Rachel Wightman, a lifelong Christian, is on a mission. No, it's not to bring God to others. Wightman believes God is already at work in the world in all ways, including online. Her mission, she writes in Faith and Fake News: A Guide to Consuming Information Wisely (Eerdmans, May), is to equip fellow Christians "to understand and mindfully engage in online platforms in order to love our neighbors well and to be peacemakers in our culture."
The associate director for instruction and outreach at Concordia University in St. Paul, Wightman, 37, has taught college students research skills—including how to recognize opinions, facts, falsehoods, and outright fakery —for years. In 2020, she began teaching classes at her non-denominational evangelical church in Minneapolis where she explained how online sites deliver information, how to evaluate sources for their credibility, and the need to pay attention to a variety of news outlets. Soon, more churches were inviting Wightman to offer classes.
Eerdmans acquiring editor Andrew Knapp says the book is a fit for the publisher because, "We have books that appeal more to those on the fundamentalist side of the spectrum and books that appeal more to progressive evangelicals and mainline Christians, and similarly along the political spectrum. We want to publish the most thoughtful expressions of the various shades of belief, and Rachel encourages readers of all persuasions to be more thoughtful."
Wightman hopes Faith and Fake News helps readers break out of online "echo chambers, where we see only ourselves and others like us."
You write that learning how to find facts and discuss ideas and opinions with humility and an open mind is "especially important for Christians." Why so?
I think it is important for everyone to engage in thinking critically about what they see online and there are many religious and secular groups doing amazing work on this. But in the Christian circles I am in, I can see that there is a need, a missing connection, for people of faith. They say they want to love their neighbors, but they need help to do it well.
According to your book, people should avoid passively scrolling along and "pay attention, invite the Spirit, and use these spaces in our work of joining God in making wrong things right." But don't we tend to think that our facts and ideas are "right" and that what doesn't confirm our views and values is "wrong"?
This is one of the big challenges for the workshops and the book. How do we really learn the truth of a situation and how to have mindful, productive conversations about facts, what is actually true, and not disinformation or misinformation? We acknowledge that it is very difficult not to shut down, but to listen well. We can learn to research things and bring forward what we've learned from multiple sources and say, "Here's what I'm seeing, and let's talk about it."
You also direct readers to identify their own biases — the values and beliefs that shape their worldview — and to pay attention to their emotional responses to information. What's the importance of that?
People don't want to just fact-check endlessly. That’s why taking your internal temperature matters. Emotional responses can signal that you are stuck in your own biases. Studies show that emotionally charged content spreads faster online, for example. But having an emotional reaction to something we see online can also motivate our curiosity, prompting us to dig deeper.
You offer many sources and skills for fact-finding in general, however, you make only glancing mentions Covid or the 2020 election — news that has prompted waves of misinformation, disinformation, and raging opinions. Why?
It has been a tricky balance to talk about concepts and whether to incorporate current events. I didn't want to turn people off immediately and I considered that by the time the book was published some of the news might be past. I want to offer advice that will always be useful: How to create a space to be more intentional, to make room for the gray areas. Someone once said in one of my classes that it was about finding space for grace, for nuance, for making things less black and white. If we want to be salt and light in the world, we need to be that in our online spaces as well.