- A librarian is leading the church’s fight against misinformation by holding online media workshops.
- Rachel Wightman is teaching church congregants to identify fake news, and fact-check their sources.
- White evangelicals are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, recent polls show.
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Rachel Wightman works full-time at Concordia University, St.Paul, but started teaching six-week seminars part-time after watching a worrying number of people in her community became misguided by online misinformation.
The presidential election prompted Wightman to give her first workshop at her local Mill City Church in Minneapolis in early 2020. But the coronavirus pandemic paired with the Black Lives Matter protests made her workshops a lot more pertinent, so she decided to organize more.
The BLM movement, in particular, hit close to home – Wightman’s church was only a few miles away from where George Floyd was killed, and for most of the summer months, the city was gripped by protests.
“I remember the day our pastor was talking about racism and saying we have to check our inputs, meaning we have to get inputs from people who are different in order to understand this issue,” Wightman told Insider. “That was the moment for me where it really clicked. I knew I had to continue giving people tools to get to these inputs.”
In the last few weeks, the librarian has become inundated with requests from other pastors from around the US asking her to give her workshops to their congregations.
The need for such training seems to be as urgent as ever: Over the last year, churches have become engulfed in conspiracy theories and health misinformation, in some cases even prompting pastors to leave their congregations.
Recent polls show that white evangelicals have one of the highest levels of vaccine skepticism in the United States. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published in January, just under a third of US adults say they will probably or definitely not get the vaccine, compared to 44% of those who identify as white evangelicals.
Another poll by the Christian research organization Lifeway Research found that more than 45% of protestant pastors said they had often heard congregants repeating conspiracy theories.
“As a librarian, I’m seeing this huge information landscape every day, and I feel like it’s incredibly overwhelming for people,” Wightman said. “We’ve all spent this past year in this hyped-up environment where everything feels urgent and stressful, so I try to encourage people to take some space and say: ‘Okay, I’m going to figure out how to slow down and make sense of everything around me.'”
Due to the pandemic, Wightman meets most of her students on Zoom. Together they talk about everything from how to identify fake photographs, the ways in which algorithms work, fact-checking sources, and how to avoid being judgmental when friends post something inaccurate online.
Wightman stressed that while the training is a good space to talk about all the information people find online, it is also “politically neutral.”
“We’re not here to talk about your opinion on the latest legislation or our president. We are here to talk about how do you evaluate what you’re finding online … and how that overlaps with your faith,” she said.
For the librarian, it is also important to keep faith at the center of her teachings.
“I want to also bring in this perspective of Christianity. As Christians, we need to ask ourselves, if you have this faith of loving your neighbors, in what spaces does your faith show up?'”
The librarian said her workshops had been received well by many churchgoers, who vary in age and race. Many are also taking the training to help family members who have succumbed to online misinformation, Wightman said.
Dr. Christopher Douglas, a professor of English at the University of Victoria, specializing in Christian literature, politics, and epistemology, thinks having training is essential in this day and age.
“Misinformation is in some sense baked into white evangelical churches as many of them reject science, scholarship, and mainstream journalism,” Douglas told Insider. “It’s a small step from disputing the science of evolution and climate change to doubting the efficacy of masks and vaccines in fighting the pandemic because it all comes from a common source, which is mainstream ‘secular’ science.”
Douglas believes 2020’s pandemic and election exacerbated this problem as many feel like their political opponents are trying to “destroy Christian America and to take away what they call their ‘religious freedoms.'”
This is why Christian churches need training like Wightman’s, Douglas said. “Public institutions like libraries, colleges, and universities all have a role to play in developing critical thinking and critical media literacy skills,” he said.
Even though Wightman is balancing her new work with a full-time job, she said she’s proud of what she’s accomplished so far and hopes to continue doing more workshops in the future.
“A lot of people think librarians just sit around and read all day, so it’s been fun to bust that myth open a bit,” said Wightman. “We’re teachers, we’re about connecting people with information, and so be able to do that in a new way that feels so relevant is very exciting.”