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31 March 2017

Fake news and finding the truth that sets you free

Fake news and finding the truth that sets you free

Mark Walley is a project manager at Home for Good. 

In all the events that happened in the last seven days – the fallout from the Westminster attack, Article 50 being triggered, Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon having legs – one news story hasn’t got the press that it so rightfully deserved. Four hours after the horrific attack by Khalid Masood, someone tweeted a picture of a tube station information sign saying: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us, we will drink tea and jolly well carry on. Thank you.” 

By the end of the day the image had been retweeted by – at a rough estimate – every single English language Twitter account, reposted across all of Facebook, and presumably printed out and made into t-shirts. But the height of its fame was still to come: the next day the tube sign was quoted in the House of Commons by Simon Hoare, MP for North Dorset, drawing praise from Theresa May. The problem alas, was that the sign was made up. Dr John Moore, who had used an online sign generator to create the image, said in the aftermath: “I didn't think people would think it was real. Whoops. Now, the fake sign's words will be preserved in official records for as long as the British parliament stands. 

In fairness, the sentiment of the sign is pretty spot-on and it doesn’t contain any incorrect facts. (As a Londoner, I do question the tea-drinking part – tea is a soothing drink and all of us are far too tense with the price of housing to drink something relaxing. Vast quantities of freshly brewed coffee is what it should say.) But aren’t we supposed to be rigorous checkers of facts on social media these days? Didn’t the EU referendum and the US election teach us that random images thrown up on Twitter by people we don’t know might not be the most reliable source of information? 

And here perhaps is the problem. You can educate everyone one on the danger of fake news, but fundamentally people believe things they want to be true, often despite the evidence. You’ll have noticed this if you’ve ever been in a pub quiz where you’re convinced you’ve got the question right, only to hear the quiz master read out a different answer. Rationally, you should believe the quiz master and accept you were wrong about the release date of Spice World the Movie. In reality you immediately decide the quiz master must be mistaken. You grab your phone and check Wikipedia, only to find that yes, yes you are wrong. “But Wikipedia isn’t that reliable though, is it?” your brain whispers to you, so you double-check other sources. Eventually, you reluctantly concede that Spice World did in fact come out in 1997. 

People believe things they want to believe, and share the things that confirm what they believe, rather than acknowledging the truth. Changing your mind about something dearly held is a painful process; one no one wants to go through. Like repentance, which 17th century puritan Thomas Brooks called “the vomit of the soul”, it’s a painful process, but on the other side of it you feel so much better.  

When we encounter the truth that is revealed to us in Jesus, it can be painful to admit that we were wrong about something. We want to claim that we are right and will fight for the truth all the way if needs be. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells some people who’d believed in him: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” (John 8:31-32, NIV). Jesus himself is the truth, and in coming to him and accepting his teaching he shows us what is true and good. Whatever false facts we believe – about ourselves, about others, about the world – aren’t helping us. It’s worth going through that painful process of discovering the truth and acknowledging when we're wrong so, on the other side of it, we have the freedom Jesus promises.