BreakPoint: Russia, Facebook, and Us

Why We Are so Vulnerable to Fake News

There’s a firestorm over the Russians using social media to manipulate American voters. But the real problem is that we’re so easily manipulated.

“Tech Executives are Contrite About Election Meddling, but Make Few Promises on Capitol Hill.” That was the headline of a recent New York Times story. The article told how social media giants “were used as tools for a broad Russian misinformation campaign” during last year’s presidential race.

Both Republicans and Democrats are taking companies like Facebook and Google to task for failing to stop or at least hinder the flow of Russian disinformation. Senator Lindsay Graham said, “What we need to do is … bring some of the controls we have on over-the-air broadcast to social media to protect the consumer.”

With all due respect to Senator Graham, “controls” aren’t what we need to protect the consumer. What we need are smarter and more diligent consumers.

This is not to minimize the threat, of course, posed by foreign interference and “fake news.” But we should ask ourselves why American citizens are so vulnerable to this kind of misinformation.

Twenty-six years ago, C. John Sommerville, a professor of history at the University of Florida, wrote an article in First Things entitled “Why the News Makes Us Dumb.” His answer was that the very idea of “news,” as the name suggests, prioritizes novelty. In order to stay in business, he wrote, the media “have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context.”

He continued, “If we read philosophy, history, science, theology—regularly—we would be able to make much better sense of the day’s events. But we don’t. We’re too busy to manage anything but the News.”

Now he wrote this before the Internet and social media. At the time, he was complaining about newspapers—remember those?

If we were “too busy to manage” when news came at us just once a day, we can’t even begin to make sense of news that comes at us every five minutes and from every direction.

So we increasingly don’t try. We want our “news” pre-digested and delivered to our newsfeeds. And by doing so, we outsource the task of discernment to others.

Two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media, especially Facebook. Three quarters of Twitter users rely on it for news. When Americans say they rely on “multiple sources,” they typically mean multiple social media sites, not a combination of traditional media and social media sites. As we’ve learned, these sources are ripe for manipulation, misrepresentation, and fabrication.

And, if Americans weren’t regularly reading “philosophy, history, science, theology” in 1991, they’re reading them even less in 2017. In 1990, 16 percent of Americans hadn’t read a single book in the previous year. In 2015, it was 27 percent.

And most of what we do read doesn’t help us make sense of current events. According to USA Today, between 1993 and 2013, the best seller lists were dominated by self-help, young-adult fiction inspired by the success of the Harry Potter books, and more recently genre fiction, including erotica.

And, our “reading” habits highlight another point of vulnerability: our tendency to view all of life through the lens of entertainment. In his 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” the late Neil Postman warned that mass media was causing a “vast descent into triviality.”

I shudder to think about what Postman would say of our contemporary media habits.

But these habits are rendering Americans vulnerable to misinformation and manipulation. Many don’t know enough to know when they’re being manipulated, and even more frankly, don’t care enough to do anything about it.

Christians, especially, should prioritize discernment in the information age. We should read widely and wisely, or else, in the end, we’ll be the biggest tools in Russia’s arsenal.

 

Russia, Facebook, and Us: Why We Are so Vulnerable to Fake News

This is a great opportunity to take stock of what you’re reading, and where your news comes from. As John has pointed out, discernment is crucial to avoid being manipulated. To delve further into this topic and to see Chuck Colson’s recommended book list, check out the links in our Resources section.

Resources

Chuck Colson's Reading and Movie List
  • BreakPoint and Colson Center
What 20 years of best sellers say about what we read
  • Bob Minzesheimer and Anthony DeBarros | USA TODAY | October 30, 2013
Two-thirds of Americans are now getting news from social media
  • Kurt Wagner | recode.net | September 7, 2017

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.

  • Phoenix1977

    Senator McConnell demands platforms like Facebook and Twitter assist the US in retaliating against Russia. But why would the social media platforms do so? Ok, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets may have started as American but the only thing they now have which is American is the places where their headquarters are. And Facebook already placed the majority of it’s servers to Ireland to prevent the American intelligence agencies having full access. The social media platforms have become global and should not be encouraged to participate in “local” politics. After all, weren’t the Republicans angry before when social media openly supported Hillary Clinton as candidate?
    Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and others make it possible to share information and news all over the globe but it’s not their primary goal. Their primary goal is to connect people. Whatever people tell each other is not their concern, nor is the credibility of the information or the gullibility of those reading / hearing it.

    • Scott

      “Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and others make it possible to share information and news all over the globe but it’s not their primary goal. Their primary goal is to connect people. Whatever people tell each other is not their concern, nor is the credibility of the information or the gullibility of those reading / hearing it.”

      True… which is why I can’t imagine people using Facebook, Twitter, Etc. as a (especially a primary) source for news?

      • Phoenix1977

        Agreed

  • Danielle Cundiff

    Bravo! Thank you for this fantastic article!

  • Momto4

    I agree with some key points in this article, mainly that we need to be more discerning and need to proactively seek the truth in all things, even how we receive our news. However, one thing that bothers me about this article is that everyone is assuming that the only way Trump was elected was because someone (like Russia) interfered by “fake news”. That is insulting to me – I did not vote for Trump bc of some “fake” news story that duped me. I looked at all the facts – including who was actually running – and their positions on items that I believe strongly in. After examining both candidates, it was painfully clear to me that I really had one choice bc he was the only Pro-Life leaning candidate out there. Also, he believed in limited government and a strong military. While I certainly don’t like things about our current President, there are things about all Presidents that I could take issue with. The key is that someone had to be elected and I voted for who I thought would do the best job of those available. The rest is up to God to judge.

    I just wish Breakpoint wouldn’t be so willing to promote a false idea put out by liberals just bc they don’t like our current President. I know lots of people from all over the US. And I don’t know ONE who voted the way they did bc of some news story on FB — really!!!

    • Gina Dalfonzo

      Just for the record, he was not the only pro-life-leaning candidate out there. There were at least two others.

      • Paul McCosby

        I would appreciate knowing to whom you refer.

        • Gina Dalfonzo

          Darrell Castle and Evan McMullin.

          • Paul McCosby

            Thank you for the prompt information.

      • Momto4

        I am meaning the only candidate with true viability to win. Right now, no matter what people try to say otherwise, our country is 2 party. A vote for anyone else would have directly supported Hillary. Unless you can prove otherwise with FACTS. I was not about to sit by and consequently allow that woman to win. She has a complete hatred of all things Christian. While I certainly don’t agree with several things Trump has done, at least he has tried to limit abortions and take pressure off of churches to keep silent.

  • Paul McCosby

    I would like to note that this article doesn’t address two related issues which, it seems to me, are relevant to the point of being vital to our understanding of the subject. The first of these is the lack of evidence presented on one rather vital point: the complaint about Russian propaganda is that it was distributed, not that it was influential. Calling the public gullible may be perfectly accurate, but the Russia/Facebook issue, as presented in this article, does not tell us anything about the public’s gullibility one way or another. We do not know, from anything in this article, that the Russian propaganda in question was believed in one single instance. This makes the rebuke of gullibility somewhat questionable.
    My second point is to take issue with the “News Makes Us Dumb” argument. Frankly, it seems to me to be missing the mark by miles. Humans have no noticeable tendency toward behaving rationally in any ultimate sense, no matter what their literary diet. In point of fact, people in the past suffered from exactly the same problem we do in this area- ignorance. What the “Information Age” has really revealed is simply that ignorance is unavoidable. I am somewhat puzzled, therefore, by what Mr. Stonestreet has in mind when he recommends discernment. How are we to discern which factual assertions are true and which are not? We cannot “check our facts” unless we have some source of information which we deem trustworthy. I hold the Bible to be such a source (par excellence) but it does me little good in this particular matter because it does not tell me which events are currently occurring (at least not in any way I can understand). If I am to be aware of it at all I must learn it from another (probably untrustworthy) source. One sentiment that I can heartily endorse, however, is the recommendation of books as superior to most news, unfortunately, “news” is the only kind of publication about current events in existence and therefore the only option for the subject. That being said, most current events (even of those that get published) aren’t worth reading about.