07 Dec 2023 Education, community key to churches seeking truth amid misinformation
The need to prioritize education and build community was highlighted during a webinar on 5 December that explored how churches have been involved in disinformation or misinformation, and what they can do to prevent this in the future.
A look at disinformation and misinformation
“Information itself is the basis on which all of our decisions are made, individually and collectively,” WACC Deputy General Secretary Sara Speicher, who moderated the discussion, said in her introduction.
Both information overload and information poverty present barriers, Speicher noted, while “misinformation and disinformation add another problematic layer that seems to divide society.”
Eliott Higgins, founder and creative director of the investigative journalism platform Bellingcat, spoke about the roots of disinformation.
“Often, if you actually look at where disinformation is coming from, and the misinformation that also goes along with it, the kinds of forces behind them are very similar,” he said. “They basically have social, technological, psychological, and emotional factors involved.”
While fact-checking and efforts to help people identify false information is “a noble effort,” Higgins stated, it addresses more “the symptoms of a far more fundamental problem that you have with society at the moment.” Instead, people must be engaged at a deeper level at a young age.
“Empower them with the tools to be open sources investigators…to investigate issues in their own areas as well as understanding issues around algorithms, social media, artificial intelligence that impact their lives,” he urged.
Misinformation from the Americas to Africa to the Philippines
Describing disinformation in her country, Kathleen Keefer, national vice moderator of Presbyterian Women in the US, said people had “become very partisan and separated from each other,” she said.
She noted that misinformation has come a lot from outlets such as Fox News. “ ‘News’ is a term used loosely,” she said, “it’s more commentary or opinion.”
These sources combine with social media to drive misinformation. “We have lots of conspiracy theories, and people in the US really like those and spread them on social media.”
Vaughn Geusppe Alviar, a communicator with the Philippine Independent Church, explained how “red-tagging” in his country has spread lies about pastors and activists.
“There’s a tendency to call us terrorists or to call us rebels, state enemies, subversives, and a lot more,” he said. “A lot of us have been troubled, and a lot of us have faced endless judgment, vilification, harassment, and insecurity in our lives.”
Lesmore Ezekiel, director of programs at the All Africa Conference of Churches, reflected on how “the truth” is perceived in Africa.
“I am confronted with the question of what is the truth—and who defines and determines what truth is, especially in a world that is equally driven by this notion of consumerism, where people think that we can just consume whatever is produced somewhere else,” he said.
Magali Cunha, a researcher on communication and religion at the Institute of Religious Studies in Brazil, noted the unique role of churches in an age overflowing with information and disinformation.
“Research has shown that religious environments are highly vulnerable to the circulation of disinformation,” she said. “Yet the social media accounts of church groups and their leaders are accredited as sources of truth.”
The panelists pointed to cases of churches becoming “super-spreaders” of misinformation largely because they are seen as trusted sources. As one example, Exekiel pointed to “church merchants” who “want to make money from miracles” and spread conspiracies around COVID vaccines.
Steps to address misinformation
Eliot highlighted the importance of a community-led approach that looks beyond single issues or pieces of information to the intersectional nature of misinformation. “Address the issues as one large issue affecting our society, not just certain groups.”
“Education and prophetic denunciation have to come together” for the churches to act against the spread of misinformation, Cunha said. She encouraged ecumenical organizations and churches to actively call out mistruths, cultivate an “attitude of distrust” to lies, and challenge people not to be ‘traffickers of false content.’”
Keefer also emphasized the need for education within the churches. “I would like to see a curriculum for all ages that addresses what fake news is, how to recognize it and how to investigate it… and what the truth of it is. If people know that, they are more likely to have a way to look at the news they are getting.”
Ongoing dialogue is key, Alviar said, listening to each other and also broadening the circle to include more young people and those who are vulnerable to misinformation “in conversations that are richer and bring more experience from the grassroots.”
Ezekial concluded, “We call on churches to form a community of meaning. All the expertise and competencies we need are in the church. How can we use them to fact check, and all other uses. If we do that, we can counter disinformation.”
A webinar in early 2024 will continue the conversation, Speicher stressed. She said the aim is to provide a resources and tools “so that our churches, our faith communities can be places where people can get answers, get trustful information, and work to promote right relationships within their communities.”
Webinar speakers (clockwise from upper left): Vaughn Geusppe Alviar, Magali Cunha, Lesmore Ezekiel, Eliott Higgins, Sara Speicher (moderator), and Kathleen Keefer.