Often when we atheists are engaging in common political debates, we are faced against the argument that America is actually a Christian Nation. The implication here is that if we are a Christian Nation, we can make laws based on Biblical teachings, and therefore take away birth control for women and fund conversion therapy. The argument usually boils down to the idea that many of the Founding Fathers were Christians, that a majority of the people in this country are Christians, or that somehow our Constitution is based on Christian values.
They’re all bullshit. There are a lot of good arguments to make against them. The most relevant one for me is that even the Constitution at face value doesn’t have an inkling of indication that America is meant to be Christian. So, no. We atheists shouldn’t admit that America Is a Christian Nation.
To be clear: I used a completely misleading headline*. America is definitively NOT a Christian nation.
Mostly I wanted to talk about how we consume our information on social media and how we have discussions.
Every time I write a blog post, I post to the No Religion Required Facebook page. At that point, people look at the headline (and hopefully the short blurb summarizing the post), and make a decision whether or not to read the post or not. I’m happy when they read through the post, and think about what I have said. Perhaps they have some thoughts or disagreements and comment on the post. Perhaps they think I have made some good points (that’s up to you), and share the piece. Or, perhaps my work is is massively flawed and they share it to point out their disagreements.
Unfortunately, a lot of us seem to have a bit of a problem with the middle and most important step, reading the piece. I suspect with this blog post, I’m going to get a few furious comments asking me how I could possibly support a theocratic position. A few people will comment and give long-winded responses explaining that America is not Christian (which they wouldn’t do if they had read this piece). If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll even get some Christians sharing my piece as if I’m an atheist admitting that America is Christian (which to be clear, yet again, I’m not). This is all based entirely on the headline of the piece (Which is 16 words, compared to my 1952 words of content).
What’s terrifying is that so many people are starting to rely on their social media feeds for news, and 60% of people share news stories based on the headline without reading the article. It’s often the case that the headline is written to get clicks, since as news outlets are losing their paid subscribers and therefore often need to make up for lost revenue in clicks for advertisers. It’s not news that headlines don’t always correspond perfectly with the words inside an article (and in larger outlets, the authors don’t even get to pick the headline). Even well-written articles can have their message diverted by a terrible headline, which can mislead those who read it without diving deeper into the article. It’s not hard to see why this distorts the spread of information. Even if I don’t particularly care about a certain story, if I see a hyperbolized or skewed headline just scrolling through my feeds, I will be fed a little bit of misinformation for that day.
I’ve seen this play out even when I write headlines that correspond well with the message of my post. One post I’m still particularly proud of is titled “I’m Taking “Offense” Out of My Vocabulary, and Why You Should Too”. In that piece, I talked about how I think the term is overused, it doesn’t really get to the heart of certain discussions, and that ultimately we label people as offended so we can easily dismiss them. Unfortunately, some people just read the headline and assumed that I was complaining about people getting too offended all the time these days (which is somewhat antithetical to my point in the piece). A commenter on Facebook told me they agreed with me, and then proceeded to write an entire paragraph saying that too many people get offended all the time and they don’t care about offending people. I confronted them, stating that in my article I admonished people who say that, since I think that it is a strawman. They didn’t respond.
I’ve seen this play out many other times in skeptic circles, where people should value reliable information and nuance the most. One of my Facebook friends attempted to disparage Bernie Sanders last year by sharing an article titled “Bernie Sanders Vows to Fight Back Against Islamophobia in the 2016 Race”. We atheists often push back on the term Islamophobia and often substitute in “Anti-Muslim Bigotry” since the former implies that we shouldn’t criticize the tenets of Islam or Islamism. My friend wanted to smear Bernie as an Islam apologist. The problem? Never in the article did Bernie once use the term, the only uses were by the author of the piece. My other friend, Eli of God Awful Movies and Scathing Atheist, has often made posts on his feed, and will frequently have to remind people to READ THE GODDAMN ARTICLE, even in the text of his posts. We are often overeager to share our opinion, and we often think that we are informed enough on a given subject to share what we think even though we are completely devoid of context, so we comment against the headline of a piece without so much as peeking at the content.
It doesn’t even have to be headlines. It could be a long-winded post where people are likely to only read a few lines in, or a catchy meme with a more thorough text explanation at the bottom. There was recently a video passed around on my feeds featuring Simon Sinek talking about millennials in the workplace. I happened to watch the whole video, and to be honest, I liked it.** It was a critique of millennials, but it was actually fairly supportive of my generation. However, it had a horrible banner above and below it, saying “This is exactly what’s wrong with this generation”. This feeds into the common narrative that “t3h millenials are d3stroyzing everything! Oh noez!” To someone who has already made up their mind that millennials are entitled lazy youths who don’t know how to work, they are able to merely glance at the video and feel validated in their assumptions before moving on. Not only that, but many are able to spread an otherwise good video by slapping an accusatory tone onto it, thinking they are helping to educate their friends when they haven’t even listened to a minute of what the speaker said.
As someone who puts time and effort into my blog posts, this is disheartening. When someone misrepresents my work, it feels as if someone has taken my voice away from me and abused it to fit their own agenda. And with plenty of distrust in mainstream news already, there are plenty of people out there willing to twist the words of more legitimate sources for their own motives. I almost feel like punching those who share their opinion on somebody’s work without knowing an inkling about that piece. It makes me want Facebook to implement a policy where you can’t comment unless you’ve actually spent time reading the piece.
Not all of the spreading of misinformation is malicious though, sometimes it’s innocuous. I know I’ve certainly made plenty of these mistakes before and I am no better than most people reading this post. I get how easy it is to share something without vetting it. Usually I’m checking my Facebook feed between tasks at work, and I see a catchy headline that validates one of my opinions. Maybe it reinforces a point I had been trying to get across to others. It’s so easy just to go off the headline, share an article, and say “See?” I get it. We want to get to our next task and we don’t want to spend the next ten minutes reading through something word for word when we think we already know what it says, and our time is valuable. But if we care about cultivating a healthy news feed, we should take the extra effort to make sure we are sharing information responsibly.
Here are some steps I’ve taken to making sure I spread information in a manner beneficial to those who follow me.
- Reminding myself that Facebook is not a news outlet. If we want to be informed, we should make sure to take time out of our day to educate ourselves based on good, professional news outlets, and cross referencing across multiple sources. (also buying a subscription to your local paper is a good way to support good journalism)
- I never comment on a piece without reading it. If it’s something short such as a death of a celebrity, most of the relevant information is within the first couple of paragraphs, so I don’t feel too guilty expressing my sorrow without reading the whole thing. However, context matters, and I put extra effort into reading the whole article when it’s presented to me. This is especially the case when something is an opinion piece, as common objections or questions I might have are often addressed within the paragraphs of the article.
- Never share before reading. Make sure the information you’re spreading is actually the information you want to share.
- Instead of just sharing a link, I share the link along with a short excerpt of the piece in the text of my post. I usually pick a couple of paragraphs that get to the heart of the article. While I may have read the whole article, some people may still only be interested in skimming headlines. This makes it easier for me to spread important information to those who are just skimming Facebook on cruise control.
- As always, keep your skeptic goggles on, and be critical of any outlet you get your news from. Remind yourself of ways to avoid bad sources.
PS, if you’re going to share this piece, don’t give away the actual content. See if your friends are as responsible as they should be!
*This idea is not original to me at all. My friends and fellow atheist bloggers JT Eberhard and Matthew Facciani have done similar things. The difference between their posts and mine is small, but they are discussing the spread of actual news events. I want to cover things a bit more broadly, and how we have conversations on social media. Regardless of how unoriginal this post is, this is a message worth repeating.
**A quick review: It was a nuanced look at how millennials behave differently from past generations, and a critique of their behavior. I am the first to push back against millennial hatred, and I feel like we have been gaslit into thinking that we’re lazy or entitled. Throughout the whole video, Sinek emphasizes that it’s not millennials’ fault that our behaviors are often incongruous from the perspective of previous generations. I think he’s missing a lot of the story by not emphasizing the poor economic conditions we entered the world in, and how we have enormous student debts that we have to pay off when we have trouble getting jobs. However, he uses evidence-based methods to describe at least some of the problem well. Most importantly, it’s miles of quality beyond much of the disparaging discourse focused at millennials lately, and escapes the reactionary anti-millennial narrative that we are regularly bathed in.