Jesus answered, “… for this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
— John 18:37b-38.
“You know, it’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to get married over the age of 40.”
So says a male co-worker of Annie Reed, the female protagonist in the 1993 romantic comedy “Sleepless in Seattle.” Annie, a writer, and Becky, her editor and friend, are not impressed at this smirking commentary about the supposed desperation of women “over a certain age.”
“That’s not true. That statistic is not true,” Annie says. Becky backs her up: “That’s right. It’s not true. But it feels true.”
In the context of a pre-9/11 America, the dialogue is amusing. It is also revealing. We humans have a complex relationship with the truth, and our evaluation of it is heavily influenced by our desires and emotions. Scripture’s assessment of our desires and emotions, however, is not encouraging. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick,” said the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:9). If this is so — if we cannot tell the truth even to ourselves — how can we hope to speak truth in love to others?
What is Truth?
The Oxford Dictionaries define “true” as “in accordance with fact or reality.” In popular usage, according with fact does not leave much room for subjectivity since a fact can be proven by observation or deduction. Reality, on the other hand, is far less concrete. Though Christians believe there is but one reality, ordained by God, it remains that each person experiences it slightly differently. The problem comes when preserving one’s “personal reality” requires obscuring or ignoring facts.
This is, of course, precisely what happened in Eden: Never mind the fact of God’s unfailing care and companionship, reasoned Adam and Eve. In our reality, this fruit is good for food and pleasing to the eye, so it must be all right! This pattern continues today. Romans 1 tells us that the fact of creation’s existence points to the reality of God, but this is a truth many prefer to suppress.
What is remarkable about this moment in history is that we can observe the suppression happening wholesale. The unprecedented volume and accessibility of information both true and false mean that people with itching ears can easily accumulate teachers to suit their own passions. With social media, they can even do so publicly, influencing others as they go along.
This capacity has paralleled (and probably accelerated) a general decline in trust in what one writer in The Economist termed the “truth-producing infrastructure.” The pollster Gallup has quantified this, measuring the shrinking percentage of Americans who say they trust government officials, schools, religious organizations, news media, and other social institutions. Certainly these institutions must bear responsibility for their many confidence-eroding failures, biases, and abuses. But there is more to the story.
A Post-Truth World?
This past November, the same Oxford Dictionaries announced their 2016 Word of the Year:
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
The accompanying press release further explained that, “rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event — as in post-war or post-match — the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant.’” A post-truth world, then, is not one in which the truth has ceased to exist; it is one in which it no longer matters.
The political headlines of 2016 catalyzed the selection of “post-truth,” including the so-called Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. Commentators on both campaigns used the term with new frequency as they attempted to explain events that surprised them.
In the United States, the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton produced more than the regrettably typical spin-doctoring. According to FactCheck.org, Clinton made several particularly brazen mischaracterizations of her private email server over the course of many months. For his part, President Trump’s Twitter claim of an Electoral College “landslide” (his winning proportion was 46th of 58 historical elections) and popular vote victory among legal voters (even under the most generous assumptions, this is not plausible) hardly seemed serious. He was also untruthful about the Better Business Bureau’s rating of Trump University, and he falsely claimed that an audit prevented him from releasing his tax returns. What is notable from the post-truth perspective, however, is not the degree of untruth, but the degree to which each candidate’s supporters seemed not to care.
In the aftermath of the presidential election came an outcry over “fake news,” especially its propagation on social media platforms. In hindsight, the phenomenon seems almost inevitable. When content producers are incented to prioritize clicks over quality, and consumers care more about entertainment than edification, then the more outrageous the story, the better. Truth suffers. The problem is serious enough that Facebook has decided to act, changing its news feed algorithm and partnering with various news organizations to fact-check stories.
One of the more bizarre fake news stories was “Pizzagate,” a convoluted and slanderous online conspiracy theory connecting Hillary Clinton and her aides to a nonexistent child-trafficking ring run out of a real pizza restaurant. It convinced at least one person, who showed up at the restaurant to investigate armed with a rifle.
Other more benign examples abound, and they sometimes pull in more mainstream media. In December, a Knoxville newspaper reported that a terminally ill child had died in the arms of an actor playing Santa Claus. The paper has since retracted the story, but not before it “went viral.”
Duping people into believing false stories is not the only result of fake news. The proliferation of lies makes truth exhausting to find. With so much disinformation, it is hard to know what to trust. This is demoralizing. It may also be intentional.
University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci offers this pithy quote in The Economist’s September 2016 article about post-truth politics: “Information glut is the new censorship.” In the name of efficiency, states such as Russia, China, and the post-coup government in Ms. Tufekci’s native Turkey have taken to mass-producing false stories and disseminating them online via social media agents. For their purposes, muddying the truth is as effective as destroying it. That the Father of Lies would employ similar tactics across national borders should not escape our notice.
To make matters worse, deceit is so treacherous that its origins need not be malicious. Even reputable media sources can be ensnared when the desire to shed light on perceived reality— to communicate a “true” narrative — overrides adherence to the facts at hand. This happens more than we would prefer to admit, with the results ranging from embarrassing to catastrophic. Two major events from 2014 illustrate the danger.
Protests erupted in August after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, a young black man, in Ferguson, Missouri. Early reports, including social media posts, suggested that Mr. Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot. The phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot” and its accompanying gesture were used publicly and powerfully by demonstrators ranging from St. Louis Rams football players to members of the Congressional Black Caucus. After a grand jury failed to indict Officer Wilson, the United States Department of Justice investigated. The DOJ ultimately concluded that neither witness testimony nor forensic evidence supported the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative and that Officer Wilson acted in self-defense. The Washington Post Fact Checker column subsequently assigned “Hands up, don’t shoot” its maximum rating of Four Pinocchios.
On November 19, Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” a sensational story of sexual assault and subsequent institutional failure at the University of Virginia. The article centered on a young woman known as “Jackie” who recounted being raped by seven different men at a fraternity party in 2012. The article ignited protest marches, fraternity suspensions, and a heated discussion about “rape culture” at college campuses. However, follow-up investigation by The Washington Post cast doubt on Jackie’s story, and a Columbia Journalism Review audit criticized Rolling Stone for poor journalistic practices. The magazine eventually retracted the article, about which lawsuits are still pending.
In both cases, zeal to align with a narrative fueled blindness to facts. Both causes suffered in the eyes of critics because of their disregard for truth. Yet, in a post-truth world, the fallout is not straightforward. One example comes from Justin Hansford, a St. Louis University professor who, according to The Washington Post, “organiz[ed] legal and community advocacy after [Michael] Brown’s death”:
“Hansford said his Facebook profile photo remains an image of ‘Hands up’ because the message is consistent regardless of the positioning of Brown’s hands: ‘I don’t feel any way that I was somehow duped or tricked or that my picture was based on a lie. I think it is a very symbolic gesture that really speaks to the experiences of a lot of us, a lot of youth of color.”
This response seems particularly odd because the underlying narrative of racial injustice Hansford believes is factually true, even if “Hands up, don’t shoot” is not. On the same day it released its findings in the Michael Brown case, the DOJ published a broader report on the Ferguson Police Department. The report includes voluminous empirical documentation supporting conclusions such as this one found on page four: “Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias, including stereotyping. The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”
In this light, Hansford’s reaction is quintessentially post-truth. “Hands up, don’t shoot” is so emotionally satisfying — so resonant with his personal reality — that he has chosen to cling to it despite it being not only inaccurate, but unnecessary. It’s not true. But it feels true.
Weaponized Truth Manipulation
Media scholar Mike Ananny is not optimistic that Facebook’s efforts to stamp out fake news will succeed. Quoted in a piece on the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight, Ananny explains that “fake news may be a fight not over truth, but over power.” It is “evidence of a social phenomenon at play — a struggle between [how] different people envision what kind of world that they want.” In other words, a struggle between different views of reality.
The keen Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias put a characteristically fine point on this idea in an article for The Gospel Coalition. Zacharias distinguishes what he calls the “hard meaning” of post-truth, the meaning implicit when facts lose their persuasive power. “In this culture we willfully and justifiably convey something false because it accomplishes a personal or end goal,” he says. This is anything but a victimless crime. “Manipulators of the truth know that truth is only subjective when one has victimized others and needs a fabrication.” This comports with Ananny’s view of fake news as a power struggle, a construct that yields winners and losers.
Distortions of truth are no less insidious for being subtle. It sounds almost soothing to visit a family-planning clinic for reproductive health services to remove the products of conception. Here a string of euphemisms attempts to hide the truth that a homicide is taking place. The appropriate term for this hijacking of language is propaganda, and with it comes victimization. The ominous question is, how long will such obfuscation remain necessary in the post-truth world?
Seeking and Speaking
The post-truth era is quite a time to be a follower of someone who calls Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Christianity rejects the entire premise of post-truth thinking, but John 14:6 crystallizes its premise. The Bible also offers plenty of guidance on how to relate to truth, whether or not our culture is persuaded — or persuadable — by it.
We should first be truth seekers. In His High Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus asked the Father to sanctify His disciples (both contemporary and future) in the truth. He then suggested how this might happen: “Your word is truth.” This is in perfect agreement with the description of the blessed man in Psalm 1:2, whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Understanding more truth requires imbibing more Scripture. This is our fundamental anchor to ultimate reality.
A corollary to seeking truth in the Bible is rejoicing in subordinate truth about creation. Philippians 4:8 includes “whatever is true” in its list of suggested food for thought, and this encompasses factual knowledge gained from scientific investigation and other intellectual pursuits. If we are lovers of truth, we should always be humble enough to adjust our view of reality when new facts arise — we need never fear that anything true will undermine God’s Word.
Our duty also includes proclaiming the truth we have learned, both inside and outside the church. The book of Ephesians instructs us to do both, and for similar reasons. Speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) is a means of strengthening Christian brothers and sisters, both individually and collectively. A few verses later comes the call to expose “unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11-12) done by the world. Here, too, the purpose is the good of others.
This instruction is quite practical for acting in a post-truth context. We are not speaking truthfully if we repeat (or repost) something without confirming its authenticity. And even after doing so, our standard for sharing is the good of the audience. We must always ask why we are choosing to expose a particular bit of darkness — is it to build up or tear down?
Scripture warns us to manage our expectations about the outcome of truth-telling. The truth is uncomfortable to a world that has exchanged it for a lie. Even Christian believers are still prone to hide from truth. Paul feared that the Galatians would view him as an enemy when he offered truth intended to correct their belief and practice (Galatians 4:16). Yet the likelihood of conflict is no reason to withhold truth. Moreover, to do so would be unloving — no one benefits from persisting in a false reality.
A final response to truth is simply to believe it. Hebrews 6:18 reminds us that it is impossible for God to lie, which is significant because this is a God who has made promises to His people. Just before stating that He was the Way, Truth, and Life, Jesus repeated one of these truths to His disciples. He told them that He was leaving but would come back to get them so that where He is, they may be also (John 14:3).
It’s true. That promise is true. It feels too good to be true. But it is true.
Phil Mobley is a consultant and writer living in Lilburn, Georgia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science.