Speakers offered an overview of the state of disinformation as well as case studies from various parts of the world.

World Association for Christian Communication deputy general secretary Sara Speicher, who moderated the discussion, opened by offering a definition of information. Information itself is the basis on which all of our decisions are made, individually and collectively,” she said. The better the information - the more complete, relevant, accurate, and understandable it is – the better our decisions can be.”

Eliott Higgins, founder and creative director of the investigative journalism platform Bellingcat, offered remarks on the roots of disinformation. 

Often, if you actually look at where disinformation is coming from, and the misinformation that also goes along with it, the kinds of forces behind them are very similar,” he said. They basically have social, technological, psychological, and emotional factors involved.”

While fact-checking and efforts to help people identify false information is “a noble effort,” Higgins states, it addresses more “the symptoms of a far more fundamental problem that you have with society at the moment.” 

He continued by saying the problem “can only be resolved by engaging people from a young age with the issues, and not just saying, ‘hey you are all going to be fact checkers now’ but empower them with the investigative tools… to investigate issues in their own areas as well as understanding issues around algorithms, social media, artificial intelligence that impact their lives.” 

The roots of misinformation

Kathleen Keefer, national vice moderator of Presbyterian Women in the US, described the situation of disinformation in her country. We've become very partisan and separated from each other,” she said. 

She noted that misinformation has come a lot from outlets such as Fox News. “ ‘News’ is a term used loosely,” she said, “it’s more commentary or opinion.” 

The disinformation and misinformation that comes from such outlets such as Fox or Breitbart are combined with the ability of social media to spread misinformation. “We have lots of conspiracy theories, and people in the US really like those and spread them on social media.” 

Vaughn Geusppe Alviar, a communicator with the Philippine Independent Church, spoke on how red-tagging” has been aimed at pastors and activists in the nation. 

"There's a tendency to call us terrorists or to call us rebels, state enemies, subversives, and a lot more,” he said. A lot of us have been troubled, and a lot of us have faced endless judgment, vilification, harassment, and insecurity in our lives.”

Rev. Dr Lesmore Ezekiel, director of programs at the All Africa Conference of Churches, reflected on how the truth” is perceived in Africa. I am confronted with the question of what is the truth—and who defines and determines what truth is, especially in a world that is equally driven by this notion of consumerism, where people think that we can just consume whatever is produced somewhere else,” he said. It is often a challenge to spend time to do a background check to investigate the veracity of such information before it is even circulated, because it is moved from one WhatsApp to another.”

Prof. Dr Magali Cunha, a researcher on communication and religion at the Institute of Religious Studies in Brazil, spoke of the unique role of churches in an age overflowing with information and disinformation. 

Research has shown that religious environments are highly vulnerable to the circulation of disinformation,” she said. Yet the social media accounts of church groups and their leaders are accredited as sources of truth.”

Churches as “super-spreaders”

Speakers pointed to cases of churches themselves becoming “super-spreaders” of misinformation largely because they are seen as trusted sources. As one example, Exekiel pointed to “church merchants” who “want to make money from miracles” and spread conspiracies around COVID vaccines. 

Cunha called for education and “prophetic denunciation” of lies that circulate in Christian environments. She pointed to work she is involved in to educate and generate an “attitude of distrust” to lies and encourage people not be used as ‘traffickers of false content.’”

Alviar highlighted that “We need to listen to people who are vulnerable to misinformation, in conversations that are richer and bring more experience from the grassroots.”

Keefer said, “I would like to see a curriculum for all ages that addresses what fake news is, how to recognize it and how to investigate it… and what the truth of it is. If people know that, they are more likely to have a way to look at the news they are getting.” 

Ezekial concluded, “We call on churches to form a community of meaning. All the expertise and competencies we need are in the church. How can we use them to fact check, and all other uses. If we do that, we can counter disinformation.”