Can fake news spread the good news?

“Fake news for the faithful may be one of the last channels left for gospelling”

Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump tweeted fake news. While this may not seem unusual to some, the noteworthy aspect of this instance was that the news in question was an article written by the Babylon Bee – the self-proclaimed Christian satire news site.

There is some debate as to whether Trump knew that the article, headlined ‘Twitter Shuts Down Entire Network To Slow Spread Of Negative Biden News’, was indeed satire. Some claim that he was duped, while others believe it to be the ultimate Presidential troll. Neither possibility, at this stage, is likely to surprise.

Perhaps the more interesting question for Christians, however, should be how this openly Christian organisation reached the zenith of secular cultural communication, and how effective this approach is in advancing a Christian gospel-centred message.

Can the ‘Fake News’ phenomenon become a vehicle for the One who claims to embody transcendent Truth? The Babylon Bee certainly think so, soon after the event claiming, with tongue firmly in cheek, that ‘Thousands accepted Jesus into their hearts’ due to Trump’s tweet.

At this point, it’s worth noting that this satirical approach to Christian advancement is not a modern invention. Perhaps the best historical example is Dr Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and his use of ‘fake news’ to further the Reformation. The printing press – created just decades earlier – enabled Luther to spread his work across Europe, in what has been described as the world’s first mass-media-driven revolution. Much of this work was intentionally humorous, crude, and sarcastic, but simultaneously drew attention to questions of law, authority, theology and biblical interpretation.

One of Luther’s more popular creations was a ‘pop-up’ poster of Pope Alexander which transforms him into a Devil.

Throughout periods when speech and ideas are suppressed, satire becomes a powerful communication tool. Many Christians in Australia are well-aware, for example, of the increasingly hostile environment for Biblical perspectives on social issues – such as marriage, abortion, gender and sexuality – in the public square. Merely the mention of one’s faith and beliefs on such issues in an Australian context can lead to workplace termination, expulsion from university studies, or trigger business collapse as a result of activist boycotts. (Visit Australia Watch for depressingly relevant examples).

Comedy provides the perfect medium for messages that would normally be ignored or punished if overtly stated, and yet can reach millions in satirical form. Not only that, but it can provide a platform for reframing challenging subject matter, advancing social change, and even helping us endure dark times.

Humour can unsuspectingly reach into the human condition and, when done right, can be a direct vessel for truth. As G.K. Chesterton so eloquently put it: “humour can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle”.

It is for the aforementioned reasons that our group of like-minded individuals launched an Australian Christian satirical news site in June called The Damascus Dropbear. Similar to US-based Babylon Bee, the objective was to make people laugh, then think, about theology, culture, church and politics, in a uniquely Australian context.

To misquote theologian Karl Barth, we aimed to hold the “…Bible in one hand and the newspaper funny pages in the other”.

We have sought to ensure that our board members are able to remain anonymous, lest their public profile, places of employment, or even family were targeted

In our short life, however, this alternative ministry has faced challenges. In many ways this is unsurprising, as trying to do conservative Christian comedy in Australia is about as fashionable as wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat to a Melbourne University gender studies class.

The first challenge concerns Facebook, which has the distribution of ‘fake news’ in its sights. We have begun to grow our audience despite several ‘shadow bans’, being told that our posts violated community standards (for simply making mention of high profile figures), and were algorithmically bumped down the precious news feed. This means that fewer people would see any content.

Fortunately, there are other social media platforms available, and growth has been solid across Twitter, Instagram and Parler.

The second challenge concerns anonymity. Misconstrued humour is guaranteed to cause offence, and we have seen that even popular Aussie beers, football stars and high flying executives are not immune to the fiery arrows. It is for this reason, we have sought to ensure that our board members are able to remain anonymous, lest their public profile, places of employment, or even family were targeted (hence why even this opinion piece is written incognito).

This provides the basis for the third, and perhaps most significant, challenge. Specifically, this challenge goes to the very heart of whether satire can progress the gospel – as this is the specific question being posed of our endeavour.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC) has chosen to deny our application for charity status, a common registration for churches and faith-based ministry. Their main argument appears to be that as the Dropbear does not ‘directly’ promote spiritual teaching and doctrines, it cannot therefore be considered to ‘advance religion’ (much like the Catholic-owned newspaper in this 1934 High Court case).

Without this status, it is unlikely the Damascus Dropbear will continue as, without it, the adequate legal and financial protections necessary for such a controversial endeavour do not exist.

So, back to the question at hand – can fake news stories actually bring Australians to a deeper understanding of the Christian message?
Popular blogger Stephen McAlpine proposes that, in regard to public engagement, the Age of Apologetics is over. Winsomeness has its place but is simply not cutting through at this point in history. Bolder, more robust, and imaginative strategies need to be commissioned to connect with modern seekers.

Therefore, in a post-truth, deeply divided, social media dependent, and increasingly hostile environment that is losing its sense of humour, we believe that ‘Fake news for the Faithful’ can play an important role in bringing people the gospel in the public square. Jokes aside, there may indeed come a time where satire is one of the only channels left.