Why Fake News Is a Good Thing

fake-news

Hello again, everyone! It has been a long time since I have posted a blog. I have to admit that dissertation writing has consumed a lot of my time and left me with little inspiration to write blog posts as well. However, I do hope to get back into the blogging habit over the coming months.

Today, on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration, I wanted to write a post about everyone’s favorite topic: Fake News. This has been a trend over the last several months, especially surrounding the 2016 Election. Many people have been duped by fake stories circulating on various websites, especially Facebook.

There was a New York Times article posted just yesterday about the creator of the fake news website ChristianTimesNewspaper and how he made a fair bit of money by posting extreme news stories which he made up. This guy, Cameron Harris, garnered a lot of clicks after posting a story about Hillary Clinton allegedly stuffing ballot boxes. Harris took advantage of a statement by President-elect Trump in which Trump noted a potential for the election to be rigged.

Harris’s website is just one among many out there posting fake stories. I myself have seen friends buy in to headlines and stories about the election, or about other “news” which seemed to be fishy to me. I would then go to Snopes.com and check into these headlines. Often, there would an article debunking these stories which had been shared many times on Facebook. I would post the link to the article from Snopes in the comments, but sometimes would get the push-back, “Snopes is not an unbiased authority! You need to not trust it as a factual site! It’s fake news!” Even the anti-fake news websites were getting branded as untrustworthy. Biased journalism was everywhere! Either news sources were too liberally-biased in favor of Hillary Clinton or they were too conservatively-biased in favor of Donald Trump. Nothing could be trusted. Both sides claimed theirs was the “truth.”

So why can the Fake News phenomenon be a good thing? I have spent way too many years in school working towards my degree. Over these past several years, I feel as though I have gained a valuable tool: how to critically think about sources. I feel like one of the most beneficial things about pursuing a college education, or degree of some type, is learning how to do correct research. I have also been working as an adjunct history professor recently at an undergraduate institution. One of the things I always have to address is how to research proper websites and proper authorities. This usually includes talking about Wikipedia, or other online sources which allow anyone to edit entries.

One thing that Fake News has taught us recently is to be skeptical of certain bold statements. For example, people want to simply attach “BREAKING NEWS!” to a random story in order to get clicks and website visits. This is logical, since like Mr. Harris mentioned above, website visits and clicks actually translate into real-world, literal money and revenue. Sometimes people are trying to become the next Onion.com, a wildly successful satirical website (one of my favorite recent imitators of the Onion is the BabylonBee). These comedic sites are usually looked at for entertainment purposes and people often know when visiting them or when seeing these websites’ articles shared on Facebook that the articles are fake and supposed to be funny. The problem arises when a website is unfamiliar or contains words in the title that make it seem legit. The title ChristianTimesNewspaper, mentioned above, could appear to be addressing actual world news from a Christian perspective. I have seen others with similar titles sharing fake stories with the purpose of seeing End Times type events in “the news.”

But the fact that Fake News has become a buzzword(s), including a popular hashtag on Twitter, has allowed people to be more skeptical when encountering headlines. This is a good thing. Critical thinking is a good thing. Reading a story or article with an eyebrow raised can be helpful and make readers wonder if the story they have just read is fake, real, or at the very least, unverified. One major thing I have learned in my years of research is how to check sources, which sources are typically more trustworthy, etc. For example, picking up a monograph from Oxford University Press that is filled with footnotes and sources is much different than reading a source which has no notes or bibliography and is self-published on Amazon. Both might be good sources, but you need to do more digging with the second book.

I’m curious what you all think. Is Fake News a bad thing? Or, like I have mentioned here, can it be helpful? Can we “trust” any news sources anymore? Who has the time to chase down all sources for an article that someone shared on Facebook? There are positives and negatives, but I think overall Fake News has created more critical thinkers.

The Love of the Spirit in an Age of Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

Greetings, everyone and apologies to my readers for the lengthy gap between posts. I was working on a chapter for my dissertation over the last few months. Usually this blog focuses on figures from church history. We have examined men and women from throughout church history, from the beginnings of Christianity up through to very recent examples. Today’s post, however will look at two very recent, very polarizing events in the United States: the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I want to frame a discussion of these events in light of the popular Bible passage on the “fruits of the Spirit.”

This past Sunday at my church, the pastors began a new series on the fruits of the Spirit. If you are unfamiliar, these are found in Galatians 5.22-23. This passage notes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (NIV). The pastors at my church are going to take a week-by-week look at each “fruit,” and this past Sunday’s focus was on love. The sermon covered a lot of elements of love and community, especially examining Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches (John 15.5-12). I really enjoyed the pastor’s linking to Jesus’ picture of love: between Jesus and God and between fellow humans. However, I found myself wondering what Galatians means when talking about love.

As the pastor was giving context for the passage of the “fruit of the Spirit,” I was looking for passages nearby that include the word “love” (in the NIV at least, which I had open at the time). I found 5.13-14 to be helpful. It says, “Serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Okay, so humility is important. Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is important (this one is pretty well-known). These didn’t really blow the roof of my doors, so I turned to chapter six hoping for something more. Galatians 6.2 says “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (NIV).

Now we’re talking.

This passage set my mind spinning in a number of different directions. Full disclosure: I am a white male. I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life living in Ohio, the last 6 of which were spent in a town that was about 10,000 people and probably 95% white. My high school (in the suburbs of Cincinnati) was mostly white. I went to Ohio State, which was a pretty diverse place, especially compared to the two aforementioned towns. I now live in a very diverse city (Los Angeles), and have for about 5 years now. However, I might be as confused as ever about the plight of African Americans in this country.

Back to Sunday. After I read Gal. 6.2 I began to get really frustrated, even angry. I spent a little bit of time last week dialoguing on social media about the two murders of black men by police officers. However, sitting in church and reading a passage that said I am supposed to show love by “bearing the burdens” of my black brothers and sisters caused me a great deal of consternation. How on earth can I bear that burden? How can I, as a white male living in a world of white privilege bear the burden of others in this country when I don’t have to deal with the same fears and realities that they do? This past week we saw a black man who was selling CDs wrestled to the ground by two cops, get shot several times, and killed. Then just a day or so later, a woman live-streamed a video on Facebook after her boyfriend had been shot four times by a cop (who was still pointing the gun at the victim) as the victim was reaching for the requested license, proof of insurance, etc. The ensuing outrage of the country was provoked, and several protests arranged (one ending in a horrible circumstance in Dallas after a lone gunman ambushed police). The Black Lives Matter movement organized, and continues to organize, protests. Some of these protests have resulted in viral videos of camaraderie between police and protesters, between white and black individuals. While this is a good thing, it has yet to solve the problem.

This brings me back to my questions from Sunday. How can I as a white man in a world of white privilege bear the burdens of my black brothers and sisters? Is it possible? I have never left my house fearing that I might later that day be killed. I have been stopped by police before (for speeding, at random sobriety check-points, and even after I swerved across a lane line on a freeway because I was getting drowsy). In each and every one of those interactions with police, I have never for even half of a second worried that one of those cops would pull a gun and shoot me several times. This is sadly not the same reality for black Americans. Black lives don’t matter enough in this country, and that’s a major problem. That is something that needs to change, but how? What’s the answer?

I have been wondering this week what I can do to bear their burdens. Do I need to protest at Black Lives Matter rallies? Do I need to support legislation and/ or call my senator? Do I need to “just pray?” None of those seem like enough. I would love some of my African American readers to provide insight on how white people in this country can help, because we have to. In fact, a recent Christianity Today article addressed this very topic. All I know is that we can’t keep responding with statements of “Hold on, let’s wait and find out all the details before we charge the cops with murder.” That allows the problem to continue. That shows just how systemically racist this country still is.

I want to close with a quick account from later in my church service on Sunday. Our church sang the song “You’re a good, good, Father” at the close of service. I found myself wondering if songs like that in a time like this would cause pain among African American Christians. I also found myself starting to think, “Yes, God you are good, but please help this country.” I found myself pondering Psalm 13.1-2: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Again, I am a white male, and I find myself greatly outraged. How do my black brothers and sisters read this Psalm?

So I end by saying, I don’t actually know what to do. I don’t know how the “love fruit” of the Spirit can be evident in my life when I live in a world of hatred. I pray for change in this country. I pray for justice, for mercy, for peace. Most of all, I pray for African Americans to finally be treated equally with white Americans.

I welcome your thoughts on this with the goal of having a discourse.

Midweek Blog: Terrorists and Their Other Victims

Syrian-refugees-landing

Today’s blog will continue our recent discussion of American church history, but it will concern some recent tragic events. As most of you are undoubtedly aware, there was a horrific terrorist attack in Paris on Friday, which killed 129 people. What has followed the attacks, in the USA at least, has been a war of words regarding whether or not we as a country should allow over 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country. In fact, 31 states’ governors have voted against allowing any refugees into their respective states. Those who have been arguing such a position point to the fact that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks came to France as a Syrian refugee. Recently there has also been renewed debate over Islam as a religion in and of itself, with many people claiming that mosques with any ties to terrorists should be shut down. While we can and should debate all of these points, today I want to look at a selection from a poem written in 2001 entitled, “First Writing Since.”

The poem is in response to 9/11 and how Muslims in the country had to deal with the fear/ suspicion they encountered everywhere. The old cliche is “history is bound to repeat itself.” Unfortunately, people are still having to deal with suspicion and fear directed at them because of the actions of a few. The author is a Palestinian-American Muslim woman named Suheir Hammad (text in Harvey and Goff, 531-533). I think this poem gets at many of the frustrations that people are feeling right now in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Hammad writes, “first, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot’s heart failed, the plane’s engine died. then please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now. please god, after the second plane, please don’t let it be anyone who looks like my brothers” (Harvey and Goff, 531).

The author here shows that she understands what is to come, specifically the blaming and the suspicion that will be leveled against those who “look like” the attackers. She notes that her first thought was “please let it just have been a horrible accident.” Unfortunately, it was not and that led to a time of great trouble for Muslims in America.

Hammad later writes, “most Americans do not know the difference between Indians, Afghanis, Syrians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus. More than ever, there is no difference… one more person ask me if I knew the hijackers… one more person assume no Arabs or Muslims were killed… we did not vilify all white men when McVeigh bombed Oklahoma” (Harvey and Goff, 532).

These are some of the most poignant lines from the poem. Hammad notes how Indians, Afghanis, and Syrians were all lumped together in the aftermath of 9/11 as well as Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh. Hammad touches on how each were persecuted as though they “knew the hijackers.” Clearly, she herself has been asked that question. The notion that someone would ask that of a Palestinian Muslim shows just how the suspicion of Muslims hit a fever pitch in the wake of 9/11. She makes the powerful statement that just because one white man (McVeigh) killed over 160 people when he bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building doesn’t mean that we should blame all white men. The very idea that white men in the USA would all be blamed equally for the actions of one seems far-fetched to say the least. But, it’s not far off from what Muslims went through after 9/11 and what Syrians are going to have to go through in the coming weeks. One seems preposterous, the other seems like a foregone conclusion. Anyone else see what’s wrong with that picture?

The final selection I want to include offers hope. Hammad writes, “thank you to the woman who saw me brinking my cool and blinking back tears. she opened her arms before she asked, ‘Do you want a hug?’ A big white woman, and her embrace was the kind only people with the warmth of flesh can offer… There is death here, and there are promises of more. there is life here. anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting, but breathing for sure. and if there is any light to come, it will shine from the eyes of those who look for peace and justice after the rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix has arisen. affirm life. affirm life” (Harvey and Goff, 532-533).

These are powerful statements. In the first part of the selection, a white woman shows how comforting and welcoming people can be, despite widespread suspicion and hatred. Sometimes people just need a little kindness. The second half of the quote shows that even though we as a nation were hurting, and Muslims in particular were feeling ostracized, we were (and currently are) all still breathing. That means that we are alive. We must “look for peace and justice” and “affirm life.”

Now, how can we do that? Does that mean we have to let anyone come into our country without being careful? I don’t know. I think it means that we need to start seeing this number of 10,000 refugees as more than just a huge number, and as more than a potential for terrorism. There are living, breathing people that are fleeing a war-torn world. I don’t know the logistics that are involved with “vetting” these refugees nor do I know how they will acclimate to life in the United States. What I do know is that we need to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of our past. Just 15 years ago, we turned our backs on many Muslims in this country because they “looked like the terrorists.” We ought to be so ashamed of this past that we are vigilant to not repeat the process. Not all refugees are potential terrorists. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we will be able to “affirm life.”