Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and Ed Stetzer, executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, discuss the spread of disinformation in faith communities.
This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. As a reminder, today’s webinar is on the record. The audio, transcript, and video will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
So we are delighted to have with us today Joan Donovan and Ed Stetzer, to talk about disinformation and faith communities. I’ll just give a few highlights of their distinguished backgrounds.
Joan Donovan is a research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, where she leads the field in examining internet and technology studies, online extremism, media manipulation, and disinformation campaigns. Her research and teaching interests are focused on media manipulation, and she has been showcased in a wide array of media outlets, including NPR, The Washington Post, New York Times, among others. Prior to joining the Harvard Kennedy School, she was a research lead for Data and Society’s media manipulation initiative, where she led a large team of researchers studying efforts to manipulate sociotechnical systems for political gain.
Ed Stetzer is the dean [of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership] at Wheaton College, and he also serves as executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He’s a teaching pastor at High Point Church in Chicago, and has been the interim teaching pastor of Moody Church in downtown Chicago. He’s written many books, hundreds of articles, planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, and trained pastors, contributing editor for Christianity Today. He is the founding editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible study. And he has a national radio show “Ed Stetzer Live” that airs Saturdays across the country. So welcome, both.
Thank you very much for being with us for this important conversation. Ed, let’s begin with you to talk about why religious communities are particularly vulnerable to the spread of disinformation. So over to you.
STETZER: Happy to do so. And I guess I, by the bio, you can obviously tell I’m not just an observer, but I’m a participant in my religious tradition, Evangelicalism in particular, and the reality is Evangelicals have a problem. Now, it’s not just an Evangelical religious tradition, but that they have been disproportionately impacted in and around issues of conspiracy theories. So I actually, I’ll be talking about this today, I’m at a gathering of religious leaders here right now who asked me to address this issue. So I actually now do conferences and webinars, helping denominations and religious leaders walk through and help their communities engage some of these conspiracies and conspiracy issues. This is actually the title slide from that presentation. And you’ll notice I use some a bit of insider language, but I want to let you know my own context here.
So conspiracy theories, media habits, and the challenge of digital discipleship, that last few words insider language, so things that Evangelicals, and people of faith, of other Christian traditions use to describe some intentional change that’s needed. Let me tell you where I began to weigh into some of this conversation. It was actually in an article in USA Today. And Evangelicals need to address the QAnoners in our midst. And I wrote in there QAnon has been making headlines, but Evangelical Christians should not be swept up into the bizarre movement. Now, if you’ll notice the date is actually September 2020. And the first headline, the first line of the of the story, QAnon, in my editorial, QAnon has been making headlines in recent weeks, it’s going to make more, I received substantive pushback from this article. And people say no, this is not an issue. Of course, on January 6, the world saw there was an issue. And when the rioters prayed on the floor of both the House and the Senate, in Jesus name, with Evangelical language and with Evangelical feel, I think people began to realize indeed, just how big of an issue this actually was. So what I want to walk through with you is a bit of some research we’ve done, and a little bit of background, not too much, but a little bit of background, particularly focusing on “Q” and QAnon, and hopefully this will find helpful, you’ll find this helpful as well.
So in fall 2017, we begin, conspiracy theories have been around a long time. Chain letters go back a very long time. But technology has accelerated, and brought people together, and found more engagement in and around this issue. So if you’ll notice, here at fall 2017, let’s make sure I’m sharing the correct screen. I’m not sure I was there. Let me just make sure I am now, now I am. So in fall 2017 Q emerges, begins, I won’t go into too much details what’s called a Q drop. October 28, 2017, very much connected to the Trump administration. And I would also say that the Trump administration’s particularly high connection to white Evangelicalism actually is evident in some of this data as well. But Q claimed an impending storm was going to come. And what happened very soon is, is that events were interpreted in light of this coming storm, there’s a deep state conspiracy. Most of us are aware of these things, such as sex trafficking, global election fraud, and more. Every event, though, was soon interpreted through this lens, this two part lens of evil, global conspiracy, and an impending, impending but unexpected victory that’s often called the “Great Awakening.” So QAnon beliefs and commitments include, and again, this is a bit theological and historical, but a gnostic framework of knowledge, authority, and power, with some special knowledge that people have and share, and they share in their communities and their chat rooms, but also a cosmic binary of good versus evil. The populist suspicion of traditional government institutions, media, and corporations, and a nationalistic lens of history, political authority, and cultural power. Well, if you look at those two middle points in particular, those are already existing in Evangelicalism. And they’re existing in many religious traditions. And what I want you to hear is that QAnon, and some conspiracies, travel well on the tracks that religion has already laid. Now, again, you heard from the very beginning, I am a coreligionist, I am an Evangelical, I really do believe that there is indeed a behind-the-scenes spiritual battle between good and evil. I really do believe indeed, that there will come a time when there will be a great revealing of all things. So the language is actually so similar to Evangelical and religious language, who may be already suspicious of media and more, I’ll show you some data that points to that in a minute.
So Q encourages followers to look for clues, to kind of see. There was, it actually blew up on Wayfair was a perfect example of people begin to look for clues and find the clues, which I will tell you, religious people like me, actually will sometimes think and act that way in general to see, well, how is God at work here? We’ve seen God work in our lives. And so this is kind of laid on some of the tracks that are there. So the question is, how prevalent are they in the church? Now remind, I want to remind you that my audience is not normally the Council on Foreign Relations. My audience is my coreligionists. So when I wrote that article in September, trying to sound the alarm, I think people may be were as engaged or as aware had how significant the prevalence was. But we actually did a survey, that I’m going to share with you, that kind of unpacks some of these things. But I know that sometimes these memes probably seem silly to you. The meme here on the left, and I will tell you, it seems silly to me. But there’s a subtle way to capitalize on Christian language to attract Christians or people of other faiths, right. I’ve talked to Muslim imams who have similar experiences as well. There are scripture verses talking about war, and the challenge of the Christian life, and then they get reoriented. And it’s easy to take certain passages, which I won’t for the sake of time go to. So a couple things that are key: the spiritual terms, so QAnon and similar conspiracy theories, have actually demonstrated ability to subvert classical Evangelical language.
Now, I want to say to you, this is really important, that QAnon is a substantial influence in France that is not tied to religion, in the same way that it’s tied here in the U.S., which has a disproportionate Evangelical population, depending on how you count a third of Americans. And so there is more to it than religion. But that’s our topic today. And certainly, as to my coreligionists, I share that concern as well. Even language like the “Great Awakening” is actually language that’s very much taken from Christian religious history. And more. So many Evangelicals recognize this language, I actually take people through a museum at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, and I show them the First Great Awakening, and the Second Great Awakening. So many of this says, trust the plan, there’s a Great Awakening coming, and more. So this can lower the fence of many Christians who also are already suspicious of mainstream media, as they might call it, and more.
Let me, so you might see some memes like this, “where we go one, where we go all,” that’s language that actually when I wrote the article in USA Today on conspiracy theories, I used the hashtag “where we go one, where we go all,” which I can assure you certainly alerted people to the article and led to much enthusiastic response but this idea of, “don’t tread on me, don’t mess with us.” So real quickly, and then I’ll close, half of U.S. Protestant pastors, in a survey that we did, hear conspiracy theories in their churches. Around one in eight strongly agree their congregations, or congregants are sharing conspiracy theories. We’ve defined it using Merriam-Webster here. So this is a widespread issue among congregations as well. They hear these things on a consistent basis. More larger churches are more likely to hear, older churches are more likely to hear as well. And I think one of the things we’ve got to remember is that people who are Evangelical, already have a suspicion, that the Trump administration tapped into and QAnon tapped into, and others, they already have a substantive suspicion, you’ll see non-Evangelical in yellow, Evangelical by belief, I won’t explain all that, but it’s a series of four things called the Bebbington Quadrilateral. They have a higher belief that the mainstream media puts out a lot of fake news. So we step into a situation where QAnon uses religious language, has engaged different people. When I explain to Christian pastors and leaders, I talk about different kinds of them. Some are attracted, some are advocates, some are apostles of these conspiracy theories, I won’t unpack that with you, because my time is up. But what I want you to hear is that conspiracy theories run on the tracks that religion has already laid. Furthermore, there’s already a suspicion of mainstream media, and some of these people have now found one another in echo chambers, we might say, dark corners of the internet, they’re not that dark. The most likely place somebody planned to participate in the January 6 riots was on Facebook. And it was part of what got banned, but it was Facebook, where these things were planned on private Facebook groups, where people get in echo chambers and get even self-radicalized. For me, I’m trying to teach pastors and Christian leaders how to address and how to engage this. I know many of you come from different traditions, some of you are religious scholars, I want you to hear, I think this is a big, substantial issue that still remains for us to address thanks for the opportunity to share with you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. And I hope we can dig even deeper on that. But first, let’s go to Joan to maybe react to some of that and talk about disinformation and how you see it circulating among and within communities.
DONOVAN: Well, thank you so much, Pastor, I really appreciate the context setting because this is something that’s, as you know, hard to prove. But it’s all around us. It’s become part of the culture. And one of the things that as a research director at Shorenstein is, people know disinformation exists. And then when you say, well, it’s actually really intertwined with a history that we know very well, which is a history of conspiracies, and the way in which different communities pick them up. And, then people are like, yeah, yeah, but those people are crazy. And I’m like, those people are your family, they’re your neighbors, they’re at your churches, they go to your schools, and because people don’t understand how prevalent it really is. Even if you’re not following along, specifically with this particular conspiracy around QAnon, there are others that travel through, as you say, not just the tracks of religion and faith, but also very much on the railroad of information, or the information superhighway as we used to call the net.
Recently, I talked to Congress about this and was thinking, I think, talking with the Senate, testifying about disinformation. One of the things that I really wanted them to understand, was what happens when you search for something like QAnon? So if you are like anybody else, you’re like, what is this thing? Right? You might start on whatever platform you prefer, you might post on your Facebook wall, “Hey, what’s QAnon?” You might go on YouTube and type in QAnon, or you might go on Twitter and do hashtag QAnon, there’s all these different ways in which you might enter into sort of the web of this network conspiracy.
But what’s really important is that, like you were saying, is that we understand how this stuff is getting surfaced, and discovered, and moving through these networks. And it really matters who you’re friends with, and what other kinds of stuff you look at online. And so the Facebook networks that you’re already a part of, the groups that you’re a part of, if a high proportion of those people are sharing things related to QAnon, you’re likely to see it more than other people. And you might get a sense from seeing it in so many places, that it’s normal, that other people are discussing it, and once it hits more mainstream media, you might start to think more people believe this than ever.
And so what I tried to do in my Senate testimony was bring up, what are we looking at when we look at internet rabbit holes, for instance. So with the QAnon rabbit hole, in particular, you have such a unique keyword, it’s not going to bring you to anything besides, at this stage, it’ll bring you to a lot of news about QAnon. But just a couple years ago, it was a small community of people that were really rifling through a bunch of different Easter eggs spread about the internet. And they were looking and saying, yeah, this feels like a clue. Tom Hanks posting a picture of himself eating pizza might be a clue. And it was all related to other conspiracy theories related to what was called before QAnon, “pizzagate,” which was a conspiracy theory that suggested that Hillary Clinton, and other Dems, and other very rich people were hiding children to be exploited in the basement of Comet Ping Pong Pizza. And evidence from the Podesta email leaks where they were ordering pizza from this Comet Ping Pong was becoming one of these clues to be found online suggesting that that celebrities were trafficking children by ordering “CP,” cheese pizza, child pornography. And so, but when we talk about Q, Q is kind of an outgrowth of that conspiracy theory, because a bunch of the places in which people have been posting “pizzagate,” you saw platform companies start to moderate and say, we don’t want this here. Reddit banned it. Pinterest banned it, that it was being de-index on Facebook. That is, it was becoming harder and harder to surface as pizzagate content.
And so QAnon was just another instantiation of this. But when we think about the rabbit hole, and I’m going to wrap on these four things you should think about, is when you’re starting to see a bunch of content online, and you’ve recently searched for a search term that you’ve never looked at before, but you were just curious, you’ll start to notice a few things happen in your internet surfing. Which is, you’ll start to see repetitive content, that is these platforms, and each platform, once you click on something, it assumes you want to see more of it. And so it’ll be repetitive.
The second thing is, you’ll start to see redundancy. That is, you’ll see repetitive content, not just on one platform, but then across platforms. This has to do with the structure in which in the background, these websites talk to each other, they leave behind what are called cookies that are supposed to enhance your advertising experience online. But also you can end up seeing lots and lots of redundant content, especially in relationship to very novel and outrageous claims like QAnon tends to make.
The third thing that’s really important is, and this is what distinguishes it, the rabbit hole online from television and radio is responsiveness. That is, when you ask the question, someone will answer you. And if you ask the question of a search engine, it will give you answers. But for many cases, up until very recently, when we have all this media about QAnon, it would actually deliver you directly to QAnon influencers, and people that were shaping the story.
And then the fourth thing that happens, and this as a consequence of the design of social media itself, is all that search, and all that clicking, and all that network activity where people around you are searching for and posting things related to this, will have a reinforcing effect. So algorithms by their design, they’re literally called reinforcement algorithms. And the point is actually pretty simple. It wants to make you see a thing, until you buy a thing. Most of the internet infrastructure is built on advertising. This is why if you search for something that you only buy once every ten years like a mattress, if you search for it, you’ll see ads for it for the next six to eight weeks. And you’re like, “why am I seeing all these ads for mattresses? I did one search on Amazon.” And it’s actually because of the substructure of the way in which internet and apps talk to each other, when you really can’t see it because it’s part of the technical infrastructure. So reinforcement is not bad, right? If it’s, you love sports, and it serves you more sports content, and it shows you, recommends more sports-related articles. That’s not necessarily bad. But it’s only if the rabbit hole is rather innocuous, If the rabbit hole is a network conspiracy, like for instance QAnon, or what’s now being touted as the quote unquote Great Reset, you end up in another place. That is to say, that you end up in this world that feels very robust. It feels like a lot of people are talking about it. But ostensibly, it’s at it’s a very small and closed set of figures that are making that content.
And Pastor, I really like that last slide about having stages of how committed people are to these conspiracies, because, yeah, you do move from a stage of people who might be attracted to it and might say something negative about the state. I mean, who likes the state anyway? Come on. Everybody loves to hate the state, that’s not that’s nothing new. But we have to wonder, what kind of actions are people going to take, as a result of knowing this information now, in believing that other people believe it. And that’s where the congregation is actually pretty interesting as a phenomenon, because one of the things that religion invites you into is to have faith. And these conspiracies to ask you to lean on those principles as well, which is to say that God will reveal. And in the case of QAnon, Q will reveal right, and so he became this messianic figure within the these groups. And so lots to talk about, excited to get to questions, and to think through the complexity of what happens when a particular conspiracy theory really takes root in your community and how you can counter or parry in defense, while at the same time, not alienating folks that are really just struggling to understand the world around us and their place in it.
FASKIANOS: We’ll go, we already have three written questions in the queue. So let’s just start right there, and you can add any additional points you want to make. So the first written question comes from Galen Carey, who is of the National Association of Evangelicals. “How should legislators and regulators address real threats caused by conspiracy theories without harming the free speech which ordinary citizens and companies depend on as a cherished freedom?” So I don’t know who wants to take that one?
STETZER: Do we, is it one of us? Because I’d be happy to defer.
FASKIANOS: Yeah, yes, you should go.
STETZER: Okay. All right. So good. Galen and I, just full disclosure, I’m on the executive committee of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Galen and I did not text one another about this question. And Galen, who works in public policy for us at the NAE, let’s say I mean, it’s a tricky question. For me, the immediate answer is, that may not be the place where we go first. I think, ultimately, two thousand years ago, Rome had hot and cold running water. And I know this sounds strange, but stay with me, they had hot and cold running water. And it had hot and cold running water, because people discovered a remarkably malleable metal, called lead. And so the lead pipes would take the hot and cold running water into the affluent of Rome. And historians would later, this is not the case. But soon there were books written that the fall of Rome was the madness created by lead poisoning and more. But what a technological revolution it brought.
Here’s what I would say, I think one hundred years from now, we’re going to look back at social media, and see it much like the lead pipes, it brought to us amazing things, and it weaponized so many things, and caused so much difficulty and destruction. So I think first place I would look to is how we might see those media habits changed. As Dr. Donovan mentioned, there are algorithms and algorithms, not just point to things that you like, I recently bought a backpack and I can’t stop getting backpack ads. But also what they do, is people respond more to things that they’re upset about, than the things that they’re interested in or want to dialogue about. So it creates an echo chamber where the volume goes up, up, up, up, and how could we get to a place where, I mean, there were a lot of normal people who went to Washington, DC to protest, what they thought the election that was stolen, though they were obviously misled on that. But then a subset of them, actually, many of them came home and said I can’t believe I did this. How did they get there? Well, they got there because things got normalized over time, as the anger and the fear and the echo chambers continued.
So I don’t know Galen, legally, what, or legislatively, what should be addressed, but I do know that social media is a huge part of this problem. Now, there have always been conspiracy theories. But boy, they have been accelerated exponentially, and weaponized in ways we haven’t seen before. Could it be that part of that is legislation related to how information gets passed and how algorithm? I don’t know. I’m very much a free speacher, and I’m very concerned about limitations to free speech. But I bet Dr. Donovan has more wisdom, she has testified to the Senate and I have not.
FASKIANOS: Right, and what recommendations did you make?
DONOVAN: I did make a few and it was exactly that part. Around amplification, which is to say that one of course has a right to their speech. But the internet is much more like a McDonald’s at 2:00 a.m. You can come in, you can say what you want, but the minute it starts upsetting the staff or other customers, got to go, right. And what one of the things about misinformation at scale, or network conspiracies at scale produce, is that kind of chaotic reaction.
So our research has started to look at what we call the true costs of misinformation. That is to say, what happens, QAnon has a flare up, they show up in public they do these “Save the Children” marches. How many police have to be dispatched? How many journalists have to cover it? How many people have to, in public health, for instance, have to react to claims around, of course, within this conspiracy theory there, it contains multitudes. So there’s many other conspiracy theories about vaccines, and microchips and things, how many public health officials have to deal with that? And especially when it came to the election, how many people left with a feeling of such grievance that they thought the only way to stop what’s to come, and this is a line from QAnon, “you can’t stop what’s coming.” Went to the Capitol, what are the costs that everybody else is shouldering when millions of people are exposed to these things. At the same time, it’s not the case that we’re dealing with, a few people in a town that think something rotten is happening. There’s something different about amplification and scale. And that confirmation’s everywhere, that repetitiveness, that redundancy, that makes us think that our rights are being taken away from us, that we are somehow, literally that the insurrection was about saving democracy for a bunch of these folks. They believe they would be pardoned, because of the way that certain actors were able to use these networks. And this is where it gets tricky around free speech actually, is when it comes to the actors.
Certain people within these networks are making money, like actual cash. And the second thing that they’re doing, is they’re building network power, they’re building amplification power, that is they’re growing their audiences, they’re gaining clout, and then they monetize it again later. So that incentive structure is something that we also need to pay quite a bit of attention to. Because if you can make money off of convincing people that their rights are being taken away from them, and that that the voting machines are flipping ballots in favor of the other party, in and you’re in that case, committing some kind of defamation or disingenuousness towards another company like Dominion Voting Systems.
Then we actually have to start discussing where liability falls, and for right now with the internet, liability falls on the individual poster, which is why you see Giuliani and My Pillow guy, and everybody getting sued, Fox News getting sued by this company, rather than having some kind of regulation. But we don’t actually want to normalize litigiousness around this either. And so there has to be a way in which we introduce some balance around amplification and earned media, while also balancing the cost that everybody else has to pay, in order to stop these media manipulation campaigns from accelerating and becoming profitable in the first place.
FASKIANOS: Right. We’re going to go to Helen Boursier, who has raised her hand so if you can unmute yourself, and give us your affiliation, that’d be great.
BOURSIER: Hello, Reverend Dr. Helen Boursier, I teach theology and religious studies at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, and my primary focus in Texas, where I live, is I’m a volunteer chaplain with refugee families seeking asylum, and I do research and writing on immigration. That’s a mouthful, but it relates. I recently completed doing ethnographic interviews with my religious colleagues in Central to South Texas. And my question to you relates to this. My questions with my colleagues have been, why have they been so silent on the gross humanitarian violations at the U.S.-Mexico border and the mistreatment? Why were they silent? And much of it came back to willful ignorance. So how have you seen willful ignorance with the QAnon? Wanting to believe, and wanting to follow, and somehow getting into that space, intentionally being ignorant about the reality of it, because it reinforces what I want to believe. And then what is the religious community’s role? And I mean, the preaching, and teaching, and pastoral role, of proclamation to challenge and change what I’m calling willful ignorance and what you are calling misinformation. Long question. Sorry.
FASKIANOS: Ed, do you want to start?
STETZER: Yeah, happy to. And thank you for your work among immigrants and refugees, so essential right now. And there is a correlation, but not a complete correlation between nationalistic, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee mentality. And I don’t know the full answer to your question in the sense that, for me, on the morning of the 2018 midterms, this is the article that I ran in Vox magazine, “Fellow Evangelicals Stop Falling for Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric.” And I started the first sentence, “President Trump is trying to fool Evangelicals like me,” this time, it’s using the false that an evasion of a caravan of poor people marching through Mexico. So I don’t know, I share your concern. And I’ve tried to be a vocal advocate.
I would say that there’s an intersection, though, between QAnon, and then I’ll let Dr. Donovan give us more. But there’s a clear intersection. So I have one Snopes article with my name in it. And it has to do with that article. So that article led to a QAnon-initiated effort to connect me with Christianity Today, where I published an article with George Soros who is secretly funding all of us. And of course, Snopes kind of debunked all of that. But the reality is, I think part of having a conspiracy theory is you need a bad guy. And George Soros, by the way, there’s another reference to anti-Semitism, which I’m sure we’ll get to later, but is very much connected. And what I would say is, I think there’s two issues at work here. One is, we do need Christian leaders and pastors to speak up and out on immigrants and refugees. But I would tell you, that the National Association of Evangelicals has been consistently speaking in that space, and has not been listened to by many of the rank and file Evangelicals, who are being discipled thirty hours a week by their cable news choices, not by their pastors on Sunday morning. So I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. But I bemoan with you the situation.
DONOVAN: Yeah, I mean, a very important point about the caravan and about immigration, especially when it relates to how that specific event which seems to happen every year, there is a mass migration and, but the use of social media was so different here. And importantly, they tried to make the caravan happen three times before it really stuck. And as a key word, again, you don’t get a lot of other things when you start searching for “caravan” once there’s propaganda in the system.
So within search systems, I’m not going to get technical here. It’s very simple. It’s made to return things that are relevant and timely. So for instance, if you’re sitting in your house, and you’re on your phone, and you type in the word “salsa,” this search engine is going to try to figure out are you thinking about going dancing? Are you thinking about having dinner and needing a recipe? Or are you thinking about going to a Mexican restaurant called Salsa that’s five blocks from your house, right? And so it’s going to try to rank and sort that information based upon a bunch of different cues. And what search, the whole, the entire search engine optimization industry has figured out, is that resorting, and that shuffling that can happen, and reordering and ranking search returns, is gameable. And what you need to do is try to figure out the right combination of outrageousness, timeliness, and then how to piggyback that on to some kind of breaking news, so that you can get that timeliness bump. And we’ve seen, I’ve talked to many, many people who have huge advertising budgets about how they do this. They purchase keywords, through Google, or they figure out within Facebook, what’s popular, what people are searching for, and they rename their Facebook group that. And so you see that there’s an entire apparatus, which none of the information that you’re looking for is stable. It’s not like going to the library. And you know, with the Dewey Decimal System, that when you go to this section, there’s going to be a book that’s approximately in this area. Instead, those things shift every single day online. And, as a result, this same keywords that you would have searched for yesterday might have different search returns today. And so these, what we would call data voids, are really important ways in which we see misinformation enter into different communities, especially at very important moments where a certain topic is unfolding.
And right now we see it, of course, in the struggle around something like, for sure immigration, but also around the other day, the word Latinx was trending on Twitter. And I said to myself, that doesn’t seem real. And what I did was I looked at it, and you realize that there was a bunch of people who are mostly trolls and misogynists, some of them are actual, open racists, but they saw an opportunity where someone had typed in, a famous account, which was the Twitch account and use the spelling of women with an x. And they saw the opportunity to launch a wedge, which basically was this tweet that said, “women don’t want to be spelled with an X and neither do Latinos.” And at that moment, then, a bunch of Latinos who are conservative that don’t like Latinx, jumped in, but the originating tweet wasn’t actually from someone who was even Latino, it was from someone who basically was trying to troll Twitch, which is the gaming platform. I bring that all up to say that, as you think about willful ignorance, you also have to understand that there are people out there trying to make you find the wrong thing, or trying to make you find their contents, trying to shape your worldview. And they do that by gaming these systems. And sometimes they don’t tell you who they are. Sometimes they lie about their origins. Sometimes they see a peak opportunity, and they take it.
And so it’s actually really hard to find timely, local, relevant, and accurate information on demand online, which is really unfortunate. That’s another thing that I’ve been recommending to Senate and Congress, is that we should have public interest obligations for timelines and newsfeeds, especially in times of a pandemic.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. So the next written question comes from Jay Michaelson, who works at the intersection of politics and spirituality. He’s columnist for The Daily Beast. And this is mostly for you, Mr. Stezter. “Given the suspicion that many, I think this is in your slide, 50 percent believe the mainstream media, have suspicion of mainstream media, or think it’s misinformation? Is there anything we in those institutions can do to help combat the spread of conspiracy theories? Or does this have to be entirely an inside job?”
And I’m just going to add on to that, what would you say to the Evangelical or Protestant pastors and what they should be doing and how they should be combating this in their congregations without turning off those who are believing it?
STETZER: So, first question was, what can we do? And I’m not sure particularly if he was speaking in terms of the media context, but let me just answer it in that context. Do better covering religion. You know, we have things like RNA, Religious News Association, others, because when religion is covered, it’s often covered poorly. And so what happens is, people read the coverage of their religious tradition and say, that’s nothing like what I know or I’ve experienced. And so they feel you know, Rachel Zoll, actually, who we recently, we lost her battle the cancer was the AP’s religion reporter. And when this article came out, this was actually before the 2016 election, “Evangelicals feel alienated and anxious.” It was actually a fair article, it described well the idea that some evangelicals feel, this is a pastor quoted, I happen to know the pastor quoted in the article, but this pastor says, “you’ll be hated by all nations for my namesake, let me tell you that time is here.” So when you believe already that there is, that the kind of the systems of the world are stacked against you, that need leads you to places to find other information, and ultimately, I would say that, there’s a blog called “Get Religion Done” by Terry Mattingly, and quoting the famous line to press just doesn’t get religion.
So get religion better, and follow just basically the AP style guide. Not everyone is a fundamentalist because they believe these things, AP style guide has a certain description of how to do that. So from a media perspective, I think the media could do better and there are good religion reporters, I mentioned RNA, there’s good religious reporters doing good work and if mentioned some, I would fail to mention enough and I’d feel bad. Second, I think, reference to what pastors and church leaders can do. We surveyed Protestant pastors, I work with a lot with Protestant pastors, mainly Evangelicals. And what I would say, I did a webinar on some of these issues with the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins. And one of the conversations we had that I thought was so helpful, was that people are persuaded by people who they see as near them or like them, not by people who they see as drastically different and far away from them. So it’s unlikely that most of Evangelicals are going to be persuaded by blank or so and so.
So for example, what we’ve done at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, is I reached out to the CDC, we work with the HHS, and I said, help me find Evangelical Christians. And again, I think science can be brought from all different contexts. But when Francis Collins, and I had Francis Collins on, I talked about it, and he shared his faith, he’s been very open about sharing his faith. He’s the head of the National Institutes of Health. Or Jay Butler, who works at CDC Infectious Diseases, or the head of or the editor of Vaccines Magazine, or Vaccines Journal, who’s actually attended the church you mentioned earlier, Moody Church and is now the head of vaccine at Mayo, I had each of them on. And pastors and church leaders told me they played that in churches around the world because, and each time I said, “tell us about your faith, tell us about your journey.” People say, okay, this person, and again, please forgive me, but we’re trying to persuade people here. These people are in us and among us, therefore, we can trust them more readily. And what I would say is pastors and church leaders can help people hear from Evangelical scientists and leaders, I have on my radio show this weekend, Dr. Emily Smith from Baylor University, and I think she tagged herself, “your friendly neighborhood epidemiologist.” Great. So, and a professor at Baylor University in this field, so each of those. Oh, and I will tell you, I expect the radio show to be filled with people calling who are upset that I’m talking positively about vaccines on a Christian radio program.
So, but I think that’s the key. So what I tell most pastors, just tell them to ask their doctor, because they know and trust their family doctor, but then bring in some trusted voices who they’ll, they won’t discount immediately. And they’ll listen to but who also know what they’re talking about, as like Francis Collins, I know. I know, a local church can’t call in Francis Collins, but they can just Google. He was on The Daily Show yesterday, talking to Evangelicals about vaccines and encouraging them away from conspiracy theories.
FASKIANOS: Great. Next question I’m going to take from Bjorn Krondorfer, “the scholarly discussion has shifted over the last years from talking about American Evangelical fundamentalism to Christian nationalism, the latter intersecting with a particular view of what America should be, a Christian nation, and also conspiracy theories like QAnon. What’s your take on the shift of discourse? And how does racism intersect with those issues?” And he’s at Northern Arizona University.
STETZER: Dr. Donovan, I answered the last one once you jump in on that.
DONOVAN: Yeah. So one of the things that I do study is the rise of white nationalism in the United States. And I’m presently writing a book with Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg about meme wars. And one of the things that’s been really interesting to look at, and I had asked the Pastor to would keep in that slide about QAnon and the Gadsden flag is because it is a meme. It’s drawing on a history of the U.S. as particularly, democracy in America is a place in which people are proud patriots. They believe in a country. But depending upon what kind of nationalism you favor, we see white nationalist, or white supremacist elements creep into the discussion, as well as different kinds of envisioning of a nation that if there are too many religions, or too much religious diversity, then solidarity falls apart, right?
And so we’re really talking about diversity, and how much diversity can be tolerated in any given nation. Right? And so as we talk about the rise of the internet, we also have to think about historically, what kind of changes online have created new spaces for people to ask really difficult questions about the relationship between race and diversity, and nation-state. And Trump was really one of the only candidates in 2016 that was going to come out and say, “Make America Great Again.” And in that return, that “again,” is really important. I know there’s been a lot of debate about, it actually being code for saying, “make America white again.” But think about this, what does it mean to say “again,” right, especially in the context of people who were nostalgic for an America they may have never experienced, right, an America where they are told that there was less racial animus, and less racial strife, because there were clear racial hierarchies, and gender divides during the Jim Crow era, for instance. That kind of return to an America that is not inclusive, an America that does not, yields in many ways to the reality of the situation, is something that we saw nationalists really push as Donald Trump’s candidacy became more and more probable.
And the Gadsden flag was something that we started to see show up over and over and over again, because at their, at our base, Americans are actually very anti-establishment. We don’t want things to be told to us, we reject paternalism. We don’t like very bulky, centralized bureaucratic systems, except that’s government. And so over the years, especially the last four years, you’ve seen a struggle for who defines what counts as patriotic, and what counts as nationalism, when Donald Trump is in power, and he is someone who’s not afraid to say the word “nationalism.” Other leaders in other countries are not going to use that term, because of its exclusiveness, because it doesn’t lend to very friendly relationships with foreign nations. And in particular, he was very good at othering, especially people in Mexico, the whole rhetoric, and the means around, “build the wall,” where that comes from, where that sentiment comes from, and how important it was, during his campaign, are things that we have to understand. And we have to continue to reckon with, because what it did was it opened a breach that allowed for that kind of white nationalism, the idea that the nation should be much more homogenous than it is, and should recognize white people at the top of a racial hierarchy. Even if white people aren’t the majority.
That’s the other thing that’s going on here, is you also have a big discussion about demography and demographic change. And that’s why immigration is such an important issue for the right wing in particular, is because this demographic change is happening. It’s going to continue to happen, it’s not going to go away. And so the thread here, though, is that when we get to January 6, there’s a moment where people are able to not just imagine what America could be, what the return could be. But they’re able, they’re called into action. This is their calling, they are showing up to the Capitol to enact their nationalism for this country that Donald Trump had promised them, which was being stolen by the reality, which is America is moving towards a multiracial democracy. And it’s going to happen both through demographic change, but also through the transition of our political institutions, to bring in much more diversity.
And so ultimately, when we look at all the symbolism that was present on January 6, there were so many ways in which we saw different versions of nationalism, show up all in one place, because they were really fighting for an aspirational America, where even though Donald Trump was the sitting president, he still seemed to represent the anti-establishment promise of a nation ruled by the people. But of course, when you look back and you look at the rabbit holes that these people were experiencing the election through, and the chaos of the pandemic, you realize that they were being told something that just wasn’t reality for the majority of the country.
FASKIANOS: Yeah, well, sadly, that is continuing as the narrative of the election, the big lie. I’m going to go to a Don Frew, who had raised his hand so Don, if you would like to ask your question, or I can read it, I know you also put in the chat, we’d love to have another voice. Can you mute yourself?
FREW: There we go. Can you hear me?
FASKIANOS: Yes. Great with United Religions Initiative.
FREW: Right. Ed talked specifically about how QAnon uses Evangelical language and builds on pre-existing Evangelical ideas. But to what extent does QAnon spread in other religious communities, especially those of non-Abrahamic religions?
STETZER: Yeah, so we know QAnon has engaged in places with no religion, or with other religions, and variants of it. I would say that we shouldn’t be surprised that considering Evangelicals are the largest singular religious group, I guess other than the “nones,” or the non-practicing, but the largest singular religious group. So we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s going to be particularly prevalent in our conversation, though I do mention in my concern, that it might be disproportionately influential in an Evangelical context. I’m not an expert, for example, on QAnon’s engagement in Hindu communities or things of that sort. I’ve had several conversations with imams, who tell me that it’s not QAnon per se, but conspiracy theories take root in other religious traditions, but they often emerge from other historical factors. The other religious traditions may feel marginalized or isolated for different reasons. They may feel isolated or marginalized by other groups, that then they perceive to be this way. It’s much like the earlier question, where we talked a lot about Christian nationalism.
But it’s important to note that nationalism is on the rise globally. I mean, Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro, Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil. And for that matter, the elections in Quebec in 2018, were, shocked the world with the rise of nationalism. So some of those places are very irreligious, Quebec, much more irreligious, one of the most irreligious communities in the Americas. And some of them are remarkably religious, like the Philippines, or even Brazil, for that matter. So I think there’s not always that correlation. Here where we are, it’s easy and right to make the connection, I think, with Christian nationalism, but I think ultimately, there’s a rising nationalism around the world, which I think has significant geopolitical implications that we need to address not all of it’s about religion.
FASKIANOS: Okay. I’m going to take the next question from Palwasha Kakar, who is at the United States Institute of Peace. “I’m interested in hearing more about Pastor Ed’s work with Evangelical pastors, how do you help them identify and work on deradicalization? Do you build on the international CVE, countering violent extremism, work in this area? Or how does it differ in your understanding?”
STETZER: First, we don’t call it deradicalization. First thing, but because nobody sees themselves as that. But I get exactly what you’re saying and appreciate the work of deradicalization. The language I used at the beginning, and the way, because I’ve written a lot to try to persuade Evangelicals on some of these issues. And I actually have, and I know it’s very easy for us to sit back and say, “oh, those QAnoners,” well, I actually have friends in the, who are self-identified QAnoners, in the Evangelical community, who actually text me when I’m being discussed on QAnon message boards. And they say they defend me on those message boards. But that’s another story for another day.
So for me, I try to frame in such a way that people can receive the message. And again, for us that often comes around in terms of discipleship. I talked about this on NPR’s Morning Edition. And the host asked me, and I kind of struggled because it’s like, it’s insider baseball language. I said, so there are things, I explained, that as Christians we want to disciple in, and things that as Christians, we want to disciple out. So what needs to be discipled in, in 2021? Well, it might be seeing yourself as a “world Christian,” seeing that men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation are, that’s frequent language in the pages of the Scriptures. It might be helping people to see that, and language I often use is that we should not be among the gullible.
And I actually would point out, I mean, I do just so we’re clear, I do believe, I bet my whole life on the fact that there was a person who was dead on Friday, and on Sunday was back from the dead, and everything I believe, is framed and shaped around that reality. But I do point out how, as our Christian witnesses impacted the last slide that I didn’t get to, because I went too long in the first session, actually talks about the danger to our Christian witness. I lead the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. So I care deeply about our Christian witness. And I pointed out somebody who kept posting about this QAnon conspiracy, and this QAnon conspiracy, and this one, and then it came to Easter, and they said, “oh, and Jesus rose from the dead.” And I would just say it’s really hard to persuade a world about a supernatural event called the resurrection, when you’ve posted six other things about bizarre conspiracy theories from pizza, Comet Ping Pong, to Seth Rich, and some of you know these different references, to Wayfair, to whatever else it may be. So I do try to frame it around, I will say that Jesus literally himself says he’s the truth. And I try to remind people that the last conspiracy, so many people jumped in the Wayfair conspiracies, some of you missed that, but it became a thing for a few days. And I encourage people, go back lovingly to those people and say, listen, that obviously wasn’t the case. Or somebody showed up at the Comet Ping Pong with a gun to find a basement. And there was no basement. And so at which point, do you say I’ve been fooled four times. But yeah, here’s the thing. Me, you, that’s not going to happen, when their pastor pulls them aside, when they’re friends.
And so what we’ve actually done, even in my own church, had someone upset and leave, because I have been advocating for vaccines. And they said, I’ve been fooled and tricked. And I have noticed that since I took the vaccine, my 5G cell phone reception is just way better. But that’s another story for another day. Sorry. I appreciate you getting the joke there, Irina. But what I would say is, is that what we did is when that person posted,” I’m leaving the church because our teaching pastor is for vaccines.” We just had somebody go and say, and talk to them, and I think they still left mad. But they also now engage a different congregation and seem to have moderated their views. So remember that people are best persuaded by people they already trust. And I think that’s going to be a key thing for co-religionists, not just in Evangelicalism like I am, but for other religions as well.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, I’m going to try and sneak in one last question from Bud Heckman, who has raised his hand. So Bud, over to you, and then if you could both give final thoughts, that would be great. And I apologize to everybody, we couldn’t get to all your questions. So. Your mic is open, Bud, so go ahead. We can’t hear you. Oh, it’s not working.
STETZER: That was anticlimactic.
FASKIANOS: That was anticlimactic. That is just too bad. Let’s see. I’m just looking. I guess we could just look into the final questions to see, if we could maybe just end with this one. According to recent poll, over half of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. What hope do religious leaders have to effectively counter digital misinformation in a society in which so many people are misinformed? This goes back to an earlier question.
STETZER: Dr. Donovan to you?
DONOVAN: Well, I mean, I can’t speak for religious leaders, but it affects all of us. But, if we look back to 2016, what happened immediately following Donald Trump’s win, was there was a wave of liberal, “not my president” protests. People can both believe that someone is not their president, or reject the outcome, it doesn’t actually necessarily have to directly lead to insurrection. Right? And so we can have doubt, I think, and that’s one of the things that religion helps us deal with, is the doubts that we have the questioning of leadership, the questioning of our morals, the questioning of social order.
And I think it’s really important that people do think through what it is that’s causing them doubt and I’m very, I was little like, “am I the right person for this conversation with CFR?” I know a lot about disinformation. And I know a lot about different techniques that we might use to counter, or debunk or pre-bunk misinformation. But one of the things that I really dug into when I decided to do this panel, is I said to myself, well, if there’s going to be a vector by which we do, combat disinformation, faith is going to have to be one of them. Which is to say that we’re going to need many pastors and religious leaders to speak up, to set the terrain of the debate, to help people understand that they might have doubts, they might have fears, but also that religious leaders can learn from this information research. Exactly what we discussed here today, that it’s really about the route the information takes to get to people, the sort of ambiguities that the conspiracy theory is supposed to be answering for them. Conspiracy theories really are about synthesizing information and making a simple scapegoat, so that you can kind of either make your determinations and then deal with it.
A lot of conspiracy theories end up with, well, there’s nothing I can do about that. The earth is flat. Well, there’s nothing I can do about that. And so it’s only when we get the combination of conspiracy theories matched with calls to action, that we have to be really cognizant, and then we have to activate. And then we have to have people who are trusted in our communities, be on the front lines of that activation, whether it’s up from the pulpit saying, you may have heard this, and I saw it on our Facebook page earlier this weekend, I think we should challenge that, I think that we should go this route, I think we should pray about it. Because I think that ignoring it isn’t going to help. And for right now, I think also we need to activate a public, like a mass awareness about the fact that a very small group of people are benefiting from the situation as it is designed, including platform companies are making a ton of money by advantaging openness and scale, which is really just handing over the keys to our cognitive security, to any old person that wants to run one of these manipulation campaigns. And at the same time, the rest of us are still trying to figure out simple, basic information about, back in 2020, it was how to vote, when to vote, where to vote, which would bring you into a bunch of propaganda, if you were searching for that, or how to get a vaccine. And so I see a huge role and an opportunity here for people to start to question and have doubt, but also have resolve to try to figure out well, what is the right course of action? And how dangerous is this in comparison to what I might be able to do something about in my own life. And so that’s how I’ve come to think of the problem. And I’m really just intrigued by the pastor’s research and can’t wait to read more.
FASKIANOS: And Pastor Stetzer, any last words from you to leave us with and what people can do.
STETZER: Faith traditions, Evangelicalism, my faith tradition, has a long history of making mistakes and resetting, and making mistakes and resetting. After the January 6 riots, I wrote an article in USA Today called, “Evangelicals Face a Reckoning.” And I think that’s true. And part of that’s internal. So our hope is, my hope is, as someone who literally believes the things I’m not some outsider, I really do see how God is even at work in the world, and work in our churches, that our churches will stand up and stand out in a difficult time, many have in ways of serving their communities, in the midst of COVID, I think we need to serve our communities, through intellectual discipleship, better ways of thinking politically. And helping people. Gullibility is not a spiritual gift. And we have to help people to be more discerning in their understanding of the culture and the context around them. It’s multifaceted. We talked about actions that different parts and parties need to place, I spent a lot of time just two hours ago, I’m at a meeting in Colorado, just spoke on some of these issues.
One of the most controversial days for many people, many pastors who texted me, was the Sunday after the election in November. Do I pray for President-Elect Biden? This has never been a question before. Everyone always prayed, I guess during maybe Bush v. Gore, the Bush-Gore, afterwards, people were unsure. But this is a case where the election was soon called, by all main, even including Fox News, all mainstream news. Yet pastors didn’t know what to do and still struggled with it. It’s going to take some courage. But that’s hopefully, that courage comes from a relationship with the Lord that causes us to want to do what the writer of Hebrews says, and I’ll close with this. Hebrews is a book in the New Testament. The Hebrews says, to provoke one another, love and good deeds, I think that’s part of our responsibility, to tell the truth, help people understand the truth, and to make sure that the truth is the focus of our beliefs, and what’s propagated amongst our congregations. Thanks so much for the opportunity to share.
FASKIANOS: Thank you both. This is really fantastic. And we look forward to reading your forthcoming books, your past books, listening to you on air on your show, Ed Stetzer Live, and you can also follow them both on Twitter, Joan Donovan @BostonJoan, and Ed Stetzer, @EdStetzer. So please do that. I also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter @CFR_religion. Reach out to us at [email protected], with ideas, suggestions, we will also be circulating the link to this webinar. So you can watch it again because there’s a lot of good information. And share it with your colleagues. So thank you both and thank you all. We look forward to continuing the discussion.