A Feature Review of
Faith and Fake News: A Guide to Consuming Information Wisely
Rachel I. Wightman
Reviewed by Cynthia Beach
It’s the questions. They’re timely—and very, very important: How do I know what to trust online and on social media? How do I talk with people in my life who seemingly believe conspiracy theories or misinformation, or at the very least have opinions different from mine? What does it mean to love our neighbor online?
When Concordia University librarian Rachel Wightman began encountering these questions again and again in her social circles from work to church, she decided that it was time for answers. The escalating political strive also motivated her—with the relational fallout she witnessed. People were beginning to avoid strained topics, which troubled her.
In 2019, Wightman began offering information instruction as one of the “equipping classes” at her church in Minnesota. From this class, her desire to serve and to teach grew, and the fruit was this book, Faith and Fake News. She articulates her thesis: “. . . to help Christians understand the information landscape, to think about how their faith intersects with their online spaces, and to help them be wise consumers of information.”
So, how do we understand our information landscape and become wise consumers? First, Wightman anchors her discussions in Ephesians 4:14-16. Paul’s words call us to maturity. These verses insist that we won’t “be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies . . . . Instead, we will speak the truth in love . . . .” Then she carefully notes the difference between misinformation and disinformation—the latter being intentionally incorrect information.
Wightman’s discussions are divided into three parts: “The Information Landscape,” “Evaluating Information,” “Deciding What to Do.”
In Part One, “The Information Landscape,” Wightman constructs a primer on how information on social media, Google, operating systems, apps, and other systems is structured. She explores how algorithms function and how companies use them to collect data, which begins to predict our online behavior. This is called “personalization.” Personalization is at once an effective—and troubling—outgrowth. After all, the algorithm that introduces me to the next TV show I might like can also isolate me on an island of my own preferences. She supports this concern with words from author Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble) who says, “…you don’t actually see what gets edited out.”
Read widely– the worthy motto of many educators and students alike– is jeopardized as personalization constantly narrows my internet gleanings. Wightman says, “And by missing out on information, we miss out on the opportunity to get a more nuanced view of the world… This limited view makes us less able to understand current events but more importantly hinders us from connecting with others and potentially from understanding their viewpoint.” Our views become more limited and more reinforced by the invisible work of personalization.
Wightman also criticizes what can be a bad habit: only using free information. We have an expectation “that [information] should be free.” Paywalls discourage our reading—we leave a site and scroll back to what’s free—and this, too, can lead us astray. She encourages her readers to subscribe and pay for trusted sources of information.
In Part Two: “Evaluating Information,” Wightman first asks us to notice our emotions. She wisely notes that human complexity demands this initial exploration. Interestingly enough, “anger is the emotion that travels fastest and farthest on social media,” a 2014 study reports. In dealing with emotions, she offers several steps: first, stop scrolling when strong emotions arrive. Label what emotion you’re feeling before “[reframing] the events or news articles in factual language. Name the who, what, where, and when without personal judgment.”
In Chapter 5, Wightman offers fact-checking tools galore: fact-checking websites like FactCheck.org, lateral reading, finding experts, and finding the original source. And what kinds of information might we need to fact-check? The list is longer than I expected: political memes, quotations without context, inflammatory headlines, divisive issues, and images.
Finally, in Part Three: “Deciding What to Do,” Wightman underscores the role of discernment and choice. One of my favorite points here amidst exploring humility and other virtues was “Holding the Tension.” Here she reminds us that we don’t have to choose between faith or facts. Instead we can use a both/and approach, finding a place in the middle.
Perhaps here where she records responses that have surprised her like the participant who assumed science could not be trusted at all, she’s touching on the response of some Christians who hold their beliefs in what Richard Niebuhr would call “Christ against culture.” In other words, this type of Christian believes that all things in our world must be held suspect. This camp within Christianity assumes an adversarial posture against our world—unlike other categories from Niebuhr like “Christ equals culture” or “Christ and culture in paradox.”
Christians who aren’t in the “Christ against culture” camp may find more room to explore. Wightman says, “I’ve been told that I over spiritualize these topics, that maybe this is all a bit too much. Does Jesus really care about what we post on social media? Or whether we retweet that news article on Twitter? Does Jesus care whether we accidently share misinformation on our Facebook page or Instagram? He does.”
Faith and Fake News is marvelously helpful. Each chapter ends with reflection questions and exercises. For example, in confronting our filter bubbles– that is, how personalization has narrowed what we’re shown– one exercise moves us through multiple steps to better see what filter bubbles are at work in our online searches. A list of other resources follows the multiple exercises. Books, organizations, and documentaries are listed for reader support. This book would powerfully support and equip Sunday school classes who are seeking answers.
A librarian is an information detective. A good one knows the field, and Wightman certainly belongs in this category of “credible.” In her book Faith and Fake News, Wightman expresses her concerns for the space where Christian experience and social media intersect. It strikes me as very valuable—as are Wightman’s answers.
Cynthia Beach is a longtime English professor at Cornerstone University and author of Creative Juices, a book on writing. Her #ChurchToo novel, The Surface of Water, will be available this fall. She cofounded Breathe Christian Writers Conference and founded Breathe Deeper, A Writing Retreat. Visit her at cynthiabeach.com.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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