A month or so ago, someone sent me the following video in an e-mail, which I posted in my column this Monday with the question, “As Christians, what are we to do with this?”
Several parts of this news report are peculiar, as various commenters pointed out to me in response to my column. There is the strange laughter on the Fox set which can be heard at the beginning of the video, the stupidly-arrogant attempt by this Muslim group to force a land owner to leave so they could build a mosque, the fact that the leader of this group, Kamel Fotouh, is never asked directly about the source of the conflict or why he thought he had the right to ask Craig Baker, the Texan, to leave his land.
A few minutes of searching on Google clarifies this story and addresses many of these peculiarities. Although there is no date (that I could see) on the video, Fox news published a very similar report on their website on January 5, 2007. Almost a month before Fox published this report, they republished an Associated Press article on this controversy which notes that Craig Baker was actually mistaken when he claimed that Muslim organization had asked him to leave his land:
Though he now concedes the Muslims are probably not after his land, Baker said he is obligated to go through with the pig races, probably within the next few weeks, because “I would be like a total idiot if I didn’t. I’d be the laughingstock now because I’ve gone too far.”
Instead of a story about a heroic Texan who is fighting against the Muslim invasion of America by protecting his property rights, this is a story of miscommunication, cultural differences, pride, bigotry, and paranoia. What is remarkable is that Fox News must have known when they interviewed him that Kamel Fotouh did not ask (at least, not intentionally) Baker to move away. And yet, Fox chose to present the situation as if there was no question that the Muslims were trying to force good, American citizens off their land so that they could build yet another mosque near Houston.
Why was Kamel Fotouh never asked for his perspective in the Fox News report? Because then it would be a story about an ignorant Texan rather than an arrogant Muslim. Why did Kamel Fotouh believe he had the right to ask Baker to leave his land? He didn’t ask Baker to leave and we have no reason to think that Fotouh believed he could ask Baker to leave. Why were the workers on the set of Fox News laughing at this story?Perhaps because they thought it was funny to see a Texan stand up to a Muslim by racing pigs, although we cannot be certain.
Certainly there have been many, more significant scandals regarding the media, but we shouldn’t be too quick to let Fox off the hook here simply because the story is about some small town in Texas that most of us have never heard of. It is quite possible that the people who read this article or watch the video might have had their opinions about Muslims changed or reinforced based on deception.
My point with this is not that Fox News is unreliable (a gross understatement in this case; criminally deceptive seems more appropriate), but about the context-less nature of news and opinions on the Internet. The fact that this video was sent to me through e-mail makes its deceptive message even more dangerous than if I had watched it when it originally aired. And it is because of this danger that I believe we have a very significant obligation as Christians to be careful and discerning about what we share on the Internet.
As newspapers close down and people continue to move from television to the Internet to get their news, there has been a drastic increase in both the amount of news available to readers and the separation of individual news reports from other news and from developments of that news. In this case, I was sent a YouTube video of a clip from Fox News with no airing date, no way of knowing whether or not there was a follow-up story or a retraction, without knowing the political situation at the time, and (since this controversy happened many years ago) little chance of stumbling across a conflicting report from another news source. It has always been a challenge to discern whether a news source was accurately and fairly reporting on an issue, but now that it is common for us to share obscure news reports or opinion articles without any context that might situate the story within a larger social conversation, the chance for us to either share or accept a deceptive news report is incredibly high. And with a report like this, where people have very strong feelings, it is quite possible that if someone who was already deeply suspicious of Muslims in America saw the video, he might unquestioningly accept Fox’s version of the story, thus supporting his own presuppositions and perhaps fostering a potentially bigoted worldview.
At the same time, the tremendous increase of information on the Internet and the corresponding ease with which Google allows us to search has made it easier than ever to check our sources before we share them with the world. It only takes a few minutes of searching to get the back story of this controversy in Katy, TX, but in order to adequately do this research you do have to be willing to question what you see and read, even if it supports your presuppositions on the surface.
Let me return to my question for Monday and expand its scope:
As Christians, what are we to do with the reality that is easier than ever (hyperbole?) to be deceived due to the disconnected nature of information on the Internet while at the same time it is easier than ever to verify claims? Let me offer for suggestions:
- Understand your authority: One of the great things about social networking is that you can share an article with all of your friends and family with only a few clicks. But that is also one of its liabilities. It is easy for us to forget that many people follow us on social networks or through e-mail who may not be discerning. And many of the same people might look up to us or at least respect our opinion on certain issues. So when we share a link from an unreliable source to all our Facebook friends it is quite likely that we will perpetuate that disinformation and potentially, depending on the issue, encourage people to take a false and dangerous view of the world (as might be the case in this “pig racing” story). We need to take our voices seriously and consider who might see the links we share online and how that might affect them. This means that we must do what we can to ensure that what we share is edifying and true, or at least provide some context and and a warning so that our friends know when we post something which we might not actually agree with.
- Understand the nature of the Internet: While we should not be known as cynical skeptics, we do need to be realistic and recognize that there is a lot (perhaps a majority?) of misinformation on the Internet. When we read or watch something that appears to provide support for our position on anything, whether it is theological, political, or aesthetic, we must acknowledge that there is a distinct possibility that the source is wrong. No matter how wonderful it feels to be vindicated in our beliefs by a news report or article, Christians ought to be humble enough to question the reliability of all sources.
- Understand your obligation to sharpen one another: It is easy to say that we all should fact-check every claim before we accept it and/or share it online, but the reality is that there is far too much that we read and watch and far too little time with which to check for deception. Many times we will decide to believe something and share it with others based on the text’s perceived reliability and the authority of the source which published it. This is fine and reasonable to some extent; however, just as we need to be humble enough to consider the possibility that our position might be wrong, we need to be humble enough to accept correction from others when we mistakenly share something that is false. And it also means that we should be comfortable enough to give loving correction to brothers and sisters in Christ who mistakenly share misinformation, but this correction must be made with the knowledge that we are just as likely to make the same mistake.
So, if I share a news report about a Texan racing pigs, expect that to be true; but if the report says that he’s racing pigs in protest against a Muslim invasion, correct me, unless the report is from The Onion.