What every Christian in the digital age ought to know

Chapter 10 - News and Views

On Tuesday April 16, 1912 the London Times reported that “the White Star liner Titanic, which left Southampton on Wednesday [April 10] on her maiden voyage to New York, came into collision with an iceberg some distance from Cape Race, Newfoundland, late on Sunday night, and sank yesterday morning. It is feared that only 675 of the passengers and crew, who numbered 2,300, have been saved.”

The following week, on April 23, the front page of the same newspaper carried an artist’s impression with the following caption:

An ocean disaster, unprecedented in history, has happened in the Atlantic. The White Star liner Titanic, on her maiden voyage, carrying nearly 2,400 people, has been lost near Cape Race.

That was big news, and the information, relayed by telegraph, was printed within a day of the event taking place. Commenting in the same issue, the editor noted that “the disaster ... is a forcible reminder of the existence of natural forces which from time to time upset all our calculations and baffle all our precautions.”

Writing some seventy years earlier, on October 15, 1842, the same newspaper carried a report relaying the “most disastrous news ... from the interior [of India], where the 41st Regiment had been cut to pieces”. The incident took place in August 1842, and the news had taken nearly two months to reach London.

In June 2009, Iranians took to the streets to protest what they saw as rigged elections. News was reported minute by minute, as it unfolded, by protesters sending tweets People across the world followed these events in real time. Someone calling himself “Montris” sent the following tweet.

Govt buildings being smashed, police batoning protesters, tear gas, rocks ... head wounds all around Tehran

Later that day, another protester reported on twitter:

Between 50–100 dead. Police on motorcycles beating people. They drive by attacking women

Protesters posted videos on YouTube directly from their Smartphones. One of the most harrowing of these videos was that of girl of twenty dying in the streets after being shot during a demonstration. The video was instantly available across the web and was watched by tens of thousands, as well as being broadcast by television stations.

Social Media, Riots and the Middle East

The Spring of 2011 saw widespread popular uprising and disturbances in the Middle East. Beginning in Tunisia, these popular movements led to widespread change in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan and others.

There is little doubt that Social Media was a key enabler for these protests with Sites such as Facebook and Twitter being used to help coordinate and inform people directly without any intermediary or censorship. Videos posted to YouTube were also seized by the world’s media as evidence of what was “really going on” on the streets of these troubled countries.

Jillian York of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society commented, “For the past few days, I have been watching people on Twitter ... I have also seen things such as “Google docs” literally laying out plans for protests. And so in this case, I have seen a lot more public organization on the Internet.”

Even in the West, Facebook has been used to incite riots. In the UK, the summer of 2011 saw some terrible scenes of rioting and looting. In August of that year, two individuals (Perry Sutcliffe, 22, and Jordan Blackshaw, 20) were jailed for four years for urging other to riots by posting on their Facebook pages.

On the other hand, politicians have been quick to see the Internet as a means to bring democracy directly to the people. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, in a 2010 speech, stated that “we will work with partners in industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations to establish a standing effort that will harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to our diplomatic goals.” To counter these grand designs, author Evgeny Morozov, in his acclaimed book The Net Delusion, explains that Clinton’s goal to “put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights” is naïve. Morozov continues: “The most popular Internet searches on Russian search engines are not for ‘What is democracy?’ or ‘How to protect human rights’ but for ‘What is love?’ and ‘How to lose weight.’"

To some, the kind of popular uprising seen in countries across the Middle East would have been impossible without social media. To others, social media was just a small part of the picture and one of the tools that happened to be available.

In a debate sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, the participants argued that social media tended to make reporters lazy, tempting them to use easily available information rather than looking deeper into issues. Citing as an example the disturbances in the Middle East, they explained that these didn’t happen just because people created a Facebook page but originated in a social and cultural context after years of oppression.

The iPad and the Age of 24/7

In April of 2010, eBay founder and Hawaii resident, Pierre Omidyar, started a new kind of newspaper called Civil Beat. At its inception, the editor, a man by the name of John Temple, explained, “We’re going to be sharing with the public what we’re working on as we’re working on it, and the experience of working on it”. In other words, reporters will keep blogs and send tweets as they pursue stories. They’ll write regular news articles but they’ll also host online discussions of the beats they cover— like politics or education. And they’ll maintain so-called topic pages which will act as a constant living story that is continually updated.

While launching the iPad, the late Steve Jobs of Apple demonstrated how the way that we read news is changing. Traditional newspapers such as the New York Times and USA Today soon launched iPad versions to allow users to subscribe to the latest news stories over the Internet. The media mogul Rupert Murdoch called this a “digital renaissance” when he launched a newspaper specifically designed for the new media called The Daily, its main selling point being the instant availability of “High definition video, 360-degree photographs, text stories interlaced with Twitter feeds and a 100 pages of current events, gossip, sports, apps and games delivered daily.” According to Murdoch, “New times demand new journalism.” But by the end 2011, The Daily had failed to attract enough readers to break even (it had only a sixth of what it needed according to the Guardian)10 but the ideas behind online news are already catching on. Imagine being able not only to read news, but also to be instantly linked to a video posted by a blogger on the web or having the ability to customize a newspaper so that it fits your particular interests.

The news is becoming a commodity. It’s something that we can tailor to reflect our tastes and interests. It’s a means not only of receiving stories from around the world, but of instantly being kept up to date. And it gives us the opportunity to interact with people in the news via email, twitter, instant messengers or web discussions. We no longer need to be passive recipients of news; we can now provide feedback, opinions and complete instant surveys.

News as Entertainment

So why does this matter? In his well-known book Amusing ourselves to death, the late Neil Postman, a professor of Education, postulated that television as a medium of communication was so geared towards entertainment that news lost any kind of seriousness and value. The focus was on filling a news program in such a way that the consumer would not switch channels. Postman argued that news had to entertain so that broadcasters could sell enough advertising to continue operating. News became entertainment just as entertainment became news.

Filtering the News

In 1976, Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer produced a video entitled “How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture”. In one fascinating scene, he illustrated how the same news story could be presented to the viewer from two completely different perspectives. Schaeffer ably demonstrated how news could be made to reflect the views of the reporter selectively presenting “facts” from a perspective that only emphasizes certain aspects of an incident.

This is particularly concerning because of reports in 2009 from Don Maclean, a former BBC Radio 2 religious program host, in which he attacked the BBC and accused it of supporting a secularist campaign “to get rid of Christianity”. We should not naïvely think that the news is neutral. News organizations have their own agendas and biases, whether they be making money by selecting the most captivating news items, or presenting a philosophy or political viewpoint.

Key Principles

Christianity should instill, in ever increasing measure, the quality of thoughtfulness. The Lord Jesus understood the biases of the people around him and dealt with them accordingly. The Sadducees came to him with a story about a woman who ends up marrying seven brothers. As each brother, in turn, dies, as was the Jewish practice, each succeeding brother leaves the woman to the next of kin until she herself dies. The Lord sees right through the motives behind the story and dismisses the Sadducees by quoting Scripture (Matthew 22:29–32). Like our Lord, we are to not be “fools” but “wise” recognizing that “the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15–16).

Neither are Christians to be naïve, believing news items without questioning them and uncritically accepting the motives of the people reporting them. The Book of Proverbs has many injunctions to be wise and is very direct when it says that “The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps” (Proverbs 14:15). The apostle Paul also warns us against naïvety when he says that there are those who “do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:18).

Practical Advice

What does this all mean? The thing we should always remember is that the Internet is essentially unregulated. Just because a news item is posted on the Internet does not mean that it is true—be it a blog, tweet or a page from a news organization. If we are to test what the preacher says on a Sunday (1 Thessalonians 5:21, Acts 17:11), how much more should we avoid being naïve about what is posted on the Internet? We must be wise in what we see or read in the news. We must be aware of the potential bias and this may help us to analyze and think through the issues that are being presented.

This is particularly true when discussing these things in a family context. Our children will quickly pick up our views, and our biases. Particularly in their younger years, they will have a tendency to adopt these views uncritically. Even during the teenage years, when some outwardly rebel against their parents’ beliefs, very few will shake off the fundamental worldview that they grew up with. The way we think, and how we react to news and information presented to us, matters a great deal. We must never forget that we live in a world of biases and agendas, in which news is seldom, if ever, presented from a Christian viewpoint.

We should also find encouragement in the way that the Internet has changed how news can now be gathered—something very different from the bleak picture that author Neil Postman presented in his book. We now have the opportunity to uncover information directly from the source, rather than simply relying on a filtered view being presented by a news agency, one that may have its own agenda. With the Internet, we can read blogs, check twitter feeds, or quickly go to another news report. This kind of access has never been possible before. It is almost as if we are now able to “cut out the middle man” from the news story. We must avoid unthinkingly accepting things, but, at the same time, we have the ability to explore news from different viewpoints. Laziness and naïvety are the great killers of objective reasoning.

Not only can we be news consumers, but we also have the opportunity to be news creators. We can use the Internet to publicize our local events, organize petitions and circulars and canvass support against anti- Christian positions. We can post sermons online, evangelistic messages, and make these available to our local community. Nothing is a substitute for the preaching of the Word, or the witness of a neighbor or of a family member. Rather, the Internet is a tool that can be used to reach people who are increasingly found at their computers. Meeting people in the time of the apostles may have meant going to the marketplace or the Acropolis. Today’s communities can be found meeting on the Internet, debating ideas and getting their news and information.

We not only have access to news from around the world, we have been entrusted with the very best news of all—the good news of the gospel. We need to focus on what is achievable and develop a clear strategy for making best use of the opportunities that the World Wide Web creates. We must be proactive, not reactive.


References have been removed from this copy of the chapter. They can be found in the book.