Coronavirus, racism and climate change were described as “the three pandemics of our time” by Bishop of Kensington Graham Tomlin, at the UK’s National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast this summer. He was echoing the words of Father Andrew Moughtin-Mumby, Rector of St Peter’s Church in Walworth, from the Church of England’s national online service lamenting racism towards the Windrush generation.
I’d like to add a fourth pandemic – disinformation – that makes countering the other three increasingly difficult.
The rise in disinformation and fake news has reached epidemic levels in countries around the world, with mounting concern about its negative impact.
This week’s release of the long-awaited report by MPs questioning the extent of Russian interference in UK elections has again shone a spotlight on the political use of disinformation.
But its impact has even wider consequences – including on public health.
In June, the European Commission said: “The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by an unprecedented ‘infodemic’. A flood of information about the virus, often false or inaccurate and spread quickly over social media, can create confusion and distrust and undermine an effective public health response.”
Without agreed ‘truths’ and facts that are widely agreed, it is hard to agree on a level playing field for debate and argument. Instead, we end up shouting at each other from our dug-in positions. Or simply giving up.
Discussions around racial justice can deteriorate into bitterness and acrimony when people of different ethnic backgrounds refuse to listen to each other, or believe only the rhetoric from their own community.
People refusing to accept the scientific evidence for climate change can dismiss the crisis as being a matter of opinion. Politicians reject anything they disagree with as ‘fake news.’
This is the world of ‘post-truth’ where people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.
In a new book, ‘Responding to Post-truth’, I set out a Christian response.
As Christians, we place a high value on the truth. We worship a God of truth who calls for honesty and truth from all those who follow him. In Christ, truth became incarnate and lived as fully God and fully man within a specific time and space. The Holy Spirit is the witness of truth in the lives of Christian disciples.
The Church and her members have not always lived up to this high calling, and we need to repent of whenever our leaders and institutions have covered up wrongdoing, and been economical with the truth.
Yet both the Church and individual Christians could play an important role by proclaiming Christ’s gospel of truth – and in pushing back against the tide of disinformation and fake news.
Churches can encourage dialogue across political, social and racial divides, bringing people together to air diverse views. We can build on our strong and enduring commitment to local communities. At a time when trust in national politicians is low, supporting the local is vital. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have regained an appreciation of the community on their doorstep.
Individual Christians can engage with views they may not agree with; think before they share anything on social media; challenge their own inbuilt worldviews; refuse to succumb to conspiracy theories; engage sensibly in social media; support independent journalism; be wary of how much news they consume and where it comes from; and take a stand against disinformation.
Post-truth, fake news and disinformation together pose a major threat to societies around the world. They can undermine progress on coronavirus, racism, climate change – and much more.
Christians have a vital part to play in bringing truth and integrity back into the centre of public life.
Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest