some Christians are operating on the belief that if they “remain in the Word” (you should) and then proceed to scour the internet for information that will assuage their anxiety and fear or confirm their beliefs or suspicions, their time in the Word will enable them to discern truth from falsehood. I believe this approach actually makes these people more susceptible to those that are seeking to capitalize on their fear. As I said before, fear sells. So if you start a YouTube channel (or a website, or an Instagram account) and start telling good stories with confidence, people will believe you. And if those stories are told in such a way that the viewer believes he/she is getting secret, never-before-seen knowledge, they will trust you even more. Furthermore, if your stories are driven by fear or anger, your audience will most definitely grow.

Many Christians in our churches don’t realize that there are people out there who are simply aiming to grow an online audience. Why are they trying to do this? Because you can monetize an online audience. These “truth-tellers” on the internet who are peddling conspiracy theories know this. They will ask you to share their videos and RT their Tweets or sign up for their email list for “exclusive” information. People who are doing this are trying to grow an audience so that they can make money. They exploit people for profit. So be wary of these folks in your search for “truth,” fellow Christian.

Three things to consider

Now, I am not here to tell you that the “mainstream media” is not also in the business of making money. They, too, must earn a profit or they can’t continue their work. The difference here is that these large media companies have processes and accountability (checks and balances) that individuals with an online platform typically do not. So here are a few things to keep in mind when you are tempted to disregard anything from a more established media outlet:

  1. Accountability. Your typical journalist/reporter has a boss that they are accountable to just like you are accountable to your boss. Because they are human, they will bring some bias into their reporting. But that does not mean they are purposely telling lies. They can’t or they’d be fired. As one person I know told me, when these reporters and journalists were trained in their skill, “simply misspelling one name could knock off enough points to get a failing grade on a story.”
  2. Review. Your typical news outlet will have several people who review content before it is published or put on the air. Again, this doesn’t mean bias doesn’t exist. But several people are doing their jobs to make sure the information or arguments being presented are credible. Even here at the ERLC, though we are not a media company, nothing is published on our site that hasn’t been vetted by many people with the sources checked for accuracy before publishing. We all know we are held accountable by the standards of our organization, so we cannot simply say whatever we want about a given topic. Every media outlet has its own bias, for sure, but it is simply false to assert the “mainstream media” is part of some conspiracy to play mind tricks on you.
  3. Fact check. Writer Hannah Anderson said it so well in a recent post, about how our ability to go directly to a source is much easier these days. So any news outlet worth their salt knows that people are able to “fact check” what they say. At the very least, this ensures that journalists are unlikely to push or promote ideas that are easily falsified by a simple Google search. Again, this doesn’t mean there isn’t bias. But we shouldn’t assume everyone is lying if they speak or write from a major media outlet. Rather we would be much better off to cultivate a “healthy” news diet by watching/reading multiple sources.

My friend Chris Martin, an author who writes about internet culture and social media trends from a Christian perspective, said this about our need to discern what various sources are saying:

“I have noticed that truth can often be found where the Right and Left outlets’ stories are the same. For example, if a Right outlet and a Left outlet both report that Event X occurred, that it occurred in City Y and that approximately Z number of people were impacted, all of that is likely true. When Right and Left then explain the implications of Event X, whether Event X was right or wrong, & perhaps who may be to blame for Event X, this is where bias may exist and the stories may differ. This isn’t always the case, but I have often found it to be so.” 

If as Christians we only trust the sources we find in the obscure corners of the internet, including websites with donate buttons and other obvious clues that they are out to profit off of their audience, we are actually trusting more in ourselves.

Hear me say this: we should be in the Word daily and we should be discerning as we engage with any media. But if “discernment” means that we only trust the person who says what we want to be true, I think that means we are putting our trust in ourselves and not the God who will help us discern. We must do better, Christians. Our public witness to a watching world matters and as we show that watching world how the Bible influences our ability to think and reason, we show that our God is living and active, not cowering in a corner waiting for his people to fix the mess here on earth. God is on his throne and in control. He is active in our lives and as we continue to wade deeper into 2021, I am incredibly grateful for that truth. 

Julie Masson

Julie Masson is the director of communications at the ERLC. She brings her fifteen years of marketing and communications experience from working for SBC entities and other non-profits to serve Southern Baptist churches. She directs the strategy and implementation of the organization’s comprehensive communications initiatives. Julie holds a Master’s degree … 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