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July 19, 2016, 12:00 AM

Lying at the Speed of Light

There is an adage attributed to Mark Twain that goes, ‘A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

But, Mark Twain never said it.  We’re not  sure who first did, although the satirist Jonathon Swift who wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” did write, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”

The adage is true enough.  But, the fact that it is usually incorrectly attributed to Twain, is an example of how truth, error, and outright falsehood can be so easily intertwined and rapidly spread.

We live in an era in which falsehoods, errors, and innuendos can literally spread at the speed of light.  And, way too often, we Christians are complicit in this.

The events of the past week, in which there were two controversial instances of police using deadly force, and then a maniacal mass shooting targeting police, all sorts of claims and counter-claims have been made concerning the facts of these cases.

In the initial confusion and panic in Dallas, a picture of a man carrying an assault rifle was spread across the internet.  He was a “person of interest” whom many people instantly assumed was the shooter.  He turned out not to be the guilty party, or involved in any way in the attack.  In fact, when the shooting began, he turned over his weapon to a police officer and fled the scene…precisely because he didn’t want to be confused with the sniper.   It was the smart move to make.  Even though he has been completely exonerated, he has received hundreds of death threats.

Lies have a curious way of persisting, when they trigger our fears.  For decades, Christians sent thousands  of petitions  to the Federal Communication Commission, because they were told the FCC was about to ban all religious broadcasting, due to a petition from the atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair.  But, O’Hair had never launched such a drive.  Religious broadcasting had never been under any serious threat.  But, the outrage cost the taxpayers untold thousands of dollars because the FCC had to respond to all the angry Christians who never stopped to check the truth of the story.

Ms. O’Hair thought it was hilarious and said that it just proved how gullible Christians are.  The petitions persisted long after she was murdered by a follower.

I wrote an article for our Conference newspaper,  nearly twenty years after first seeing one of these petitions, in which I explained that the whole things was an urban myth. I also said that Christians would do well to worry about real problems, rather than mythical ones.  For my trouble, I got an angry letter from a woman who was just furious at me for sharing the truth about this myth!  I guess she had been distributing petitions to stop the non-existence threat and she really resented me pointing out that it was bogus!  It was a story that fed her particular fears/angers/biases and she resented losing it.

We are in a highly partisan time in which half-truths and outright lies are spread, literally at the speed of light, by people who simply assume they are true, because they agree with their opinions..

I have a dear friend  who lives in another part of the state, who frequently posts stuff on Facebook on a variety of political and religious issues that is factually wrong.  But, they seem to back this person’s  personal opinions, so my friend posts them without checking their veracity.   As the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan said (and yes, he really said it, I checked), “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.”

I will post something showing that the information my friend is sharing is demonstrably wrong.  My friend will then say something to the effect of, “LOL You got me again.  I really should check this stuff, first.”  But, within a few days or weeks…there will be another post filled with bad information that can be easily disproven with a quick check.

I will readily confess that I have posted stuff on occasion that proved to be either just plain false, or not entirely accurate.  But, I try to correct my errors when I do.

I have also adopted a rule of thumb, which I will recommend to you…

First…If you’re tempted to share something, because it  fits your worst opinions of someone or something,  for God’s sake, take the time to check it out, first.  I mean it when I say, “for God’s sake.”  As Christians, we are commanded not to bear false witness or engage in malicious gossip.  Spreading  false rumors  is doing just that. It is quite literally, “bearing false witness.”  (Check out that Ninth Commandment)

We too often spread misinformation and outright lies, simply because we feel they justify our opinions.  And usually those are negative opinions about someone with whom we disagree.  Our acts of false witness usually involve trash talking people we don’t like.

PLEASE…Before posting something trashing a politician or public figure, take a few moments to verify the story you’re spreading.  A few excellent sites for doing so are, Politifact, and Hoax Slayer.

Second…Seeing is NOT believing.  We live in the era of Photoshop and I frequently see doctored pictures of public figures.  Just because there is a picture,  doesn’t  mean it’s true.  A helpful way to check is to use a site called TinEye, which tracks down the first time the picture appeared on the internet.  I first used it to check a photo that claimed to show the American ambassador who was killed in Benghazi being tortured by Libyans.  A quick check with TinEye revealed that the photo first appeared on the internet two years before the attack.  It was apparently from a movie.

In a few months, we will be making decisions about who will occupy this nation’s highest offices.  Such decisions should be based on truthful, accurate information.  Not rumors, innuendo, and outright lies spread on the internet.

In the Letter of James, the writer denounces gossip and writes, The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”  He probably would have said something similar about the keyboard, today.

We would do well to remember that Jesus was crucified, based on false and distorted testimony.  We do the same, when we share dark untruths  at the speed of light.

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