From COVID to QAnon, church makes disinformation training a question of faith

A slide on a laptop reads "Fake news and faith"
Rachel Wightman reviews slides Oct. 18 before a Mill City Church online class about identifying disinformation. The church offered a class earlier in the year and recently began offering the class again for six weeks online.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Finding facts and accurate information is part of Rachel Wightman’s job — it’s also part of her ministry.

She works as a librarian at Concordia University in St. Paul, but on a recent Sunday afternoon, Wightman was on a Zoom video chat, teaching eight of her fellow congregants from Mill City Church in Minneapolis how the complicated algorithms that pull data from their internet searches and their clicks influence what they see online — including disinformation. 

“The way these algorithms work, they're predicting behaviors,” she explained. “They're saying, 'Oh, you've clicked on all these things, so maybe you want to see more of them.'”

A woman gestures as she sits in front of a laptop at a kitchen table.
Rachel Wightman leads a discussion about identifying disinformation during an online Mill City Church class. Mill City Church is holding a class for its parishioners about how the information landscape intersects with faith. The class covered topics like evaluating sources, finding different viewpoints and tools to use to verify information.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

In a year dominated by disinformation about the pandemic and politics, Mill City pastor Stephanie Williams O’Brien said giving her congregants the tools to identify it, avoid spreading it — and find accurate information is particularly important.

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Exploring the intersection between disinformation and faith are essential to Mill City’s mission of loving their neighbors, in real life and online, Williams O’Brien said. 

“When we spread misinformation, that is not loving, that is not kind,” she said. “It doesn't help other people grow and thrive. If our deepest heart is to love people well, then spreading disinformation is a very toxic thing to do."

From politics to coronavirus

Wightman started teaching this class in early 2020 with the upcoming election in mind. Participants met in person before services, and talked about everything from how to identify fake photographs to tapping the lessons of their faith to avoid being judgmental when friends post something inaccurate online. 

That was before the pandemic changed everything. In March, as the state shut down in response to the growing coronavirus outbreak, Mill City Church went online, and Wightman’s class went on hiatus. 

Now, after months of sheltering during the pandemic, a summer of civic unrest and in the midst of an unprecedented election year, Wightman has brought the class back a few weeks before the election, this time over Zoom.

She’s made some changes to the curriculum. She now includes more information about the scientific process. Wightman said she’s seen how the scientific community’s constantly evolving understanding of coronavirus has allowed disinformation to flourish in a vacuum of uncertainty.

Over the course of the classes, participants go beyond the basics of algorithms and search engines, discussing things like how to let their faith guide hard conversations about disinformation: Do they call people out on social media? Ignore it? Talk one-on-one instead?

Wightman tells class members there are no easy answers. 

“We just have to remind ourselves to ask God where he wants us to engage with this information, how does he want us to get involved or not get involved?” she said. 

Participant Owen Boldt said that some of the hardest conversations he's had this year have been about the pandemic, and with fellow Christians — conversations that have sometimes challenged his notions of what it means to be a Christian. 

A woman speaks on stage near a cross.
Mill City Church co-lead pastor Stephanie Williams O'Brien says being a good Christian also means being a good participant in democracy.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

He uses the science around wearing masks as an example,

“The people who are not wearing masks are saying that I'm trusting that the Lord is protecting us,” he said “And the other person is saying, 'Well, I'm trusting that God will do that, but I'm also falling in line with the gifts God has given us, and one of those gifts are masks.’”

For now, Boldt has settled on this tactic based on what he’s learned so far in class: He finds accurate information and uses it as a spring board to have honest but empathetic conversations with his loved ones face-to-face.

Anonymous and online

But when so much discourse happens online, sometimes anonymously, it's becoming more challenging for many Christians to live out that part of their faith, said Jason Thacker, who leads the research and technology ethics program for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville, Tenn.

“As a Christian, the Bible clearly tells us that we are created for community,” he said. “To be with one another, to love one another, to care for one another, and also to point out one another's sins or issues."

Thacker said the social isolation of the pandemic has made all of this really difficult. And he said it's one reason that QAnon, a labyrinthine conspiracy theory, has taken root among some Christians.

He said a bogus story perpetuated by QAnon that President Donald Trump is secretly fighting a massive child sex trafficking ring has played to Christians who are already deeply concerned about this issue. 

Thacker says the greatest danger of QAnon is that it manipulates a kernel of truth — for instance, that sex trafficking is real and dangerous — with lies. 

"You take a vehicle of truth, and you layer on top of it other conspiracy thoughts that make it sound believable, and if there's enough plausibility to one element of it, well maybe the other parts are true and people don't want us to know those things. And then they play into political divides,” he said.

People wearing masks while standing apart from each other.
Mill City Church parishioners social distance as they worship at Quincy Hall on Sept. 13.
Steph Fedor Luckey | Courtesy of Mill City Church

He said once someone shares something online that is connected to the QAnon conspiracy, they’re more likely to believe and spread other falsehoods QAnon promotes — for instance, disinformation about the pandemic or the fabrication that John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive, even though he died in a plane crash in 1999. 

Williams O'Brien said those same concerns weigh on her, as well. Being Christian, she says, is to speak and promote truth. 

So earlier this year, when she saw friends posting QAnon conspiracy theories online, Williams O'Brien said she responded with accurate information about what QAnon is, and why it's not congruent with Christianity. 

“What I recognize is that there may be some folks that I connected with on line that helped them walk away from QAnon," she said. "But more reasonably, it probably gave people some tools and resources to talk one-on-one, off-line about the dangers of jumping head first into these conspiracy theories."

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.