Facebook, Fake News, and Human Frailty

Walking in the Path of Gandalf the Grey

Mark Zuckerberg needs to break out his copy of “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

Facebook is in a lot of trouble these days, but a lot of folks are missing the more important and less reported part of the story. The real scandal with Facebook is that it is, along with the other masters of social media, intent on making itself judge and jury of online communication. In its quest to slay the dragons of Fake News and offensive commentary it is failing to grasp one of the fundamental lessons of history and the Christian Worldview. With the frailty of their finite minds and fallen natures, there is no person or group that can be trusted with absolute power.

This frailty was on display as the stock market tumbled on news that the tech giant let marketing firms access users’ data improperly, and now members of the British Parliament want its CEO to testify. I don’t know about you, but I am about as shocked as Casablanca’s Captain Renault to find that the half-trillion-dollar behemoth is using our personal information to help political operatives. Shocked, I tell you! Should this really be surprising? I mean, we’ve all seen our Facebook feed fill up with ads for things we searched for in other venues. Selling our personal information is kind of what they do.

This isn’t the only time that the corporation’s hubris has made it look bad of late. A few weeks ago, a Christian satire site made a typically over-the-top joke at CNN’s expense, suggesting that the network had a giant washing machine to “spin the news.” Apparently, enough people were taken in by this obvious attempt at humor that Snopes.com felt it necessary to clarify the situation. Not to be outdone in the race to miss the point, Facebook took upon itself to block the facetious post, not because the joke was in bad taste but because it was “Fake News.”

This is rather like banning “Friends” after discovering that Monica and Chandler aren’t real. Apparently, having access to the intimate personal details of the entire human race wasn’t enough for Facebook to know that jokes aren’t supposed to be true.

While it may not have the legal or financial ramifications as its current crisis, this earlier problem may well speak to a deeper, and perhaps darker, danger, not only for Facebook but for our present moment in history. The online empire backtracked after this satirical misfire, but it’s moving forward with the more ambitious goal to moderate the internet. Not only does it plan to guard against objectively false reports, but it also hopes to protect the masses from harmful material of all sorts.

Here’s a question. If the good folks at Facebook can’t recognize an obviously satirical post on an overtly satirical website, then what else would give them trouble? If they can’t be trusted to know that a joke is a joke, what makes them think they can handle more complicated questions requiring censorship? Do we really want to put all our information eggs in the basket of those who fail the simplest tests of discernment?

Now, nobody wants to get taken in by Fake News, and a lot of what passes for civil discourse in cyberspace is retch-inducing. So, I think we have to admit we all wish there were some way to have only “good” stories show up online and to keep the distasteful ones out. As laudable as that sounds, there is a danger lurking in this hope.

Whenever a group sets itself up as the guardian of the people, keeping misinformation from leading them astray, it presumes that it possesses the wisdom of Solomon to distinguish truth from falsehood, constructive criticism from offensive rant, and artistic license from deliberate deceit. The tragedy is that the greater confidence a group has in its supposedly unique objectivity, the more likely it is that it will abuse its newfound power.

In our desire to be protected from harmful thoughts, we’ve lost something. We’ve lost the understanding that drove people in the last few centuries to fight and even to die for the sake of liberty, even the liberty to be wrong. We’ve lost the realism about human frailties that animated people to say, with the pseudo-Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The Western tradition of tolerating dissent, freedom of conscience, and religious liberty didn’t come about because people decided that everyone was wonderful and that all ideas should be shared and shared alike, so long as a few bad apples were tossed aside. No, these things arose because Augustinian theologians in England, France, and Holland argued that fallen human beings could only be trusted to abuse what power they had and to seek what power they lacked. These ideas grew because after a century of bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants, people in Germany and Scandinavia decided that enforcing ideological uniformity with the point of a sword was a fool’s errand.

In our Postmodern hubris we seem to have forgotten the lessons learned at the dawn of the Modern age. We think that we’re more enlightened than those who’ve gone before us because they censored heretics and witches, and we only censor haters and bigots. But, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, we’re not better people for not censoring people we don’t think have done anything wrong, and we’re not tolerant people if we only grant liberty of conscience to those who fit within the ever-shifting confines of acceptable beliefs.

Now, many say that offensive speech is not protected speech, but that’s just nonsense. It is precisely offensive speech which is protected speech. Inoffensive speech needs no such protection. Feminism was offensive in the 1910s, Racial Equality was offensive in the 1950s, and Islam was offensive in the 2000s. Offensive speech is the point of protected speech because it is offensive speech which can be crushed by the powers that be.

We protect offensive and false speech because in doing so we ensure that constructive and true speech can flourish. We don’t, as Christians, support the religious liberty of Jews, Muslim, Buddhists, and so on because we think that they’re right about God. We do it because in creating the space for their practices, we ensure that the Gospel is allowed to go forward unhindered.

What we’ve missed in our new age of tolerance is the lesson of history and the Bible: People cannot be trusted. Instead, we think that this only applies to bad people. We tend to think that oppression and tyrannical censorship only come from those of malicious hearts and ignorant minds, but this is far from the truth. We think that if only we had the power, or, failing that, if only others sufficiently qualified had the power, then we could be sure that no Fake News or hateful speech would corrupt our conversations.

Yet, this is to ignore the lesson of Gandalf the Grey. When offered the Ring of Power, he did not politely decline the opportunity. He violently refused it, saying, “Don’t tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo. I would use this ring from a desire to do good but through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.” We would do well to heed his counsel and to encourage others to do the same. Counter falsehood with the truth, misinformation with discernment, fanaticism with careful argument, and unhinged hatred with deliberate love. Anything else is to become what we oppose.


Timothy D Padgett, PhD, is the author of the forthcoming book, Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973, and is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint.org

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