Fake news. Internet scams. People impersonating other people. It seems like the Internet is just a cesspool of trust issues, so why should this medium be something anyone takes seriously?
Shouldn't we just stop using the Internet altogether?
How about no?
In this episode we talk about how to cut back on the noise in the Internet to find the value. This is the second episode of digital literacy. Hopefully, it helps you avoid the land mines and find the gold.
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Be good and do good.
In this episode we talk about the second part of digital literacy, who should I trust
Welcome to Balancing the Christian Life. I’m Dr. Kenny Embry. We’ll talk about how to be better Christians and people in the digital age. Let’s go.
So I was freaking out, in a panic. My boss had just emailed me saying he needed something from me urgently. I was new at my job and I knew those who are newest are often the most vulnerable. The email subject line said, I need to talk to you now. And now was in all caps. In the email, he didn’t sound happy. I didn’t know anything that was really going wrong, but obviously he knew something I didn’t and I knew I needed to fix this, whatever this was. The email started out with a simple declaration, “this needs immediate attention.” Apparently I had been overpaid in my last paycheck and I needed to wire him the money immediately. I needed to go to a Western Union office and...hey wait. Since when was my boss in charge of my giving me my paycheck? Didn’t that come from HR? The next email seemed even more intense, and then I noticed it. The email address was off by one letter. Just one. I watched a few more emails collect in my inbox and just ignored them as the subject lines became more intense and more threatening. I didn’t know who was emailing me, but I knew it wasn’t my boss, and I knew I was done playing this game.
At this point, everyone with an email address has played this game. And just to be clear, there is not a Nigerian prince waiting to pay you a twelve million dollar inheritance, Bill Gates will not be sending you a check for completing a survey, and for your information, the IRS does not call you on the phone. These are all scams created to help part you from your money. After you’ve gone through the flop sweat of the first one of these true-sounding stories, you simply come to peace with the fact that we live in an age where it’s very easy to lie to a bunch of people online. We talked last time about the importance of controlling your attention in an age of too much stuff. The Internet means finding what you want can be very easy, but other people with more sinister motives would love to get your attention to rob you blind. And that’s pretty easy to combat. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
But a more difficult part of living online is figuring out if what you’re reading is accurate or not. In traditional media like television or radio, the cost of production was so high, there were a lot of people who would have to look over the stuff they broadcast because they knew whatever went out over the airwaves could get them in trouble if it wasn’t right. Today, however, checking your sources and verifying your facts is murkier.
After you’ve started training your attention, you need to figure out how to scrutinize the stuff you’re finding. People who create the content you end up consuming could be giving you great, fact-based stuff they’ve checked and re-checked. Then you have con artists who knowingly feed you lies and misinformation. But between those extremes, you have a wide swath of people whose motivations and dedication to accuracy are well-intentioned but flawed, or aren’t highlighting how much research they’ve done or not done, and how good that research was. Look most of us fit into that murky middle. We know we want to be a part of the conversation, but who’s got time to verify all your sources or double-check all the statistics?
A Christian’s response to online content should be immediate, healthy skepticism. Thomas was well known for doubting the resurrection of Jesus, but I don’t hear Jesus criticizing him for that. Most people don’t resurrect from the dead. The point of the miracles was they were impossible without divine intervention. Yet many Christians are thrilled to find an article which nicely aligns with our points of view on any number of doctrinal issues. But finding people with a similar opinion doesn’t mean what you’ve found is accurate information or good thinking.
I’d like to suggest three ideas which should help you be a more critical consumer of the stuff you find. First, build a trustworthy network, second search for a different viewpoint, and third being open to re-examine an idea after you’ve come to a conclusion.
Much of this material is from Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart. Look the problem with our lives today is the constant onslaught of information. It’s hard to say slow down when everything around you is going faster. But remember, just because information flows fast doesn’t mean it’s good. Scholar Clay Shirky talks about how would we filter information and then publish with older media, but the paradigm has shifted to publish then filter, and that’s precisely our problem. We now have hundreds, thousands and hundreds of thousands of sources which spout content constantly. But just like you can hear the same story from dozens of different friends, you recognize some friends are more reliable than others. How did you figure out which friends to believe in your social circles? Well, let me suggest that you started noting a pattern. Some would simply blurt out the first thing they heard as soon as they heard it, and some gave you a more nuanced story, admitting what they knew and what they didn’t. In other words, the people you trusted more were the ones who highlighted their limitations. The word you’re wanting to highlight is trust. The very nature of trust is the element of doubt. Look, I trust my watch to be keeping the correct time, bit I recognize every once in a while I need to recalibrate it. The sooner I recalibrate my watch with the atomic time, the more trust I have in my watch. Just like that, the people who check and re-check the facts are often the same people, and they just have more credibility in my eyes. But figuring that out came over time.
Online, to figure out what you should trust means you need to start developing a few places and people who keep putting out good information consistently and over time. Does it sound like you’re establishing a good relationship? Well it should. Some people are simply more trustworthy than others, and those people are worthy of your attention.
In Luke 9, Jesus asks an important question of those who were closest to him. He asked them who do the crowds say I am? The answers ranged. John the Baptist, Elijah and the prophets were what they had heard. Let’s face it, they were guesses. The crowds represented a lot of voices, and when the Apostles did their version of a Google search, the results landed in one vein, but not any one answer. Then Jesus asked the apostles, the ones who knew Jesus the best, the ones who could pull together the context of the life and ministry of Jesus and asked them to come to a conclusion. Peter said you’re the Christ. You’re the messiah. Why was Peter so trustworthy? For exactly the reasons we just gave. He was there. He had the right information. He had checked and re-checked what he knew.
The fact is many of Jesus’s own followers were mistaken on who Jesus was and what he was trying to accomplish, but as you began to see who knew what they were talking about, the more you should trust information from those sources and not others.
The same is true for online sources. Ten years ago, as people would write papers for my class, a common question was “can I use the Internet as a source.” Hopefully you see the problem with this question. The Internet isn’t a source, it’s a medium. The Internet isn’t one source, it’s a variety of sources. Some of them are crackpots and some of them are gold mines. Through experience, experimentation and being burned a few times, you need to see who’s the real deal and who just wants to talk to hear the sound of their own voices. And once you find people who have proven to be worthy of that trust, begin to trust them. Give those voices more weight. Keep calibrating what they’re saying to what you’re finding, but realize not all voices are created equal so don’t treat them that way. Just because there are more voices doesn’t mean they’re better.
Okay, so not all people on the Internet are trustworthy, but that is far from the end of being someone who has figured out how to find good information online. We talked about earlier how algorithms work, but let me refresh your memory. Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube and almost every other website are trying to sell your attention to someone paying them money so you’ll hopefully buy something from them. The key ingredient to this is getting you to spend as much time on these websites as possible. So the master plan behind that is give you what you want. And the way they know you want it is by how much time you’re spending on those sites. Again, the formulas that work the best are the ones which help feed self indulgence the most. But just like eating nothing but chocolate bars all day isn’t good for you, giving you information which only supports your conclusions is just as deadly.
In social media, we often sort ourselves into groups. We find the interest groups that satisfy our curiosities, our friend groups which satisfy our need for affiliation, and retail groups which help us buy the stuff we want to buy. But one of the things which goes against this construction but may help us the most is getting outside of those groups and seeing a different perspective altogether. But how often do you look for something which disagrees with what you want to be true?
I think we often do this when we’re trying to buy something from someplace like Amazon. I might be interested in buying a charger for my phone. I start out by searching for the thing using the right search terms. Then I look for the items which fit the bill and have four stars or more. There’s that reputation, the trustworthiness of the product. But then, after I’ve narrowed down the items which are still under consideration, I’ll go and look for the people whose opinions go against the majority. In a sea of “this product is just simply amazing,” I read the one-star reviews and look at the complaints. I’m looking for the dissenting opinions and seeing if those opinions seem legitimate.
In his lifetime, Jesus had those who criticized his ministry. Among the most outspoken critics were the Pharisees. Despite Jesus’s condemnation of the Pharisees, I am often grateful they were there. Think about this, often when Jesus taught the most profound lessons, he was responding to the scribes and Pharisees. For example, Jesus told us the greatest commandment because a Pharisee was trying to trap him in Matthew 22. We learn about God’s mercy because the Pharisees brought an adulterous woman to him in John 8. We learn about Jesus’s kingship because of a teaching of the scribes and Pharisees in Luke 20. We learn about Jesus’s authority because of a challenge by the Pharisees in Matthew 21. Jesus himself was telling his disciples to seek out a different point of view from the wisdom of the Pharisees. In spite of themselves, they helped Jesus teach and explain Christianity.
The problem with the echo chambers we often find ourselves living in is they don’t challenge what could be very dangerous ways of thinking. If you find yourself in rooms where everybody says some form of “I agree with you,” then start looking around where you find some opposition. We don’t naturally like that. The advantage of physical communities, as opposed to virtual ones, is you could be living right next door to someone who has very different ideas and opinions to you, and somehow you have to make that work. I live in a house with four children and a wife whose music taste is very different than mine. When we’re all in the car together, we have to figure out what happens with the radio. The differences in taste, opinions and points of view end up strengthening and giving reasons to what we believe. Are those opinions based on evidence or inertia? Do we believe this because it was handed down or because we’ve thought through those ideas. And what about those who think differently? It’s easy to vilify those who don’t think like we do when we never come across them. But one of the things I’ve learned is that people who have different political and religious ideas often have the same goals I do. They want good families. They want to be helpful in their communities. I may disagree strongly, but our disagreement is often on process and not on destinations.
In online environments, the trick is to intentionally search for someone who legitimately believes something different. Look, if you’re curious about what Muslims believe, ask a Muslim. Look on Muslim sites. Don’t ask a Christian what a Muslim believes. That’s both silly and stupid. They’re second-guessing when you don’t have to. If you ask someone a respectful, honest question, they will often give a respectful honest answer.
Jesus often showed the most respect to those who were legitimately trying to figure out what he was teaching.
Look, if we are interested in trying to convert other people to our own Christian point of view, how hypocritical it is for us not to return the favor and consider theirs. Seeking out different perpsectives isn’t only courteous, it’s required if you want to get any information online or elsewhere that’s worth considering. Ideas which can’t bear scrutiny aren’t worth having.
Author Adam Grant in his book Think Again says it pretty well. He writes, “We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions. Strong leaders engage their critics and make themselves stronger. Weak leaders silence their critics and make themselves weaker. This reaction isn’t limited to people in power. Although weight be on board with the principle, in practice we often miss out on the value of a challenge network.”
The beauty of online communication is it’s now easier to find that challenge network if you are truly looking to grow wiser.
Finally, when we’re looking at sources online, realize sometimes our conclusions need to be re-examined. Most facts have an expiration date. During the pandemic, the original advice was not to wear masks. The advice changed a few months in and masks were now both recommended and then required. Even later, wearing two masks became a thing. And now...well, we’re beginning to come to a time when masks are starting to disappear. But if you were looking at advice from early in the quarantine, you were reading information that had already turned sour.
Thinking takes both time and energy, and often we like to land in a spot and stick there until we’re moved. I realize many of you are thinking, well God never makes mistakes and his facts are ironclad. That’s true, and I’m not suggesting God’s word changes or his wisdom is flawed. But what I am suggesting is that our understanding could become more mature. Look, I worry about people whose opinions and points of view don’t change. When I was six, I thought God lived in the clouds because that’s really as far away as I could conceive. As I grew older, I saw the problems in that logic.
But online information, even when you know it’s accurate at the time, can shift quickly. The advantage of the Internet is we can immediately know weather conditions, stock prices, traffic conditions and a million other things where facts change. You know this is true.
But even the information we think we know with some stability may also change. Again, the beauty of online information is we can track with those changes as they happen.
I realize you simply don’t have the ability to reconsider every conclusion you’ve drawn or every idea you’ve ever discovered. But the difference between knowledge and wisdom is the ability to see what may be problematic with your thinking, and then change your mind. If you think you may be wrong about an idea, or if something’s changed around you, it never hurts to go back and re-think what you thought you know. Again, according to Adam Grant, “research reveals that the higher your score on an IQ test the more likely you are to fall for stereotypes because you’re faster at recognizing patterns. And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.”
In many ways, figuring out how to trust the sources you find online isn’t particularly new. Online information just means there’s more to sift through because the volume is so much more. But when you start figuring out how to find the signal in all the noise, you realize the blessing the Internet truly is. While there is greater volume, you have the ability for infinitely more clarity if you figure out the processes on how to assess what’s good and what isn’t. Then you can see the value Christians have by being exposed to more, deeper and better thoughts.
The guy who was making me panicked by impersonating my boss never met me. He didn’t understand my struggles. He was trying to make a quick buck off my insecurities. He was taking advantage of digital tools to do something which, unfortunately, works far more than it should. That doesn’t mean email is dangerous. It just means I need to be a better user of it. But the power of these tools is those with good motives have the same opportunities. Just like it’s easy to swindle, it’s easy to teach. It’s easy to encourage. It’s easy to be a good influence to those who need it. Let’s be that instead.
This week, the good thing I’ve been thinking about is the value of peers and mentors. I talked to Ryan Cummings in episode 36 about doing things with others, and this past Thursday, I participated in a book group with a few friends. Edwin Crozier, Peter Murphy and Garet Qualls and I all hashed through Jordan Peterson’s new book, Beyond Chaos. I really enjoyed the book, but I didn’t realize how much I would love the company. They brought out points I hadn’t really considered, they challenged me to look deeper at some of the material, and in general, it was more fun than I would have anticipated. I definitely commend that idea to you as well. If you have the opportunity to do something alone or with others, try it with others and see how it goes. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Next week on the program, I plan to release my interview with Ginger Hubbard. She talks about the struggle of working with rebellious teens, which turns out to be her own story of being a handful for her parents.
If any of these episodes have been helpful to you, please do me a favor and share them with your friends.
So until next time, let’s be good and do good.