Fake News and Covenantal Thinking
Fake news is more than just false reporting.
– Inside the Soviet Alternate Universe: The Cold War’s End and the Soviet Union’s Fall Reappraised, Dick Combs
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Welcome to Episode 41 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about an an issue that has become big in our days. Namely, fake news. We’ll be talking more than just about fake news, as you may have guessed, because as I said in the very first episode of Axe to the Root, we want to look at every topic from the perspective of covenantal thinking, that is, make an ethical/judicial analysis of every topic we are touching, based on the Word of God and specifically on the Law of God. Because fake news means we will be touching issues of truth and falseness, and truth is never ethically neutral; it is never just some intellectual proposition or metaphysical statement; there is always some deeper ethical/judicial reality behind everything we call “truth.”
Contrary to what many believe, the phenomenon of fake news did not appear just recently. Neither did it appear with the Internet, let alone with the social media. Fake news have always existed – especially in the 20th century, especially before the Internet. Under Communism, the media were always fake news – although, as we will see, they always reported the correct facts, and yet, they were fake news. Media in the US was a notch better in the 20thcentury, because of the greater openness of the American society. But in general, the media had a hold on the news, and there wasn’t much accountability for fake news. I have in my possession a dozen journals from the 1930s through the 1950s, called Time Capsule, each one a history of a specific year from the pages of Time Magazine for the year. Since most of them concern WWII and the period right before it, a period whose history I know in exhaustive detail (being a WWII history buff), it is interesting to me to see how the reported news at the time sometimes had very little to do with what actually happened, from our knowledge 60 or 70 years later. Much of the reporting and analyses Time Magazine did at the time were rather very closely following the official government propaganda of the FDR administration. Yes, the facts were correct, and there was a wider coverage than, for example, in the news in the Soviet Union. But in general, the slant is obvious.
Social media indeed made fake news even easier to spread, but, ironically, also made it easier to spot and refute. In general, the Internet helps more than it harms. It also made it possible to raise awareness of the existence of fake news. I know, I know, this awareness was recently popularized by politicians and media trying to smear their opponents, but now that the cat is out of the bag, no politician and no media can remain immune to scrutiny. For whatever motive they all decided to raise the issue of fake news, it is all turning on themselves now. Media on both ends of the spectrum are now thoroughly scrutinized and found guilty of fake news, whether they are FOX News and Breitbart or CNN and MSNBC. That, of course, in addition to websites that are straight committed to producing fake news for the purposes of political propaganda, like reports about mass gang rapes by Muslims in Europe (all of them factually false, not supported by any real data or statistics), or about impending coup-d’état by the military against Obama, or about ISIS members caught sneaking through the Mexican border (not a single one was even spotted). Yes, most of these sites continue spreading rumors and false news, and some of the more respected do it too, but there are checks and balances now. Much better than before.
Still, there’s much of it going around, and each one of us, once in a while, lowers their guard and allows some fake news to grab our attention and believe it. I have done it, too, and then later I look at it and I think, “What in the world have I been thinking? Such an obvious lie, I should have been able to recognize it as such on the spot, and yet I allowed to be tricked by it?” There is something in us that goads us to automatically accept fake news as legitimate, against our better judgment. In fact, it is this something in us, what produces that automatic reaction, that is the very reason fake news exist and thrive, even in a time when everything can be directly checked and verified. Fake news exist and prosper because of us, not because of the skill of their creators. And when we approach fake news from the position of covenantal thinking, our question must be: “What is it that makes us accept fake news?”
Y’all remember from our first episode that covenantal thinking is ethical/judicial thinking. Our faith produces in us certain habit of judging between good and evil. We are supposed to judge between good and evil all the time; no, scratch that, we can’t but always judge between good and evil all the time. No matter what we are engaged in, at any minute of the day, we are judging between two ethical choices. Some choices may not be fundamental and important, but only peripheral, others may be, but at any minute we decide what to do with our time and resources, and this is only because we value one thing and we devalue another. And when we are mature, Biblically-oriented, our standard for judging – and even the topics on which we meditate and make choices – are Biblical, and based on the Law of God and on His Covenant of Grace. But we are not always mature, and we are not always discerning and careful to judge between good and evil according to the Word of God – and I will be the first to admit that I am just as guilty of such lapses as anyone else – and most of the time our perceptions of reality are based on presuppositions different from what the Word of God teaches us. Our focus is on ourselves, we judge the world based on our own ego, and our verdicts just follow what our ego tells us. And when we do this, we are just eager and ready and willing to find some confirmation of our prejudice. If I am white and obsessed with my whiteness, I will be eager to hear any kind of “news” that tell me how great the white race is and how the blacks are always lower in IQ and have greater crime rate etc. Of course it’s not prejudice; it’s statistics, it’sscience right? If I am black and I am obsessed with my blackness, I will always tend to hear all kinds of news that prove that black is better. If I am anti-immigration, I will always be eager to hear and accept any news that tell me why we should close our borders, and why all Muslims are the same, rapists, low IQ, etc. Our presuppositions about the world will serve as the filter for the news we want to allow to reach our eyes and ears. Not just our intellectual presuppositions, but also our judicial presuppositions, those that help us decide between good and evil. And most of the time, as we are not still sanctified, these judicial presuppositions have a simple form: I am good, and everything related to me is good, and everyone different from me is bad. And fake news feed on this filter. It may be fake, but it fits our false system. So we accept it as valid.
And indeed, every time you read some fake news, pay attention: it is often directed towards making some people feel good about themselves; especially against other categories of people. Or, most of the time, it is directed towards making people afraid for themselves, against other categories of people. Feeling good or feeling fear, it is always about ourselves against other categories of people. But before fake news can be accepted, we have already accepted a value system that centers on ourselves, against other categories of people. And this rotten foundation is the perfect soil for the fungus of fake news. This is what makes us accept even the most bizarre and outlandish stories that have no foundation whatsoever.
Recently, I watched a video in which Paul Washer was approached by activists from AHA, Abolish Human Abortion, and watching the video, I was shocked what things Washer said he heard about AHA: that their activists were breaking into churches and tearing the place completely down and vandalizing property, etc. Joel McDurmon in his article on American Vision website ascribes it to false information (that is, fake news) that someone gave Washer, which is correct, he was a victim of deliberate misinformation. However, Joel still didn’t cover the issue, what in the world made Washer even accept such rumor as probable? I mean, I have been told the same things and yet, it didn’t even register, it was so absurd that I just laughed it off. Paul Washer in that video was, at the beginning, very seriously talking to these guys as if he was absolutely serious such an accusation was true. It was just bizarre.
The real reason is, it must have resonated with some false presuppositions Paul Washer has about the word, and about himself. I know, I know, you will tell me, he is a celebrity, I can’t judge him, etc., etc. And, to his credit, in the video he did seem to change his mind and he said he would read their literature, which is good. But no matter what you believe about him, and even with his change of mind, it is still true that initially, something made him accept obvious lies for valid truth. Why? The logical answer is: Like everyone else, Paul Washer has certain false presuppositions about the world. The fake news he was served just confirmed what he already believed, that he and his category of people are good and someone else – someone in a different category – was evil. And there, it immediately clicked, and Paul Washer was convinced that an obvious lie must be true. And it took 15 minutes of active persuasion for him to even begin – with suspicion and reluctance – to accept that he might be wrong. If a celebrity like Paul Washer can fall victim to his own false presuppositions, we know why fake news continue to thrive, even in a world of easy verification of all news.
But this is not all. When it comes to fake news, we are used to think of it as incorrect presentation of the facts. Or, presenting non-facts. Or, false reporting of true facts. When we focus on the reporting of facts, we are thinking as Greeks, imagining that the essence of truth is in the facts. “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Just give us the real, material, objective facts. Truth, however, is not purely metaphysical, objective, impersonal facts. Yes, there is such objectivity in the universe, although it is not impersonal: all objectivity is in the mind of God, so it is all personal, as Van Til taught us. When we come down to the level of human beings, truth is not in the bare facts themselves but in the ethical/judicial interpretation of the facts, in what the facts speak to our moral conscience, to social justice (no, not socialist justice but justice in the society), to the meaning and purpose of man and his institutions. We already know from Romans 1:18-22 that both we and the unbelievers look at the same facts and see the same God in them. But the same real facts turn into truth for us and error for them. The difference is in our moral commitment, in our ethical/judicial foundation, in our covenantal interpretation of the facts. The same facts are interpreted differently – without changing the facts themselves – and thus the two parties come to diametrically opposed conclusions, one true and one false. It is all in our ethical commitment: man is an ethical being first and foremost; he is defined by his ethical commitment and choices; and, take this, truth is defined by his ethical commitment and choices. Two men with two different ethical systems will come to two different conclusions from the same real facts.
Now, let me repeat this, and then we will come to a rather surprising conclusion: two men, with two different ethical systems, will come to different conclusions about truth from the same real facts. And then, logically, the same real facts will produce true understanding in one man and false understanding in another. And now, hold on to your chairs, this corollary is very important to us: Fake news can be produced even by reporting real, objective facts, provided they meet a mind committed to a false ideology, or to a false interpretation of reality. In other words, if one wanted to produce a false perception in his listeners, he doesn’t have to lie about the real facts; he needs to influence their interpretation of them.
Eugene Lyons, an American writer and journalist who was born in Russia but his parents emigrated to the US, wrote in 1967 a book titled Workers’ Paradise Lost, about the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution in Russia, giving an account of the development of Communism, showing that the conditions of the Soviet worker haven’t improved under the Communist regime but to the contrary. In it, he gives some interesting facts of his life in Soviet Russia as a correspondent of United Press International. (He started his work there as an admirer of the Soviets, and ended up completely disappointed with them.) During the Great Depression in the US, Soviet propaganda gave detailed accounts of all the horrors of the Depression – very true, real accounts. Lyons recalls that his Russian friends, despite the fact that he confirmed to them the reality of the Great Depression, didn’t believe him that it was really happening; they thought it was some sort of a hoax. The reason? If their own Soviet media were reporting it in such detail, it must not be true. Lyons was not able to convince them.
In a more recent story, Yale Richmond, US foreign service officer for 30 years during the Cold War, tells about Soviet diplomats and officials visiting the US in the 1980s as part of exchange programs during the Gorbachevian perestroika. When those Soviet officials were taken to see American supermarkets, they were astonished at the abundance and availability of food, and most of them didn’t want to accept that this was anything more than a Potemkin village, something put up for the show, just to impress them. One wanted his hosts to drive him to different places and let him pick which store he would visit, to make sure it was all true. Another one, when their car got stuck in the traffic of Los Angeles, expressed the opinion that the American government just brought all these cars together to impress him, as a propaganda stunt. Richmond also said that for some of these officials, the realization of the truth led to some serious psychological depression. Boris Yeltsyn, when he visited Houston in 1989, also confided that he was close to depression and hopelessness about the Russian people, so shocked was he of what he saw, of the difference in living standards.
Now, think about it. In the first case, back in the 1920s and 30s, Soviet officials didn’t believe a real story, even when confirmed by an American, even though it served their own cause and their own personal and national pride, in a way. In the second case, in the 1980s, Soviet officials didn’t believe even what they saw in front of their eyes, and when they had to accept it, it led to psychological issues. In both cases, a real story was distrusted, because of pre-existing prejudice, an apriori ethical/judicial interpretation of reality. In one case, it was an ethical/judicial assessment of their own government. In the second, it was an ethical/judicial assessment of the American government – whether it was true or false is another matter, what is important is that it was accepted apriori, as the foundation for interpretation of reality. Reporting real events eventually led to fake news, only because of the frames of interpretation.
And it gets even more complicated. In our first example, where Soviet officials didn’t trust Eugene Lyons about the Great Depression, their ethical/judicial frame of interpretation was actually true and correct: the Soviet government was indeed a government of liars and lies, and its media were not to be trusted. But when real news came from a source that was not trusted, the immediate conclusion of those who had the truthful frame of interpretation was that the news was false. You see that? Even real reporting, can sometimes create fake news, and even if reflected through a somewhat correct ethical/judicial frame. Understand the complexity of the problem?
I have explained the complexity of the problem even further in an article some time ago, titled, “Ferguson: Capitalizing on the Stupidity of the Conservative Voter,”, on BojidarMarinov.com. I know, I know, the title is rather provocative, but in short, sometimes fake news can be created by a group in government by simply creating a conflict, playing both sides of the conflict, and presenting different picture of the same events to both sides of the conflict, and all this while both sides have legitimate concerns. And this is only one of many ways fake news can present itself to us, not through a direct lie, but an indirect influence on our ethical system through which we evaluate all events. We have to understand, without being conspiracy theorists, we still need to be prepared to meet fake news where we least expect it.
Our presuppositions, especially in their ethical aspect, in that aspect which determines good and evil for us, are always the product of our faith. That’s why Christianity is a creedal faith, we have to know what we believe and we have to be able to profess it, credo, in order to be able to build our understanding of the world. Our ethical/judicial system of thought must be self-consciously based on our conscious understanding of our faith and its presuppositions. We need to be able to respond to anyone who is asking us about our faith (1 Peter 3:15). Not just memorizing a creed or a catechism; we need to be able to know how the specific points in our creed translate to the specific circumstances in our society and our time in history. In order to have a solid ethical system, we need to develop – renew – our minds (Rom. 12:2). At every step, our professed faith must be professed only in ethical/judicial applications to the world outside our own heart and our church. A young friend of mine who is a Reformed Episcopalian pastor, started online videos for catechising his listeners. My advice was: Every lesson must speak practical justice and righteousness to something in the world outside. Catechism is important; but catechism without ethical/judicial application will quickly translate into dead faith. Only when his listeners have their minds prepared to meet the ethical/judicial challenges in the world outside the church, they will be capable of preserving and growing their faith.
In a very real way, this is what modern governments do to the children who enroll in their government schools. On the surface, it seems like it is an ethically neutral system. In reality, it is a system of catechizing the children. They are not even catechizing them into formal intellectual propositions about a religion; the catechizing leads directly to the ethical/judicial applications. The goal is to grow the children into minds already conditioned to interpret all the news. The goal is to make them know and judge good from evil according to the morality of the government system. In this way, the governments and their media don’t have to twist the facts for their listeners; they can just present to the the real facts, and they will expect that the children will be like the unbelievers described in Romans 1:18-22: seeing the real thing, believing and committed to a false ideology. Fake news didn’t start with facebook, it starts with your local government school.
Communist propaganda, thus, didn’t have to twist the facts. In reality, most of the time they reported the correct facts about the West. Perhaps there was a slant here and there, under-reporting some facts, over-reporting others. News about the war in Afghanistan, for example, were generally true, if incomplete. Reports about the economic data of the West were true. Even some American movies and shows were allowed on TV every once in a while. I remember when my father and I watched the TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man with Nick Nolte and Peter Straus. Watching most of the episodes, I couldn’t see any unusual until my father exclaimed, “Look, even the poor man has his own car.” Suddenly, I realized how different the world of the movie was from our own in Eastern Europe. But the Communists were sure that most people wouldn’t even notice the difference because most people’s presuppositions had been already shaped to see only that in the movie – even in a real American movie – which suited the Communist ideology. They could make fake news even from perfectly real facts.
The solution to fake news, therefore, won’t come from fact-checking websites. We can check all the facts in the world, and we can verify every single figure and statement and time and quote. We can report websites and we can make software that excludes those facts. Fake news will always be a plague, however, if we do not address the real covenantal source of them: our own system of presuppositions, and specifically our own system of ethics. If we have the wrong ethical commitment, if our ethics rotates around us and our group of people and automatically condemns other groups – whether on the basis of genetics, or economics, or place of birth, or denominational background, or professional or IQ status – we will inevitably create our own fake news, even if all we are served is only real, solid, proven, direct facts. Fake news is an ethical/judicial problem, not a problem of metaphysical reality. And the solution is ethical/judicial: justice and righteousness as the foundation of our whole being, and thinking, and action.
The book I will assign for reading this week is Inside the Soviet Alternate Universe by Dick Combs. Combs was a diplomat at the US Embassy in Bulgaria in the 1960s, and he had a very close perspective on the psychology of Communism. I know, it looks like I often return my readers to the experiences of Communism of the last century, but the reality is, this experience is the closest to us today in a comprehensive example of the culture created of a pagan ideology.
And please remember Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in your prayers and giving. We have tried to remain faithful to the call for preaching a comprehensive Gospel in Eastern Europe, training our listeners to develop that maturity which will allow them to judge between good and evil in everything, and thus lay the foundation for a Christian culture. Visit BulgarianReformation.com. Subscribe to the newsletter, and donate. God bless you all.