All kinds of processes have some form of bias either inherent to the thing observed or introduced externally.  One job of a scientist is to analyze the bias and try to remove it from the experiment or theory in progress.  Clergy and theologians (and politicians) should be charged with this task as well, but, like Baruch Spinoza, I see way too many examples where clergy create or exploit bias for their own benefit.

I read with interest and dismay the October 2020, Scientific American article titled “Confronting Misinformation.” Dismay because the article summarizes research in respected, peer-reviewed scientific journals about how young people from junior high through college process information. The results were scary.

In one study, thousands of students in twelve locations including Stanford University undergraduates were given various tweets, emails, and Facebook posts to see if they could determine bogus from truth. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of those tested (often 70-80%) could not discern even the simplest of ruses. In one test given to very bright Stanford students, a listed US terrorist organization post was shown online as coming from a group of pediatricians. There were plenty of clues in the post to tell a discerning reader that something was wrong, but most of the Stanford students missed it completely.

Back when the Internet was a novelty and the public used it for sending cat videos and family photos, it wasn’t much of a problem. But in the past two decades, the Internet has transformed into a powerful spigot of news, information, opinion, and propaganda. It is a huge problem not only for politics, but public policy, public safety, education and religion today because these studies show that the public, and especially our young people are simply not adequately equipped to filter the garbage from the good stuff.

But there is more. An MIT study[1] in 2018 demonstrated that false news, rumors, and propaganda spread to a wider audience (by “sharing”) and travel much faster than truth. In some cases, the bogus traveled or spread six times faster than truth.

Using fake news and propaganda to change public opinion and perception is nothing new. Alexander the Great used it in the 4th century BCE to win battles. Major battles in WWII were won by spreading disinformation to the Japanese and the Germans. The Nazis changed public opinion towards the Nazi Party in the 1930s by sending out printed questionnaires or “plebiscites” where the questions contained false information that they wanted the German public to accept as true. But it’s a whole different ballgame today.

It’s a question of the cost and speed efficiency of spreading disinformation. The cost is now almost zero on the internet. There are no consequences for the person or group spreading disinformation. But the potential benefits are enormous. We need to look at this as a moral question because it violates “Thou shalt not lie.”

Like so many things ecclesiastical, I hope that our bishops will exercise their teaching authority on this major issue of our time. But I am not holding my breath.


[1] https://news.mit.edu/2018/study-twitter-false-news-travels-faster-true-stories-0308


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