Fake News, Misinformation, and Truth

When I arrived in Japan in late August, 1973, for a two year fellowship, the country was preparing to honor the 50th anniversary of the Tokyo earthquake, which upended the city for four minutes on September 1, 1923.  140,000 people were killed, many by the 7.9 magnitude quake itself, but most by the thousands of fires that the temblor ignited.  Buried beneath the reporting on the anniversary, the number of examples of heroism, all the memorials, and the grit and resilience of the capital to rebuild, was a footnote story:  within hours of the quake, rumors began to circulate that the Korean residents of the area started the fires and poisoned the water.  The accusations spread as fast as the flames, and in short order some 6,000 Koreans (who were resident aliens in Japan and had long been denied citizenship and other basic rights) were rounded up and killed.  The local press conspired with the Japanese government to deny what was later called the “Kanto Massacre” (Kanto being the central region of Japan), arguing that the trauma of the earthquake itself was more than people could absorb.  The press would not admit that the massacre took place.  For decades the press refused to acknowledge that people could react with such violence against a maligned minority.

But they did.  The earthquake, which came without warning, was indeed more than survivors could emotionally bear, but rather than be overwhelmed with inaction by the tragedy human instinct kicked in and people readily found a group to blame.  The accusations were fear-fueled; misinformation provided some immediate form of relief:  ‘we need to find somebody to punish for the punishment that has been visited on us, a punishment we haven’t deserved.’  They justified their vengeance.

It has been ever thus.  And the reluctance to report the wild and false accusations against the Koreans, and the government’s and press’ resistance to acknowledge that there was a brutal and bigoted slaughter of Koreans was tantamount to fake news.  Fake news has at least two dimensions: when the receivers of news don’t want the truth, or when the purveyors of news hide or deny the truth.

Some fifty years later, misinformation has become an egregious art form.  Accusations of ‘fake news’ are thrown about on an increasing number of media platforms.  Gaslighting has become a new buzzword, referring to a 1938 play called Gaslight (made into a 1944 movie of the same name),  in which a woman’s reality, perception and memory is impugned and challenged through some  nasty schemes cooked up by her husband – to the degree that she felt she was going crazy.  Which was the gaslighter’s aim.

Like many, I often feel as though I am going crazy with all the venomous accusations, obvious untruths, and harebrained theories that bombard us every day.  They don’t challenge my sanity, but they do wreak havoc on my emotional and spiritual composure.

For me, part of this comes from the sense of betrayal I felt a little over twenty years ago.  The United States was debating whether or not invade Iraq, based on the pretext that Saddam  Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction.  On February 5, 2003, then Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the UN Security Council that Iraq did indeed have nuclear weapons, an accusation he could “back up by solid sources.”   He had pictures.  He had tapes of conversations.  I believed him.  I trusted Colin Powell, who at the time was regarded as the most trustworthy leader in America.  And I found myself at least open to the prospect of invading Iraq, which was a discomfiting feeling, given my long-standing commitment to nonviolence.

Two years after his testimony, Colin Powell admitted that he wasn’t telling the truth.  He had provided fake news.   He said it was one of the biggest regrets of his life.  It is said that the US would have bombarded Iraq without Powell’s testimony, but his twisting the truth has made me even more wary of sources of truth. 

In the Gospel of John, the Passion portion of which is read during this Holy Week in Christian churches, the accused Jesus is brought before Pilate, the Roman Governor.  Pilate doesn’t want to deal with what he thinks is a local problem.  Whatever he decides to do about his prisoner is going to have difficult consequences for him. 

Pilate asks Jesus some incriminating questions.  Jesus responds with mystical answers that Pilate doesn’t understand.  When Jesus says he has come to bear witness to the truth, Pilate asks, “what is truth?”  (John 18:37-38)   Pilate doesn’t understand truth.  Instead of truth, Pilate puts his trust in expedience.   His eventual decision to throw Jesus to the wolves, and have him crucified, is a decision of expedience.  In response to Pilate’s question, “what is truth?”  Jesus just stands there. 
Stands, and stands there.  Which is not a satisfactory answer for Pilate, and often not very satisfactory for the rest of us.  Jesus stands there and lets his life speak for him, a life of non-violence, peace, inclusion and mercy.  His is a relational truth that invites people to reflect and ponder, and participate in building up humanity rather than tearing it down.

It is tempting to accept misinformation and fake news as truth.  It can feel emotionally satisfying to blame someone for an indiscretion, or a lie, or a tragedy – because that can bring the illusion of truth.  And then we think we can move on.

Truth – deep truth, requires more work.  It requires us to ponder – to get beneath the misinformation and fake news that courses through our ears and minds – and sometimes our hearts.  And stand there.  Stand there.  Let the anger and adrenaline die down, and refuse to allow the need for vengeance to take over.

The late William Sloan Coffin, Pastor of Riverside Church in New York, had a blessing and prayer that has brought comfort for me in the maelstrom of our gaslighting culture; and which I have adapted as a blessing at the end of church services:

    May God give you the grace to never sell yourself short;  Grace to risk something big for                      something goo    Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but truth,          And too small for anything but love.

The world is indeed too dangerous now for anything but truth.  The truth is not about expedience, or quick and facile answers.  Or about pointing fingers and ascribing blame.  It requires reflection – and standing there.  For a deeper truth to emerge.






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