Christians can be among the most gullible people on the Internet, says Ed Stetzer, social scientist and president of LifeWay Research. Stetzer writes in Christianity Today that he’s spent the last few weeks since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell gay “marriage” ruling playing whack-a-mole with Internet myths spread by fellow Christians. A lawsuit against Bible publisher Zondervan to remove verses about homosexuality, tales of pastors arrested in the United States for refusing to officiate same-sex ceremonies, and rumors of an ascendant movement to legalize pedophilia have all gone viral on social media since last month. But none of them are true, he says, or at least they haven’t been true in years.
The Bible lawsuit, for example, was a story someone exhumed from 2008. No pastor has ever been arrested in this country for sticking with Christian orthodoxy when it comes to sex. The story so many reposted suggesting otherwise was published by a fake, Onion-like news site. And while it’s true that The New York Times ran a lengthy article sympathetic toward pedophiles last year, its author never once suggested legalizing or legitimizing sex with minors. Nevertheless, all three stories ignited social media for days, as horrified Christians read headlines without reading much further, and “shared” the stories as confirmations of how quickly our culture is disintegrating.
These kinds of rumors do more than damage our credibility and witness, says Stetzer. They also distract from the very real news of social brokenness and threats to our liberty that have made it so easy to swallow fish stories of late. Whether it’s small business owners fined for living their convictions, the dramatic and heartbreaking rise of the “transgender” movement helmed by celebrities like Bruce Jenner, or the revelation that Planned Parenthood sells the body parts of aborted fetuses, we’re living in times that require no exaggeration.
But the problem goes deeper than an urge to grease the already slippery slope. Scripture has stern words for those who stretch the truth (Proverbs 12:22, 13:5, 14:5) and warns against enjoying “the words of a whisperer,” comparing them to “delicious morsels” that go down smoothly but fester in the belly (Proverbs 18:8). Even when it comes to negative stories, confirmation bias makes hearing what we expect to hear sweet to ears. We too easily revel in saying “I told you so,” especially when it looks like our culture is in genuine decline. But as those who have “put off the old man with his deeds,” Christians mustn’t lie to each other (Colossians 3:9). Above all, Christian love — the kind Christ himself modeled — never “rejoices in wrongdoing,” as some of us seem to on social media, “but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).
So how does Stetzer suggest Christians counteract the false stories and our impulse to share them? First, he offers a reminder: “It is YOUR job, yes YOURS — to check the facts. [These websites] are more concerned with gaining your page view than growing your credibility.”
It should go without saying, but the mere fact that a story appears on a sharp-looking website doesn’t make it true. Particularly when it comes to Internet-based news, many sources make their money through ad revenue rather than through subscribers (as with traditional print news). This makes for a strong incentive to sensationalize and even lie in order to get clicks.
Second, Stetzer urges Christians who have posted false stories to apologize to their online friends and post retractions. “It’s not that hard,” he assures readers. “It will sting a little bit because you’ll have to admit you were wrong, but it’s good for you. I promise.”
Telling our friends we’re sorry for misleading them with outrageous but untrue stories can go a long way toward restoring our image and reorienting our priorities around telling the truth, rather than winning attention with provocative headlines and chances to say “I told you so!”
Lastly, Stetzer proposes a simple solution in cases when it’s not clear whether or not a story is true: Don’t post it. Wait and look for confirmation from a reliable source. It can make the difference between dragging Christ through the mud and retaining the kind of credibility we need to weigh in on genuine issues.
“As Christians,” writes, Stetzer, “we have a higher standard than even the journalist. We aren’t protecting the reputation of an organization or a website, we bear the name of our King.”
And as ambassadors of that King every bit as much online as off (2 Corinthians 5:20), we should be even more concerned about protecting his good name than our own (John 14:6).