Dr Stephen Brown: how do we hang onto spirit of truth amid swirl of digitally-driven information?

Dr Stephen Brown, the editor of The Ecumenical Review, journal published by the World Council of Churches. Photo: Ivars Kupcis/WCC

WCC– Dr Stephen Brown is the editor of The Ecumenical Review. The most recent edition, “The Spirit of Truth in a Digital Age,” reflects on how our perceptions of reality are becoming dependent on the way communication and information ecosystems are organized and regulated as technology has developed.

When we talk about “today’s technology,” we aren’t always referring to something brand new, are we?

Dr Brown: Sometimes, in terms of ecumenical communication, we talk today of global technology as if we’re dealing with a new issue. It has been almost 60 years since people first starting talking about living in a global village. Suddenly, through satellite broadcasting, you could see what was going on in other parts of the world almost instantaneously: events were happening throughout the world, which had become a village. Even then, we raised questions about the people, the institutions, the technologies that were controlling those images. We asked: “Why did they select what they did?” So in one sense we’re facing many of the same questions we’ve always been facing. But digital transformation has brought some new aspects, including immediacy, accessibility and particularly the idea of “many-to-many” communication, as opposed to radio or TV broadcasting, which was “one-to-many.” Radio or TV involved broadcasting from a centre to reach many people. Now, digital communication has brought people together across continents, and for a global institution like the WCC, that’s a positive aspect.

As we bring together people globally, what are some of the gifts and some of the challenges?

Dr Brown: With the digital era, we can involve more people, and we can expand those taking part to include not just church leaders or church representatives but many other people with important things to say. That’s really one of the major things the digital era offers us, particularly with COVID-19 when people can’t travel: we are suddenly discovering some of these possibilities to stay in touch. At the local level, digital technology in this time of lockdown really offers something for people to stay together—locally and not just globally. During a time of physical distancing, it’s difficult to gather together but we can do so using technology. It may not be the same, but it can still be a real gift. I recently attended an online communion service, and it was a real worship experience, not a broadcast, not a performance. I got so much out of it!

In terms of challenges, time itself becomes an issue in a global meeting. In fact, simply planning a start and finish time for a meeting can become very tricky! In previous eras, global meetings involved people arriving via ships, back in the early days, when that’s the only way people physically gathered across continents. The meeting time was easier to set then!

How can we navigate around or through “fake news?”

Dr Brown: Fake news has always been with us. In the Bible, Exodus 23 says: “Thou shalt not raise a false report.” In other words, don’t spread fake news!

There is a huge flood of information on all fronts: online newspapers, social media –whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram. Sometimes it’s easy to feel overwhelmed because there is so much out there. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to deal with all the information. Then there’s the fact that, with a lack of person-to-person communication, people sometimes react immediately without thinking.

Fake news can be purposeful disinformation when people consciously put it out there. But sometimes it’s more of what I would call “misinformation.” It may not always be that people are consciously trying to decide to share or propose fake news. People share things unconsciously – sometimes even with the best of intentions.

We also have to be aware that there are algorithms behind us in social media, algorithms that are trying to pull us in by giving us more of what we want. Dealing with fake news isn’t only about technological or social media literacy, though it does include that, but also about the ecumenical community challenging some of the global tech giants. When algorithms are so sensitive that they can know our personality better than we can know ourselves – it must surely be possible for Big Tech to develop algorithms that deal with hate speech and fake news.

Can you talk more about our challenges as an ecumenical fellowship?

Dr Brown: One of the challenges or tasks for our ecumenical fellowship is to try to find ways to make sure we are sharing reliable information. Of course we try to distinguish between good and bad information but it’s always not as simple as that! There are so many levels of accuracy when we have the immediacy of our digital age. And, with physical distancing, you don’t always  have people close by to discuss and share with face-to-face. Regarding COVID-19, there is so much we don’t know, then our knowledge increases and our options change. Ultimately it’s important to realize that uncertainty is not always a bad thing. Particularly in times of uncertainty, people can be looking for certainty and for a reassuring answer, then the answer leads to fake news being propagated. People may distribute fake news because they want it to be true. Sometimes it’s important to admit: “we are not sure.” But that’s different than saying, “we’re just hopeless.”

The other great challenges of digital communication are related to the issues of justice and peace. How does digital communication promote structures of injustice? Who does it include and who does it exclude? I remember that I used to write articles and give addresses about how social media was a positive thing that enabled communities and groups to organize, and lifted up voices that had previously been silenced. Now, eight or nine years later, we’re talking about social media as a realm for populist dissemination and misinformation. So we need to try to look at our communities in a wider social and political context, and ask how communication technology relates to the bigger picture.

Ultimately the challenge of digital communication is not about technology, it’s about what it means to be human, and what it means to be made in the image of God; the God whose “spirit of truth,” as Jürgen Moltmann puts it in the opening article of this issue of The Ecumenical Review, “drives us onward to search for truth and chase after peace.”

The Ecumenical Review, the quarterly journal of the World Council of Churches, is published by Wiley on behalf of the WCC. More information: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/17586623

The Ecumenical Review

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