A majority of evangelicals are worried about “fake news,” and they also think mainstream journalists are part of the problem.
The question, as pandemic-weary Americans stagger into the 2020 elections, is how many believers in this voting bloc have allowed their anger about “fake news” to push them toward fringe conspiracy theories about the future of their nation.
Some of these theories involve billionaire Bill Gates and global coronavirus vaccine projects, the Antichrist’s plans for 5G towers, Democrats in pedophile rings or all those mysterious “QAnon” messages. (”Q” is an anonymous scribe, thought by disciples to be a retired U.S. intelligence leader or maybe even President Donald Trump.)
The bitter online arguments sound like this: Are these conspiracies mere fake news, or is an increasingly politicized American press — especially on politics and religion — hiding dangerous truths behind its brand of fake news?
“A reflexive disregard of what are legitimate news sources can feed a penchant for conspiracy theories,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
Many mainstream journalists do a fine job of covering the complex world of evangelicalism, stressed Stetzer, reached by email.
Nevertheless, he said: “I think that the bias of much of mainstream news has to be considered in this conversation. Many evangelicals have seen, over and over, news sources report on them irresponsibly, with bias, and — at times — with malice. When you see that enough, about people you know, there is a consequence. Regrettably, I don’t think many in the mainstream news world are thinking, ‘We should have done better.’”
It doesn’t help that Americans disagree about the meaning of the phrase “fake news.”
Many Americans on the left define it as rumors, acidic political fairy tales and outright hoaxes spreading via social media, often created by activists or hostile operatives overseas. Many conservatives use the same term to describe news warped by errors, ignorance, bias or a near-total dependence on anonymous sources. Many Trump supporters pin this label on any news hostile to the White House.
It’s clear that these disagreements are affecting some American evangelicals, according to a 2018 study conducted at the Billy Graham Center.
“For those concerned about the rise of conspiracy theories in the church, it is rather distressing that three-quarters of evangelicals agreed that the mainstream media produces ‘fake news,’ compared to only 54% of non-evangelicals,” wrote Stetzer and Graham Center colleague Andrew MacDonald in an essay for The Dallas Morning News. “Church attendance at least once a month was one of the factors more likely to correlate to agreeing that the mainstream media produces fake news. ... We understand mistrust of the media that often struggles to accurately report on matters of religion, but these numbers are stunning.
“This distrust of media sources and embrace of social media as a tool for political and social debate has predictably caused division. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of evangelicals agree that social media has increased the divisive political climate in America, and about a third (32%) have said that they have unfollowed or unfriended someone due to social or political issues.”
Evangelical leaders are, for example, wrestling with the grassroots influence of the QAnon movement. Writing for The Gospel Coalition website, evangelical writer Joe Carter called QAnon a “political cult” and a “satanic movement.”
“Although the movement is still fringe,” wrote Carter, “it is likely that someone in your church or social media circles has either already bought into the conspiracy or thinks it’s plausible and worth exploring.”
Meanwhile, an Atlantic Monthly essay by Adrienne LaFrance claimed that this movement “harnesses paranoia to fervent hope. ... To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”
Conspiracy theories appear to be affecting all kinds of people and social media networks — both secular and religious. However, it’s time for evangelical leaders to pay more attention to developments at the grassroots, according to Stetzer and MacDonald.
“As evangelicals ourselves, we think it is time that the church recognizes the growing foothold conspiracy theories are gaining in our midst, and what this means for our credibility and witness. These theories are gaining power ... and during this crisis, when many are at home and online more than ever, the theories are a headache we can no longer ignore.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.