Fake news isn’t new—nearly a decade ago, people started sharing reports of Barack Obama’s alleged Muslim faith as fact. Further, Christians have at times been responsible for spreading these false reports. (“I think it’s really important for your readers to know that I have been a member of the same church for almost 20 years, and I have never practiced Islam,” Obama told CT back in 2008.)
But at least one Christian can take credit for challenging the church and society to take the information age much more seriously. Twentieth century French Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul thought deeply about the impact of mainstream media.
Ellul was particularly interested in the century’s obsession with efficiency, says Lisa Richmond, who recently translated his Presence in the Modern World from French. When this concept was applied to communication, Ellul referred to it as a propaganda.
“Propaganda, to Ellul, is a way of using language and images to accomplish a particular objective. It is the most effective way to achieve the outcome that you want to get,” said Richmond, paraphrasing Ellul. “Ellul would argue that for the propagandist, truth is simply a tool to be used when it is the most effective way to accomplish your goal. If it is not the most effective way, then you use falsehood.”
Our society has largely learned to communicate within this framework, says Richmond.
“Once propaganda is at work in society, it forces other people to engage propaganda,” she said. “That can be contrasted with an ethical true desire to communicate in which our hope is that we understand truth more fully. That’s not the objective of the propagandist. It is to accomplish a certain outcome. If truth serves that outcome, great. If not, discard it.”
Richmond joined assistant editor Morgan Lee and editor-in-chief Mark Galli to discuss how propaganda gives us a sense of belonging, why Christians are complicit in our culture of information overload, and whether journalists can ever escape bias.