Cognitive Dissonance, Filter Bubbles, and Fake News

This is another commentary that I wrote for the "News and Religion" course I am taking at the Religion and Freedom Center of the Newseum. Comments are always greatly appreciated.

What a wonderful time it once was. In the morning, the New York Times was delivered to our doorsteps, bringing us all the news that was fit to print and in the evening the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, summed it all up I the CBS evening news.

If we didn’t like what they had to say, we could read the NY Daily News or the newspaper started by one of America’s recently re-discovered super hero founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, the NY Post. If CBS wasn’t to our liking, we could watch NBC or ABC.

The Federal Communications Commission had rules in place about media ownership, equal time, and the Fariness doctrine. Over the past few decades, especially as more and more news moved online, these rules have been relaxed, and it has become harder and harder to get fair and equal coverage.

Yet perhaps things were not as fair and equal as they seemed. Was the New York Times really telling us all the news that was fit to print, or just the news that its editors felt was fit to print? Was Walter Cronkite truly presenting an objective view of the day’s news, or were his broadcasts shaped by the opinion and biases of the writers and editors?

There is an old Ethiopian proverb, “Until the lioness tells the story, the hunt will always be glorified.” Was our news being shaped by a cishet white corporate male perspective, by what it chose to cover, chose not to cover and the way it presented what it did cover?

The Internet brought about important changes in whose voices got heard. Just about anyone could set up a blog and write their own commentary. People admitted, or perhaps more accurately, promoted their biases, and there was a belief that by doing so, informed readers could get a much more complete picture.

In 2004, I was credentialed as a blogger to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Like several other bloggers, I had access to the proceedings and could write from my own point of view, expressing my biases, not having to please any editors.

As the convention was getting started, there was a breakfast for the bloggers. A guest speaker at was Pulitzer Prize winning political journalist for the associated press, Walter Mears. During the question and answer period, David Weinberger, one of the co-authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University asked Mears who he was supporting for president. Mears wouldn’t say, citing the importance of being objective. Weinberger responded asking how we trust Mears if he wouldn’t admit to his biases.

USA Today wrote about it in Blogs, journalism: Different factions of the write wing and years later, Weinberger expanded about it in a blog post, Transparency is the new objectivity.

Yet knowing a writer’s biases, whether they admit them or not, is only the starting point of understanding stories in the news. Last year, Factcheck.org wrote an article, How to Spot Fake News. It pointed out the importance of checking sources, digging deep, checking one’s own biases and other important ways to spot fake news. Unfortunately, most news consumers do not take the time to do this.

This takes us to the question of what fake news really is. In the Factcheck article, they refer to it as “a malicious fabrication”. Historians might put fake news into the larger historical context and call it propaganda. The phrase is now often used by some politicians to discredit anyone who writes something critical of them.

So the question becomes, how much of an issue is fake news? In his article “Is ‘fake news’ a fake problem? in the Columbia Journalism Review, Jacob Nelson writes,

“First, the fake news audience is tiny compared to the real news audience–about 10 times smaller on average… We also found that the fake news audience does not exist in a filter bubble. Visitors to fake news sites visited real news sites just as often as visitors to real news sites visited other real news sites.

This is not to say that people don’t exist in filter bubbles. In an article exploring fake news, Researchers Say They've Figured Out What Makes People Reject Science, And It's Not Ignorance, Fiona McDonald writes,

The issue is that when it comes to facts, people think more like lawyers than scientists, which means they 'cherry pick' the facts and studies that back up what they already believe to be true.

This becomes a special concern for those reporting on faith and religion. Many of the narratives of our religious traditions are at best unverifiable and would easily be dismissed by non-believers. In my Introduction to the Old Testament class, we recently discussed some of the older stories, like those of the exodus might be considered fake news. I am finding myself in lots of discussions about the role of written texts in forming our cultural history and biases. They texts might remain valuable, even if they are not factual.

As an example, consider the story of Teddy Stoddard. It is a heart-warming story of a little boy and a teacher that believed in him. It gets circulated frequently on the Internet. It isn’t true, but as Carole Fader observes at the end of her article, “It obviously has had a real impact on many people — even if Teddy, Mrs. Thompson and their story aren’t real.”

Stories of our belief, whether they date back thousands of years or are more current stories about what we believe about our fellow humans are very powerful. Some stories feel like they represent some universal truth. Others reflect the cultural memory of one religion or another. These days it becomes more complicated to choose the stories we tell as our politics becomes more polarized and our society becomes more multi-cultural representing greater religious variations.

So yes, it was a much simpler time, when could get all our facts from a hegemonic filter bubble that gave us all the news that was fit to print in the morning and in in the evening, the most trusted man in America could tell us, “that’s the way it is”. Now, we need to choose which information we believe. We can do it to minimize cognitive dissonance, or we can do it to expand our understanding.

Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to help all of us expand our understanding.

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit - Lots of Writing

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit. A new week, a new month, a new quarter, a new fiscal year for the government.
September has come and gone with lots of reading, lots of writing, but not a lot making it up as blog posts. October looks like it will be more of the same, but with a bunch of travel added on. How will all of this shape my writing going forward?

The courses I’m taking, Intro to Old Testament and News and Religion are going well. It is interesting to see how they interrelate. What was the news of the Ancient Near East? How was it reported? How does Biblical criticism relate to news criticism today?

I am still working on establishing the new normal in my schedule, trying to balance work, life, studies, and many different extracurricular activities. There is more to be written, but there is homework to be done as well.

#SMS17 Beyond the Parish Walls

On Saturday, the South Central Region of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut held an ‘unconference’ where we discussed many topics of interest to the attendees. One topic was social media, which was especially significant since Sunday is Social Media Sunday.

One of the goals of the various regions in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut is to promote inter-parish collaboration, so we talked a bit about how often we liked the pages of the churches around us, and shared their posts. It is my hope that our discussion at the unconference, my blog post about the unconference, and subsequent discussions will lead to better collaboration between churches.

Of course, working in social media, I’m interested in measuring this effect. So, I have put together this list of churches in the South Central Region that I like, and how many of my friends on Facebook like them. The list is probably incomplete, but it is a good starting point. I’d love to see some of my friends do something similar.

Then, we could all make an effort to get to know people from neighboring churches, like them on Facebook, share their posts, and come back at a later time and see how these numbers have changed.

So, here’s my list, with the Region Facebook page listed first, and then the different parishes in the region and the number of friends that like or have visited the parishes. I’ve sorted it by the number of friends that like or have visited the parishes, and I was surprised to see that my home parish is not at the top of the list.

Ember Letter - September 2017

To those who pray for me and those who offer me guidance and encouragement during this current phase of my journey, peace and love in our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is a tradition in parts of the Christian church for those seeking new ministries to write quarterly letters to those offering support and guidance, sometimes in formalized Ember Letters. It is within a broad interpretation of this tradition that I write this.

I will start with a comment from my previous letter, where I mentioned a friend who works for a local divinity school telling me that she did not believe I would be happy until I started seminary. I reached out to find a school that would fit my particular needs, especially around being able to work full-time and support my family while at the same time attending classes.

Church Divinity School of the Pacific accepted me into their online Certificate of Theological Studies program. The certificate requires eight elective courses and is, in a sense, a seminary postulancy. I am taking these courses as I seek a clearer sense of what God is calling me to, and whether I will continue on to an M.Div, and MTS, and MAR, or some other degree.

One of the things that I am excited about is CDSP’s participation in the Graduate Theological Union and the ability to take courses at various seminaries in the Bay area. One of the courses that caught my attention was News and Religion, offered by the Religious Freedom Center which is part of the Newseum in Washington, DC. I have applied and been accepted into their program as well.

So, this fall, I am taking News and Religion and Introduction to the Old Testament. I feel greatly blessed to have these opportunities and am enjoying myself greatly as I struggle to balance work, life, studies, church activities, and civic responsibilities.

During a recent mid-day Eucharist service, our discussion veered into what I was reading for seminary. One of the books on my list which is having a big impact on my thinking is “Radical Welcome” by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers. How do we radically welcome people into the Jesus Movement including at the diocesan level as well as the parish level? How do we radically welcome those called to various ministries?

I continue to work with the region leadership team in the South Central Region and spend a lot of time thinking about how we welcome people to activities of the region. As part of this, we are recognizing that not everyone has a specific parish that they associate with. I feel strong ties to a couple parishes. Others feel ties to no particular parish. What language do we use to welcome people with varying relationships to different churches? Does it welcome all people? At our next gathering, and we have been using the word gathering instead of convocation, since gathering feels more welcoming, will include an “unconference” which is another way to welcome everyone so that all may be heard.

As I discussed the ideas from Radical Welcome during mid-day Eucharist, a friend made a comment that my seminary reading list was not for me, but it was for all of us. It was a very powerful comment that I have been thinking a lot about. It seems as if we spend too much time thinking about where a process might be leading. We spend too much time preparing people for what they might be doing in three or five years, and not enough time on what they are doing right now.

Seminary is a wonderful experience for me and hopefully will shape who I am becoming, but it needs to be a wonderful experience through me to those around me right now as well.

This relates back to the underlying themes I’ve written about in the past. I continue to seek, using the language from a college experience, to live each moment more fully and more lovingly than the previous. I continue to seek, using the language of Brother Lawrence, to do all things for the love of God as I practice the presence of God. I continue to ask of God, in the language of St. Teresa of Avila, “God, What do you want of me?”

I continue to be reassured by the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “God alone is enough” and the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing shall be well.”

Over the past few months, I have continued to lead a service at a local nursing home and talk with some of the folks there. I continue to work with the dinner ministry, and I continue to talk with my friends on the street.

In addition, during the time of transition at Grace and St. Peter’s, I have had a few opportunities to preach, both on Sunday mornings as well as the opportunity to deliver a homily at the memorial service for the daughter of a friend. I have also been assisting with selecting hymns for Sunday services and helping with services in any other ways that I can. These experiences, too, have been a blessing to me, and hopefully to those around me.

I thank each of you for your ongoing prayers and your words of guidance and encouragement. I continue to pray for each of you as well.

All glory to God,
Aldon

Does Freedom of Religion and Freedom of the Press Still Matter?

This was written originally for the News and Religion course I am talking at The Religious Freedom Center

A question we are exploring in the News and Religion class I am taking right now is, “Can you have religious freedom without freedom of speech and press? Why or why not?”  On the simplest level, the answer would seem pretty obvious: religious freedom requires freedom of speech since part of many religious practices include speaking.  To the extent that one’s religion calls one to speak out against injustice and work for reconciliation, a free press may also be required, or at least a free religious press.

On another level, the answer might simply be, does anyone really care? The latest research by the Public Religion Research Institute finds a continuing decrease in the number of people identifying as members of organized religion.   Discussions about religious freedom end up being about whether a business owner can discriminate against a group of people whose actions he doesn’t approve of or whether religious freedom laws can be used to fight laws that limit the freedom of women.

When we look to the news media, we see similar concerns: the consolidation of major news outlets, the focus on profits instead of seeking truth, and how all of this contributes to the rise of ‘fake’ news.  How relevant is religion or the press today?  What is the role of the news media covering religion in our secular multicultural digital age?

We must recognize that our religious identity as a nation has shifted over the years.  We have never fully lived up to the image of “A City Upon a Hill”, and that image itself, when examined carefully, has its share of negative aspects.  Likewise, the fourth estate has not always guided us towards the truth or our better selves.

The book, Readings on Religion as News, edited by Judith M. Buddenbaum and Debra L. Mason, is

“an anthology of news stories that illustrates both the role of religion in shaping public opinion and the role of media in spreading religious beliefs and opinions through society and in shaping people’s opinions about religion”.

The editors found themselves “inundated with examples of times when religion made a difference … [and] many interesting examples of news coverage that helped shape public opinion”.

It may feel that there is a paucity of such examples today as Americans drift away from religious organizations and the news media because more driven by profit motives.  Yet as is noted in chapter 10 of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media edited by Diane Winston, blogging and online religious news coverage has the potential to fill an important role as “a venue for religious news and discourse in the public sphere”.

This leads us back to our starting question about freedom of religion and freedom of the press.  While we must keep in mind our individual freedoms, we must also keep in mind the constant reshaping of our cultural history and identity.  Religion and the press have worked together to constantly draw us back to public discourse, actions, and relationship with the divine for the welfare of our nation.  The freedoms of both are deeply interconnected.

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