False news travels six times faster than the truth according to a new scientific study. It’s 70% more likely to be retweeted. The study analyses 126,000 false stories tweeted by roughly three million people more than 4.5 million times. We’re aware of fake news and robots that generate it online. It seems that the robots are not responsible for the speed at which fake news travels – we are. What is it in human nature that is drawn to sharing falsehood?
It should be of great concern to us. The author of the study, Professor Aral makes a striking comment. “Some notion of truth is central to the proper functioning of nearly every realm of human endeavor. If we allow the world to be consumed by falsity, we are inviting catastrophe”. Of course the trend of post-modern thought has been to claim that truth is relative, not absolute. This undermines a concern for truth, even the facts because it is claimed that such truth claims are an exercise of power and privilege.
A biblical perspective gives us, however, a clear basis for distinguishing truth and lies. The study laments the effects of fake news: “False news can drive the misallocation of resources during terror attacks and natural disasters, the misalignment of business investments, and misinformed elections”. While these are important, it is also a matter of moral and eternal significance. The concern about the speed at which lies travel is of course not new.
If you want truth to go round the world you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go round the world, it will fly; it is as light as a feather, and a breath will carry it. It is well said in the old Proverb, ‘A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.’ (C H Spurgeon)
It is not a unique feature of social media; we have the same tendency to want to share certain news more than others. Apparently false stories have greater novelty and produce greater surprise and disgust. It is just as true when we get news by word of mouth, text or email. These driving forces make people spring to a quick judgment about what they have heard and often want to share it. David, for instance was too hasty in accepting Ziba’s lie about Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 16). There may be many “spiritual” factors that cloud our judgment and make us rush to characterise another believer and their words or actions.
There are many reasons why this may be so. Fundamentally the problem is not so much with the mouth as with the heart. The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart (Matthew 12:34). The following are some of the ways we rush to judgment in heart as outlined by James Durham. It comes from his exposition of the ninth commandment which forbids false witness. They are some of the reasons as to why lies travel faster than the truth.
1. Rushing into Suspicious Judgment
Suspecting others unjustly is called “evil surmising” in 1 Timothy 6:4 or as it is in the original Greek “evil suspicion”. This is when people are suspected of some evil without grounds for it, as Potiphar suspected Joseph. It is jealousy when this suspicion is mixed with fear of something that we love or value being endangered. Thus Herod was jealous when Christ was born, as were the neighbouring kings when Jerusalem was being built. There is, I grant, a right suspicion; e.g. that which Solomon had concerning Adonijah (1 Kings 1 and 2). Yet Gedaliah failed, in not crediting Johannans information anent Ishmael’s conspiracy against his life (Jeremiah 40).
2. Rushing into Unjust Judgment
We may be guilty of rash judging and concluding unjustly concerning someone’s state. This was what Job’s friends did. We may judge unjustly of someone’s actions, as Eli did with Hannah in saying that she was drunk, because of her lips moving. We may judge unjustly of someone’s objectives. The Corinthians did this with Paul when he took wages; they said it was covetousness. When he did not take wages from them they said it was lack of love (see Romans 14:4 and 2 Corinthians 11:41 following).
3. Rushing into Hasty Judgment
By hasty judging we pass a verdict too soon in our mind from some apparent evidence. We might draw conclusions about what we assume to be in the heart though it is not in the outward behaviour. This is merely to judge hastily and before the time (Matthew 7:1).
4. Rushing into Judgment on Weak Grounds
There is light judging, basing our conclusions on arguments or other means that will not support them. The Barbarians suspected Paul to be a murderer when they saw the viper on his hand (Acts 25:4). King Ahasuerus trusted Haman’s slander concerning the Jews too quickly.
5. Rushing into Presumptuous Judgment
The ninth commandment may be broken in our hearts when we are constantly suspicious of our neighbour failing. We act contrary to Matthew 18:15 when we are not willing to be satisfied but rather base our judgment on what we presume to be probable.
We ought to be thankful that there is mercy for such sins of the heart that rise all too easily. How much we need truth and a love of the truth in the inward part. There is grace for this from the One who is full of grace and truth. Durham also observes that the ninth commandment requires us to preserve and promote the truth. It advances honest, simple and straightforward attitudes and behaviour among people. We should have a sincere and cordial loving regard to the repute and good name of one another. We ought to take delight and joyful satisfaction in this as well as having a suitable love to and care for our own good name. These principles will restrain the rapid judgment that is ready to accept a false report concerning someone else whether they are in the public eye or in our circle of acquaintance.