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The effect of disinformation on religious freedom

When the truth is as flexible as rubber, the stability of democracy isn’t far behind. Disinformation is a fundamental threat to the democratic world. Hallmarks of democracy, such as the free and open exchange of ideas and our institutions, rest on the assumption that our society is committed to the pursuit of truth.

This is not to say that there can’t be disagreement. Arriving at a consensus despite our differing opinions should be democracy’s standard operating procedure. The threat lies when information is rejected because it contradicts one’s worldview with no evaluation of the evidence. When we’re given false information that prompts divisiveness and hostility, that’s the problem.  

Disinformation rejects the truth in favor of disillusionment for the benefit of those who profit off a distorted reality. No level of truth, no matter how certain, is free from this threat. The last few years are riddled with examples. COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy worldwide has been linked to beliefs motivated by disinformation. The January 6 insurrection was fueled by a partisan lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Russia has employed social media propaganda to sway users in India, China and African nations to support its invasion of Ukraine. 16 of the world’s biggest polluters spread 1,700 ads on Facebook to undermine the world’s shift to clean energy in 2021. A report from Oxford University found that 81 governments engaged in disinformation campaigns last year to attack political opponents, silence dissent and meddle in foreign affairs. Disinformation poses a clear problem for democracies, one that nefarious governments and powerful groups aim to capitalize on. 

While the threats are formidable, there’s an undercovered dimension of disinformation that warrants further review: its effect on religious freedom. A core purpose behind religion is to ascertain the purpose behind the truths we encounter. Judaism teaches that science and religion converge as religion informs the “why” behind scientific discoveries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is right to proclaim that “Since the same G-d who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, G-d cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.” We can use science to explain how the world functions, but faith informs what that means for us as individuals. Because disinformation is an assault against the truth, it is also an attempt to undermine our efforts to understand and assign meaning to that truth. When truth is subjected to ill-motivated revision, the process by which we understand that truth is also threatened. 

There are three ways that disinformation harms religious freedom I’d like to explore. The first is when the state pressures religious groups to promote its disinformation campaigns. This operates in a similar function as one argument for separation of church and state. Political influence of religion diminishes the transcendent value of one’s faith, reducing it to a political tool and not a spiritual resource beyond material concerns. State coercion to participate in disinformation campaigns fits this offense. 

Moreover, if a religious group refuses to participate in these campaigns, the sustainability of the community is threatened. Consider the Jewish community in Russia. Over the summer, the chief rabbi of Moscow fled the country after refusing to support the invasion of Ukraine and promote propaganda. Thousands of Russian Jews have escaped the country in fear of persecution amidst the government’s forced closure of the Jewish Agency, an organization that facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel. When a religious community doesn’t adhere to the state’s vision of truth, it risks severe punishment.

The second manifestation is when religious groups participate in disinformation. When the leaders of a faith willingly promote disinformation for personal gain, it dwindles the sincerity and value of the religious principles they promote. For instance, a report from openDemocracy found a global network of crisis pregnancy centers backed by American religious groups frequently peddles dangerous lies about abortion. Materials include claims that abortion leads to cancer, increases the chance of child abuse and more. Sometimes, the clinics would pose as abortion providers before discouraging women from seeking the procedure. 

Participation in disinformation can also come from the pew, not the pulpit. In many evangelical communities in the U.S., congregants have pressured their pastors to promote the QAnon conspiracy that the 2020 election was stolen and more. The use of false information to advance one’s ends is a complete disregard for the truth and undermines the goodwill that individuals seek in religion.

Third, disinformation can target religious communities, threatening their safety. When fabricated information negatively portrays a religious group, it imbues stigma towards its members. This often manifests into verbal or physical harassment, which discourages one from practicing one’s faith or publicly displaying that faith. In India, Islamic groups were blamed for spreading COVID-19 and “coronajihad” became a term to villainize Indian Muslims. These circumstances only emboldened the religious conflict in the region, promoting hostility toward Muslims. This type of harassment is a clear offense against religious freedom, limiting one’s ability to express one’s faith safely and freely.

My hope in this column is to alert readers to the neglected effect that disinformation can have on religious liberty. The right to seek meaning in one’s life, manifested through religion, is an innate right that ought to be as respected as other forms of expression. In the fight against disinformation, we must remain committed to protecting the rights of all people.

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in the column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Blake Ziegler

Contact Blake a bziegler@nd.edu