On October 30, the CBS news in America announced that an invasion had begun.
From the moment the broadcast started the audience of about 32 million people was transfixed in horror as they began to understand that the future of the whole world was now being threatened.
People started to panic.
Once the director of the programming realized the impact of the broadcast, he made the choice to make a public announcement.
“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that *The War of the Worlds* has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be: The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying “Boo!”
The year was 1938. Within three weeks newspapers had published at least 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact.
As a trainee journalist in Australia in 1990 I was told that broadcast in pre-WWII America was why Australian law was so strict in governing what was, and what was not, news.
I was given a government produced handbook that summarized broadcast law, and there was always a sense of significant responsibility in producing the local news.
I only just realized that the American laws didn’t change. Welles and CBS apologized for any misunderstanding, but there were no fines and no legal consequences at all.
In America, the media is called “The Fourth Estate”. It has played an essential role in holding the executive, government and judiciary to account. This was most clearly seen in the “Watergate” incident that ultimately resulted in the resignation of a president and every subsequent governmental scandal being labelled with the suffix “gate”. People trusted the media.
That has all changed.
In this election cycle two things happened: First, The label “Mainstream Media” became a thing, and was used by particularly the right wing as a term of disparagement. And Second, a whole industry developed in producing “Fake News” which seems to have had a huge impact on the election.
An Assistant professor of Media and Communications at Merrimack College, Melissa Zimdars, has produced a list of these sites, and it is a long list. Most, but not all, would have been strongly supporting Trump in the election. As the professor points out, not all the sites are producing completely “fake” news, but they all are sites that are at least questionable.
Apparently in the weeks leading up to the election, the top stories from fake news sources attracted more engagement on Facebook than the top stories from legitimate news organizations.
On Monday both Google and Facebook announced that they would be taking action to ban fake news networks from advertising with them.
An indication of the importance of these websites is that the executive chairman of one of the biggest of them, Breitbart, is now the senior advisor to President-Elect Trump.
Trump also appears to be close to another fake-news producer, Alex Jones, who claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre and 9/11 were both faked.
Unlike Orson Welles, Steve Bannon and Alex Jones are not going to come on the air and publicly announce that what they are saying is not true.. Their livelihood depends on sensationalism that people believe. It is a different, more dangerous, kind of entertainment.
One person who has made a living from fake news said:
Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore – I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.
So what does all this mean? Democracy in the United States is in trouble, because democracy relies on an informed public.
What appears to be happening through the advent of Social media and the Internet is that people surround themselves with messages from people who agree with them, rather than challenge them. It is too easy to live in a comfortable echo chamber than to be open to truth which is often uncomfortable.
In a world where “truth” has become loosed from reality, the simplest way to avoid conflict is to let everyone do whatever is right in their own eyes. The bible doesn’t let us get away from that.
We are not called to blind trust, we are called to strive for truth.
The book of John was the last gospel written, and it was written in a context where there were lots of competing stories about what was true. The word “truth” appears 43 times in the books 21 chapters. It seems that truth is not something we should take lightly.
Jesus tells us that truth has to be at the very center of our worship:
But the time is coming-indeed it’s here now-when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4:23-24 NLT
It is interesting that at the crucial moment where Pilate hands Jesus over to death, he sounds like a modern politician, making it blatantly clear that political expediency rather than truth is what makes his decisions for him::
Pilate said, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked. John 18:37-38 NLT
It is also in John (chapter 20) that we see Thomas who wouldn’t believe till he saw evidence.
The bible isn’t scared of truth, and Christians also shouldn’t be scared of the quest for truth, in fact that is what the purpose of the Holy Spirit actually is:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. John 16:13 NLT
So learning to listen to the Holy Spirit is an essential part of discovering truth.
Jesus gives another clue about how to discern truth, particularly about people by pointing at what is produced by their lives:
A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. Matthew 7:15-20 NLT
The Apostle Paul gets specific about what kind of fruit we are to look for, on both sides of the equation:
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Galatians 5:19-23 NLT
We are called to discriminate between truth and lies, between character that produces life and character that produces death.
For the foreseeable future, we cannot just assume that people who proclaim themselves to be authorities are telling the truth.
We need to continually be ready to “test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God” like 1 John 4:1 tells us to.
As we do the work of stepping out of the echo chamber and into truth, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will help us, and that if we open our eyes, people’s character will be a strong clue to tell us who to trust.