It was a story guaranteed to inspire a blitz of clicks throughout social media. It was sent around in the days just after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision proclaiming that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.

“Gay man sues publishers over Bible verses,” said a USA Today headline. A Michigan man was seeking $70 million from two Christian giants, claiming they – by publishing editions of the Bible referring to homosexuality as a sin – caused “me or anyone who is a homosexual to endure verbal abuse, discrimination, episodes of hate, and physical violence … including murder.”

But there was a problem. The vast majority of those who recently read this story, commented on it or forwarded it to others failed to notice a crucial fact: It was published in 2008. (Confession: I fell for it, because the version I received didn’t contain the date in the actual text.)

In religious circles, the abuse of partial facts and anonymous anecdotes is as old as preachers searching for Saturday night inspiration. However, the Internet age has encouraged global distribution, making it easier for flawed or exaggerated information to go viral in microseconds. Once these stories lodge in memory banks – human or digital – they live on and on. This problem is especially bad among many religious believers who tend to distrust mainstream sources of news.

“Most of the fake news I see doesn’t reach people through the mainstream,” said Ed Stetzer, the online evangelical maven who leads LifeWay Research in Nashville. Instead, it comes “through what I call the ‘angry Christian sites.’ …

“There are a lot of people out there who feel very put-upon. They’re going to believe whatever feeds into that perception that they’ve been marginalized in public life.”

That religious and moral traditionalists have suffered numerous stinging defeats in the public square only strengthens the temptation to believe, and pass along, “faux news” that supports their fears, Stetzer said.

Many people are thinking “they’re after us for our beliefs on marriage. They’re after us for our beliefs on religious liberty,” he said. “But if there’s so much bad stuff out there, it doesn’t make sense to make new stuff up.”

Truth is, the problem is rooted in technology as well as human temptation, according to a 2012 paper – “Plausible Quotations and Reverse Credibility in Online Vernacular Communities” – published by professors Quentin Schultze and Randall Bytwerk of Calvin College. Digital networks have, at the very least, created legions of self-publishers who, working without editors, preach to their choirs day after day.

In a sense, the professors argued, fake quotes and information “become like Internet-spread urban legends, which sometimes reference and even quote wellknown persons. As with all previous media, the person who does the initial quoting has the advantage of first say – as well, now, the advantage of initial Google indexing.”

Theoretically, modern readers also have virtually unlimited access to digital tools – blogs, search engines and online libraries – with which to verify or refute these shaky viral anecdotes, noted Bytwerk and Schultze. Alas, “corrections, too, can become viral – but not as easily.”

Thus, it’s important for clergy and laypeople to, at the very least, do no harm when handling cybernews, stressed Stetzer in an impassioned essay that is approaching a half-million page views at Christianity Today online.

Believers looking at viral news from alternative sources, he said, must learn to check with credible religious publications – from Christian Century to Christianity Today to World Magazine – to see if they have published similar reports. They also need to, yes, check publication dates and examine questionable online addresses – noticing the difference between NBC. com and NBC.com.co, for example.

Religious leaders who have been hoaxed will also need to learn how to repent and print corrections. Their credibility is at stake, stressed Stetzer.

“Christians do believe a lot of stuff that, to people on the outside, seems pretty strange – from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection. … But we believe that these things are real and they’re at the center of our faith,” he said. “We don’t need to keep believing lots of strange stuff that’s fake. … It’s not in our interest to fall for faux news and to spread it around.”

— Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.


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