“Fake News” and the Rise of Censorship: A Biblical Response

by Patricia Engler on July 21, 2021
Featured in Patricia Engler
Share:

With concerns about “fake news” escalating, some governments and corporations are turning to censorship regimes. How have these events been unfolding, and how should Christians respond?

It's November 2017. Concerns about media misinformation have been rising worldwide, with a slurry of researchers already decrying the dangers of “fake news.” In response, the European Commission—the lawmaking branch of the European Union—has called a group of high-level experts together1 “to advise on policy initiatives to counter fake news and disinformation spread online.”2

Four months pass. The high-level expert group (HLEG), including members with backgrounds in academics, journalism, broadcasting, and professional fact-checking, publish their report.3 Observing that the term fake news “has been appropriated and used misleadingly by powerful actors to dismiss coverage that is simply found disagreeable,” the report opts for the word disinformation, defined as “all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit.”4

The report’s executive summary declares,

[D]isinformation is a multifaceted and evolving problem that does not have one single root cause. It does not have, therefore, one single solution. The HLEG advises the Commission to disregard simplistic solutions. Any form of censorship either public or private should clearly be avoided (emphasis added).5

Fast-forwarding to the present, we don’t have to look far to see that this warning has hardly been heeded. Let’s explore the recent rise of public and private media censorship to better think critically about the information climate we’re living in today.

The Rise of Public Censorship

So many governments have been cracking down on “fake news” that the Poynter Institute for Media Studies—one of the members involved in the HLEG—has compiled a lengthy list to keep track of all these new legislations.6 This guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world, complete with an informative map, observes,

The [HLEG’s] report, while imperfect, explicitly recommends not regulating against misinformation—but the EU is only one of many governing bodies that have sought to stem the flow of online misinformation over the past few months (emphasis added).7

So far, just a few of the government restrictions chronicled in the guide include France’s laws to block or remove “fake news” from online platforms before elections; Belarus’ legislation to prosecute those who spread “false information;” and Malaysia’s ruling to punish the sharing of “fake news” with fines of up to 500,000 ringgit (about $149,000 CAD) or six years in prison. Already, individuals have been arrested for promoting “fake news” in nations including Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Cameroon.9

Apparent limitations on speech have been rising in Canada too, and not only regarding “fake news.” Many Canadians are aware of recently proposed bills to regulate social media platforms9 and to criminalize messages which the government considers hate speech.10,11 In 2020, Canada also presented a Digital Charter which stated, “The Government of Canada will defend freedom of expression and protect against online threats and disinformation designed to undermine the integrity of elections and democratic institutions,” adding, “There will be clear, meaningful penalties for violations of the laws and regulations that support these principles.”12

The Rise of Private Censorship

Campaigns against messages labeled disinformation are by no means limited to governments. Tech giants and social media corporations have faced considerable flack for apparently jumping on the censorship bandwagon too.13 Through means including blocking accounts, removing posts, and manipulating search results, tech corporations regulate users’ exposure to materials which are considered politically offensive in certain nations14 or which fail to meet vaguely defined “community guidelines.”15

For example, in an article entitled “Should We Privatize Censorship?” one researcher noted that in a space between 2016–2018, Facebook removed over 800 accounts flagged as promoting “fake news,” while Twitter removed thousands more.16 The trouble is, tech corporations’ algorithms—including those used to detect and regulate “fake news”—are closely guarded industry secrets. In other words, people outside these corporations can’t know exactly how potential censorship is happening in order to keep tech corporations accountable. As a result, researchers and governments alike have called for tech corporations to make their algorithms more transparent.17,18,19

What Is a Biblical Response?

As Christians basing our thinking on God’s Word, how can we respond to today’s climate of increasing censorship? Asking God for wisdom from his Word—and for the boldness and humility to obey it—is a great way to start. The Bible burgeons with teachings relevant to issues of truth, lies, freedom, and the consequences of words. Here are just a few of these biblical reminders:

  • Truth belongs to God. Every word of God is true (Proverbs 30:5). God does not lie or make mistakes (Deuteronomy 32:4; Titus 1:5), and nothing in all creation is hidden from him (Hebrews 4:13). God’s character is the source of absolutes, and Jesus is Truth (John 14:6).
  • We live in a world of lies. The whole world sways under the influence of the devil (1 John 5:19), whom Jesus called the father of lies (John 8:44). The New Testament repeatedly warns believers to beware of false teachers, who will only multiply as Christ’s return approaches (Matthew 7:15–20; Luke 21:8; 2 Timothy 3:3–4; 2 Peter 2:1, 1 John 4:1–6). Not even our own hearts are to be trusted; as Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV) reveals, “the heart is deceitful above all things.”
  • We are called to be people of truth. God detests lies (Proverbs 12:22), calling us instead to “walk in the light, as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7), to armour ourselves with “the belt of truth” (Ephesians 6:14), and to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
  • We’re to exercise biblical discernment. The truth of God’s Word is our weapon for combatting all types of lies, whether from deceptive spirits (1 John 4:1), false teachers (Galatians 1:8; 1 Timothy 6:3–4), worldly “wisdom” (Colossians 2:8), or our own hearts (Hebrews 4:12).
  • God will judge and correct the suppression of truth. Romans 1:18 (ESV) declares, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Although lies may flourish for a time, Jesus assured his followers not to fear their persecutors because “nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26 ESV).
  • We’re not to respond with fear. When we see the suppression of truth unfolding around us, worry or panic might seem like reasonable responses. But Psalm 37:7–8 reminds us, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”

A Foundation for Freedom

Both Scripture and history confirm that the more a society aligns itself with the principles of God’s Word,20 the better the outcome for everyone.21 What does this mean for issues of freedom, speech, and censorship? Galatians 5:13–14 gives us an idea:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

While these verses aren’t talking about freedom of speech specifically, they raise some relevant points. Namely, as humans created in God’s image, we are free agents endowed with the right to express free speech. But as humans accountable to our Creator, we are responsible to use that freedom in ways that reflect God’s loving character—not our human “flesh” corrupted by Adam’s sin. What does “flesh” mean? Galatians 5:19–21 clarify,

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Sexual immorality, violence, anger, enmity . . . these sound an awful lot like the things which social media “community guidelines” say should be regulated.22 But in this case, the guidelines’ ultimate source and enforcer is our infallible, loving Creator—not fallible humans with nebulous algorithms. God, not humans, must set humanity’s “community guidelines.”

The Critical Thinking Connection

Ultimately, as we’ll unpack more next time, a major problem with public and private censorship lies in placing truth solely in the hands of humans when the only real source of absolutes is God. His Word is the infallible foundation from which to understand truth and to think critically about lies—including “fake news.” And notably, critical thinking23 was a key part of the disinformation solutions the HLEG recommended to the European Commission instead of censorship.24

In their words, “The strength of media and information literacy is that it is a preventive, rather than a reactive solution, engendering critical thinking skills that are crucial for the 21st-century citizen living in an increasingly digital environment.”25

We’ve only begun unpacking why critical thinking skills are crucial and why censorship “should clearly be avoided” in a culture where these concepts are growing more relevant than ever. Stay tuned for upcoming posts!

Footnotes

  1. European Commission, “Next Steps Against Fake News: Commission Sets Up High-Level Expert Group and Launches Public Consultation,” (press release) November 13, 2017, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_17_4481.
  2. Madeleine de Cock Buning, “A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Disinformation: Report of the Independent High Level Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation,” Publications Office of the European Union, 2018, available from https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/library/final-report-high-level-expert-group-fake-news-and-online-disinformation.
  3. De Cock Buning, “A Multi-Dimensional Approach.”
  4. De Cock Buning, “A Multi-Dimensional Approach,” 5.
  5. De Cock Buning, “A Multi-Dimensional Approach,” 5.
  6. Daniel Funke and Daniela Flamini, “A Guide to Anti-Misinformation Actions Around the World,” Poynter, https://www.poynter.org/ifcn/anti-misinformation-actions/. Accessed July 14, 2021.
  7. Funke and Flamini, “A Guide to Anti-Misinformation.”
  8. Flunke and Flamini, “A Guide to Anti-Misinformation,” (n.d.).
  9. Government of Canada, Department of Justice, Bill C-10: An Act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, tabled in the House of Commons November 18, 2020, https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/pl/charter-charte/c10.html.
  10. Government of Canada, Department of Justice, Bill C-36: Proposed Legislative Changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code Relating to Hate Propaganda, Hate Crimes and Hate Speech, introduced June 23, 2021, https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/pl/chshc-lcdch/index.html.
  11. For an in-depth perspective on how similar legislations are evidently leading toward the criminalization of Christianity in Canada, see https://answersingenesis.org/blogs/calvin-smith/2021/07/01/canada-day/.
  12. Government of Canada, Canada's Digital Charter: Trust in a Digital World, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, last modified November 17, 2021, https://ic.gc.ca/eic/site/062.nsf/eng/h_00108.html. Accessed July 14, 2021.
  13. See Frederik Stjernfelt and Anne Mette Lauritzen, “Facebook and Google as Offices of Censorship,” in Your Post Has Been Removed, Tech Giants and Freedom of Speech (Springer Open, 2020), 139-172. (Note that, understandably, this is a secular book with mature subject matter.)
  14. Ken Auletta, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 134–135.
  15. Emilia Niemiec, "COVID‐19 and Misinformation: Is Censorship of Social Media a Remedy to the Spread of Medical Misinformation?" EMBO Reports 21, no. 11 (2020): e51420.
  16. Amitai Etzioni, "Should We Privatize Censorship?" Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 1 (2019): 19–22.
  17. Frederik Stjernfelt and Anne Mette Lauritzen, 2020.
  18. Bruno Lepri et al., "Fair, Transparent, and Accountable Algorithmic Decision-Making Processes," Philosophy & Technology 31, no. 4 (2018): 611–627.
  19. E.g., Algorithms and Amplification: How Social Media Platforms’ Design Choices Shape Our Discourse and Our Minds, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, April 27, 2021, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/meetings/algorithms-and-amplification-how-social-media-platforms-design-choices-shape-our-discourse-and-our-minds.
  20. I.e., the teachings of Jesus and law of God summarized in Matthew 22:37-40, as well as the inspired teachings of biblical writers including the apostles. (Some may incorrectly argue that practices like warfare and slavery are “biblical principles” too because they are recorded in the Bible, or because God commanded the Israelites to destroy certain nations for their evils, etc. However, no principles which God desires us to live by will contradict Jesus’ teachings or God’s character; for more information, see resources including https://answersingenesis.org/who-is-god/isnt-the-god-of-the-old-testament-harsh-brutal-and-downright-evil/, https://answersingenesis.org/bible-questions/doesnt-the-bible-support-slavery/, https://answersingenesis.org/contradictions-in-the-bible/war-and-peace/, and Critical Thinking Scan Seasons 12-13 on Answers TV. Note also that a Biblical worldview, but not a secular one, provides a consistent foundation for morality, human value, and related concepts which are required to make moral criticisms, including against warfare, in the first place.)
  21. Reflecting this, some research has uncovered a strong historical link between Protestantism and democracy, with past Protestant missionary influence predicting thriving democracies across multiple nations. (Robert D. Woodberry, "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy," American Political Science Review 106, no. 2 (2012): 244–274.)
  22. See Frederik Stjernfelt and Anne Mette Lauritzen, 2020.
  23. In the sense of “developing media literacy.”
  24. De Cock Buning, “A Guide to Anti-Misinformation.”
  25. De Cock Buning, “A Guide to Anti-Misinformation,” 26.

Newsletter

Get the latest answers emailed to you.

I agree to the current Privacy Policy.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Learn more

  • Customer Service 800.778.3390