From Good News to Fake News

A Report on Sarah Morice Brubaker

By Alexis Waggoner | 6.15.2018

Sarah Morice Brubaker began her session with a delineation of untruthfulness, explaining that it is both a theological issue and something at work in the “fake news” culture of today. She stated that Christianity hasn’t been great at providing a variety of ways in which to talk about untruthfulness. Classically, Christian culture emphasizes something as being true, or not — without a lot of variation in between.

The same week as Westar’s Spring Meeting, news broke about Cambridge Analytica’s role in untruthfulness and fake news. The data collection company had illegally obtained data on 50 million people and, using a technology known as Persuasion  Architecture, began testing out messaging on individuals geared toward a precise blend of their network, interests, education, social connections, and so on.

Morice Brubaker drew on the work of techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, citing the analogy to the world of supermarket shopping, where you’re presented with a variety of purchase options in the check-out line: designed to spur you into an impulse purchase when, perhaps your willpower is depleted or your kids are whiney.

Further referencing Tufekci, Morice Brubaker invited the audience to imagine a similar thing happening online, where each person’s experience of the “check out line” is different, leading us to distrust each other while believing what we see in our curated and highly targeted news feeds. To complicate matters further, in the “check out kine” scenario, we expect to be marketed to, since we are in a store to buy something! But online communities resemble something closer to a community center, where you go to connect with friends and family.

To live in such a state of constant bombardment, we need a framework for truth that is not just black-and-white. Morice Brubaker returned to her original contention that Christian theology has not furnished us with the resources we need to explore untruthfulness of these surroundings, because too often it is focused on truth vs. lie.

Augustine helps build this framework in his treatises on lying. He contends that the human intellect is ordered to know and love God as the author of truth (because the mind loves truth), to connect to God as creator (because we, too, can conceptually and concretely create), and to feel awe through the revelation of God (as language allows us to understand the revelation of the word). Morice Brubaker explains that to Augustine, a right response is to look at our human intellect and capacity and allow that to draw a line between us and God — to necessitate a connection between humanity and divinity.

But — because Augustine is also very concerned with the problem of sin — he recognizes that whole system is corrupted. What should end up pointing us to God, points us instead to ourselves. We think of ourselves as the end object, identifying God only as another object in our orbit. As Morice Brubaker explained, for Augustine, lying is deliberate deception and untruthfulness has been exhaustively talked bout it these terms.

Such a binary view leaves important variations out. In modernity there’s a sense that the lie becomes unmoored from any kind of anchor to the truth that it used to have, therefore it must be all falsehood. But what about the spectrum in between? Morice Brubaker says the ideas of bullshit (as a technical term!), overconfidence, and propaganda need more attention for this reason. “Counter truth” doesn’t always belong to typical categories of lie.

After highlighting the importance of categories of truthfulness and untruthfulness, Morice Brubaker offered some reflections on what Christian faith communities can do to resist the ubiquity of the “simple” lie. First and foremost, she said, is the importance of talking about the spectrum of untruthfulness — specifically critiquing overconfidence, propaganda, and other elements of untruth more than faith communities currently do.

She also suggested building communities where people are deeply known, but not under surveillance. To tackle this, she said  Christian places of worship in the US need to focus on what they do well, or what they could do well with a little more work. In other words, churches probably aren’t goin to “out Facebook” Facebook! She provided some ideas:

  • Practice letting people know they’re being prayed for via analog means: ie, a whiteboard in the church, or mailboxes in a common space.
  • Look for opportunities of welcome and don’t exclude people out of sheer force of habit: ie, are worship material accessible? Do they reference experiences that not everyone shares? How can churches consider accessibility and inclusivity?
  • Notice when you’ve been invited to pay for the privilege of greater comfort and less surveillance, and when you can, turn it down.
  • If you can provide a physical space for people to find life-giving community that they may find online, do it! ie, 12-step programs or other support and outreach groups

Morice Brubaker concluded with a group discussion and the hope that if we start talking about our experiences of truth and untruth, and providing space for community creation, we’ll find out we have a lot more resources than we thought.

CD label for Sarah Morice Brubaker from Spring 2018

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As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

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