Davey Alba is a technology reporter with the New York Times and a big part of her job is covering disinformation. It is hard to believe any credible journalist would have had that as part of his or her job description even a quarter century ago. But it is a telling sign of our times that news outlets all need people now to take point on tracking disinformation on the web, in social media, on YouTube, and elsewhere. I don’t know if this is a full-time job yet but it likely is getting close to being one.
This week Alba reported that spikes in disinformation tend to track well with spikes in the COVID pandemic, and so it is no surprise that with omicron driving case counts up to stratospheric numbers, disinformation is soaring right along behind that. Some of the claims are merely outlandish and without a smidgen of evidence, like social media and website claims that the CDC itself has disavowed the accuracy of all PCR tests (these are the most sophisticated tests that involve that uncomfortable swabbing that you cannot do at home). It’s not clear how the people making such claims think anyone would believe them. Then again it’s also clear they need not fret that question: people inclined to distrust all government claims believe it anyway because it fits a larger narrative they have chosen to adopt.
Other claims, however, are a bit eye-widening in their sheer lunacy. A series of claims have gone around seeking to impugn the accuracy of all those rapid COVID tests you can do at home. Now, to be clear: there are bogus tests out there that have been flagged by watchdog groups—we should all check credible lists of approved tests before buying or using any. And there have been a few tests that had something wrong with them that have prudently been recalled by manufacturers. In the main, though, there are a lot of top-flight home tests that are proven, reliable, and so trustworthy. Nothing is perfect but most tests work as well as home pregnancy tests have worked for decades.
But many people have bought into the idea that the government or businesses are profiting by keeping the COVID case counts high and so are eager to believe all home test kits are rigged and unreliable, designed to show positive results. How is this claim substantiated? Several websites have shown people soaking the test panel in orange juice or with kiwi juice squirted on and, sure enough, the positive test line shows up.
Now, ponder that a moment.
Just a moment.
This is like trying to claim that taking Tylenol for a headache causes diarrhea and proving this by showing people taking Tylenol along with 3 Ex-Lax chewable tabs and, sure enough, soon enough these folks are lashed to the toilet.
Other websites have shown that you can get a positive test line on a COVID test by soaking it in tap water in the sink. Again, this would be like claiming a woman’s home pregnancy test was bogus and rigged because she tried peeing on it while soaking in a bubble bath.
All of this would be funny if it were not life and death in reality. But another thing that is not at all funny is the number of church-going people of faith who participate in it. Like many others, I have been surprised and deeply disquieted to see blatant misinterpretations of facts and data coming from people on Facebook. I have seen people minimizing the pandemic by quoting twisted data, claiming that what the CDC and Johns Hopkins and other reliable COVID dashboards clearly show to be daily deaths from COVID are monthly or even quarterly numbers. When this is pointed out to people, they either double down on their original false claim or they fall strangely silent and the Facebook chain abruptly ends (defriending may also follow).
Yes, we all know the old adage that in all of life there are “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.” There are glass-half-full and glass-half-empty ways to spin lots of statistics. But there is also such a thing as truth (as just-retired NIH Director Francis Collins has so labored to remind his fellow Christians in recent months) and there is also such a thing as flat out falsehood.
What is troubling for all of us who love the church and the community of faith is that some people seem to be losing their ability to tell the difference, even when (as noted above) the claims are laughable on the face of them. But that is also testament to an even grimmer possibility: conspiracy theories and a desire to buy into them mean that at least some people in the church have so immersed themselves in a false world and in false narratives that seeking and embracing the truth has become, at best, problematic.
“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate cynically asked even as the One who is himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life was standing right in front of him. Later in the New Testament, especially in the three short epistles of John, “truth” becomes shorthand for the whole gospel and in particular for the teaching of the incarnation.
“It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 3-4).
Again, this is a very specific “truth” about which John writes but there can be no doubting the importance that Scripture puts on truth, truthfulness, and honesty. Even the word “Amen” stems from the Hebrew word emet that means “truth.” None of us is immune to falling for lies. None of us immune from repeating false information now and then or making a claim that turns out to be mistaken or based on something we are mis-remembering.
But when people on a largescale, including in the church, willingly enter an entire realm of falsehood because it fits some larger socio-political narrative someone has foisted on them, that is a cause for concern and prayer. My first prayer is that I be as truthful and as discerning as I can be. But I pray the same for my brothers and sisters too. It is a prayer we can all join.