Interview: Christopher Douglas on ‘Religion and Fake News’
In January 2018 CIRIS released a fascinating new report by Prof Chris Douglas on religion and fake news. The report explores the religious dimension of fake news in both Europe and the United States and offers recommendations for how policymakers and other leaders can fight back against faith-based fake news.
Christopher Douglas teaches American literature and religion at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He wrote the report for the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy, which CIRIS serves as secretariat.
(Click here for a version of the report with hyperlinks rather than endnotes.)
In this interview, members of the CIRIS team engage Prof Douglas on several of the issues raised in his report.
CIRIS: In your report you identify three asymmetries when it comes to religion and fake news in the US and Europe. What are those asymmetries and why do they matter?
Douglas: First, in the 2016-17 elections, fake news circulated more among Americans than Europeans. Second, fake news circulates among conservatives more than liberals. Third, fake news targeting conservatives often features religious themes.
In my paper I try to figure out why those asymmetries exist. I hypothesize that part of the explanation is the history in the U.S. of a particular faith tradition – white Christian fundamentalism – that cultivated skepticism to mainstream sources of knowledge like universities and professional journalism. This faith tradition didn’t just oppose modern knowledge – it cultivated institutions of counter-expertise to oppose ideas like evolution, Bible criticism, and now climate change.
CIRIS: You argue that the “alternative information ecosystem” of conservative American Protestant evangelicalism has made that community particularly vulnerable to fake news. And yet all religious communities create, at least to some extent, their own distinctive institutions that reinforce their belief systems. Why have American evangelicals proven more vulnerable than, say, American Catholics?
Douglas: Conservative American Protestant evangelicals – or, more narrowly, fundamentalists – contested two academic ideas that have generally been accepted by Catholics and mainline Protestants. The fundamentalist tradition was born in opposition to the science of evolution and to the historical-critical method of Biblical criticism, especially as they accelerated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These bodies of modern expertise are officially and generally (to the extent they are understood) accepted by American Catholics and mainline Protestant churches.
What makes American fundamentalism distinct is its construction of a significant network of counter-expertise supporting its theological views on creationism and the inerrant, literal Word of God. Christian fundamentalist Bible colleges and universities, publishers and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, radio and then television shows, museums, websites, and campus ministries, together formed an infrastructure of institutions that resisted elite, secular expert knowledge. This extensive network has no sizable analogue in other Western countries.
CIRIS: For decades religious conservatives have rebuked secular liberals for replacing objective truth with subjectivism and relativism. Now it seems the script has flipped. How did we end up in this odd historical situation where those proclaiming a commitment to truth are falling for fake news and relativists are preaching the importance of objective truth?
Douglas: This flipped script is a fascinating moment. But we have to remember that for many religious conservatives, and especially for fundamentalists, the script was never about searching for truth. It was rather about already knowing the “truth,” and then proceeding work backwards to seek suitable reasoning and evidence for those views. Genuine truth-seeking begins with recognizing our ignorance about the unknown – as with geology, evolution, climate change, and the historical-critical method of Bible scholarship. Experts get stuff wrong, have biases and blind spots, paradigms that constrain them. But the process of expert evaluation, evidence weighing, scrutiny and peer review are built to try to account for, and counter, these real problems as we search for truth.
It was the mimicry of these processes and institutions of expertise that really constituted the heart of fundamentalist alternative information ecosystems. When modern expert consensus is inimical to one’s religious views, postmodern relativism can come as a relief. I call this “Christian Postmodernism.”
CIRIS: How critical is a sense of social marginalisation to a community’s vulnerability to fake news? Did eight years of Obama make conservative evangelicals ripe for fake news manipulation?
Douglas: This is a great point: a community’s sense of social marginalization probably ripens its vulnerability to fake news. And yet not all marginal communities develop this problem. Alternative information ecosystems are probably crucial to the question of which communities become more vulnerable – such as with the existence of the conservative information-entertainment complex in the U.S. today. A well-developed outrage / resentment infrastructure, such as exists with Fox News, Infowars, Breitbart, and so on, can nurse a community’s sense of estrangement.
Early opposition to the Obama presidency was crystalized in the Tea Party movement, which was often reported as organized on the principles of fiscal conservatism and small-government. But survey data showed that self-identified Tea Party members wanted more religion in government, not less; it also showed members as having more racial resentment than non-Tea Party identified Republican Party members, as historian Jill Lepore also helped reveal. White evangelical racial resentment made it an easy target for the early birther conspiracy contending that Obama was secretly a Muslim, or a Marxist, or a fascist, born outside the United States. Those white evangelicals later voted by 81% for the man who probably did more than anyone to popularize birther conspiracy, Donald Trump. When future historians try to figure out why American conservatives generally lost their collective mind in this period, this faith tradition will probably play an important explanatory role.
CIRIS: Is it possible to work against fake news—and the alternative information ecosystems that foster credulity to fake news—while protecting religious freedom and respecting the beliefs and values of religious communities?
Douglas: Yes. And no. Not all religious beliefs are worthy of public respect. We don’t tolerate, for example, calls for religious violence in our societies, however sincerely-felt those calls might be. On a less visceral level, religious communities that enter the public realm in order to make demands on those outside their groups must submit the beliefs in question to modern procedures of professional fact-checking, reporting, and scientific evaluation. U.S. courts have correctly denied fundamentalist attempts to introduce “creation science” into public school classrooms. Those beliefs can still be freely and privately held, but they cannot be the basis for education or public policy.
In this paper I argue that the Christian fundamentalist alternative information ecosystems developed to cultivate counter-expertise in areas like creationism constituted a kind of cognitive training that fostered credulity to fake news. I think that insofar as fundamentalist beliefs are offered as the basis for public policy – as with creationism, or the denial of climate change – those beliefs do not merit public respect. They must be treated with rigorous analysis, expert evaluation, and public scrutiny – as with all our other policy ideas. Beliefs with public policy consequences cannot be deemed off limits just because they have a religious origin or articulation.
CIRIS: In your recommendations you say it’s important to get religious conservatives out of the margins of society and give them greater air-time on mainstream media. How can this be done in a way that doesn’t further spread credulity to fake news or reinforce public perception that extreme voices are the legitimate representatives of diverse religious communities?
Douglas: This is the million dollar question, and I’m not sure I have a great answer to it. In my paper I argue that religious conservatives need to be paired (in a televised interview or debate, for instance) with religious moderates of the same faith tradition. That way, adherents and nonbelievers alike can see the historical flexibility of the religious tradition – that there is more than one way of being an authentic Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu in a modern society.
CIRIS: From your research, what have you seen are some ways religious leaders can push back against the spread of fake news within their own faith communities?
Douglas: A great religious teacher once claimed that “the truth shall set you free.” Leaders of all faiths should be able to urge their believers to love truth, no matter its source. On a more concrete level, leaders might urge fellow believers to abandon known outlets of state propaganda, like Fox News – or at least diversify consumption by adding mainstream media sources into the mix. That is admittedly a big ask. But as Christianity Today, the leading magazine of American evangelicalism, has recently argued, believers can be critical consumers of information and still be authentic Christians characterized by orthodox belief.
CIRIS: As the US approaches the 2018 midterm elections and then another presidential election in 2020, do you see any signs for hoping that Russian-backed fake news will be either less prevalent or less effective?
Douglas: Unfortunately, the signs seem to be pointing the opposite way: that Russian-backed fake news will continue to be prevalent and effective in 2018 and 2020. In the face of this national security threat, U.S. politicians are split to a degree that may be unprecedented. The President has refused to impose Congressionally-passed sanctions on Russia for its electoral interference. He is attacking the trustworthiness and independence of the Justice Department and the FBI, who are investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia. After some initial resistance to his nomination, Republican politicians in the House and Senate have largely been won over, and are actively participating in his campaign to muddy the waters by accusing the investigations of being partisan. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the president, and others in his party, expect and welcome Russia’s continued electoral interference, which they know will be aimed at helping them. I’m not sure many of them have thought through the long term strategic consequences of this dynamic, and many are probably motivated by short-term interests. We need to consider the possibility that many American conservatives seem willing to seek a political realignment between the U.S. and Russia, a realignment in which plutocrats consolidate kleptocratic control through populist claims to white, Christian identity politics.
CIRIS: You’re an English professor. How did you come to do research on religion and fake news?
Douglas: I was conducting research on the rise of the Christian Right, which I take to be the most important transformation of the U.S. religious landscape in the last half-century. In my recent book, I show that this social and political empowerment is actually the invisible frame of reference for religiously-interested American writers such as Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon – even Dan Brown. This research led me to investigate the history, theology, and politics of Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. During the 2016 election, I began to put the pieces together about how longstanding alternative information ecosystems seemed to be activated as fake news was circulated and received. In any case, literature can be a good map for what lies ahead; as Pynchon once wrote about the Laws of Thermodynamics, “you can’t win, things are going to get worse before they get better, who says they’re going to get better?”