One of the most pervasive examples of the Internet’s power to shape popular culture is the sharing of messages on social media like Facebook. Jokes, photos, or stories can quickly “go viral” as people share something with their friends, who then share it with more friends, exponentially spreading it through the Internet. And viral is a fitting description for information that spreads like a disease.
These messages may range from heartwarming to hysterical. But as a source of information they share a common flaw: there is no accountability. Readers understand that information from news sources, despite those sources’ biases and agendas, is fact-checked; presenting inaccurate information would make them vulnerable to lawsuits.
On the other hand, fiction posing as fact can spread like wildfire on Facebook, unchecked and virtually unstoppable. This may seem fairly harmless when sharing stories of human (or animal) loyalty and sacrificial love. But isn’t that sentiment cheapened when it masquerades as truth? Stories do not have to be true to be powerful, but when fiction is presented as reality, it becomes a lie.
Viral shares become really harmful when they are slanderous. If you browsed Facebook during the previous election, you saw “shares” that tore into the reputations of various politicians. Did you share these without question to support your own opinion? Or did you check the facts and the context? For example, if a politician voted against a bill, was it because he did not support the main issue or because the bill included implications that went well beyond the issue?
I believe that asking such questions is more than simply a matter of making sure we understand the big picture. In the end, it is our moral obligation to discern the truth in a world of misinformation and prejudice.
The Bible teaches God’s perspective on slander, praising the person “whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart; whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor, and casts no slur on others” (Ps. 15:2-3).
The usual understanding of slander is intentional misrepresentation of a person’s actions or character. But what about unintentional misrepresentation of a person? In the end, the results are the same—someone is harmed by falsehood. The excuse “I didn’t know” does not heal the wounds of slander.
We are called to a high standard of behavior: treating others with Christ-like love. This is not limited to friends and acquaintances but also to our enemies. So while I may disagree with a politician, I am still called to love him or her. One aspect of that love is a deep reluctance to spread negative information about anyone, unless we are specifically led by God to proclaim the truth.
Notice that the motivation does not come from any human agenda or feeling. It is limited to following God’s guidance and sharing only information that is true. We should not rush to cause others to react negatively against those with whom we disagree.
So next time you come across a post others have been sharing, pause for a moment. Check for relevant news articles or facts related to the topic. Remember that you are responsible for the accuracy of the information you share with others. Someone else may have created a lie, but you can choose whether to continue spreading it around.
Choose not to feed the fire of misinformation that runs rampant on the Internet. Check your facts and be careful of what you share. This is an important way to honor our God of truth.
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