by Zachary Wright
Imagine for yourself for a moment that you’re face-to-face with a critic of the church who states “The church is lying to you about its history” or “the church is trying to cover up its past.” When you ask them what they mean, they explain how the church has suppressed the details behind how a seer stone was used throughout the translation of the Book of Mormon. They continue “It’s only until the advent of the internet where the church has been forced to be honest.” What this critic does not know is that this claim is, for the most part, misinformation. The unfortunate reality is that misinformation can be spread as simply as the example above, and it can have some devastating consequences.
Now, the vast majority of this series has been dedicated to arriving at correct conclusions, and I’ve mostly talked about us using data to build our own arguments and arrive at well-reasoned conclusions. However, besides my episode on logical fallacies, I haven’t given all that much attention to teaching how to identify bad information. So far, all my episodes have been working under the assumption that the information I’ve been presenting is accurate. In reality, this isn’t always the case. Reality is often very complicated, and the manner in which data is presented can be incorrect, misleading, biased, or otherwise presented in a way that can incorrectly sway our opinion. Critical thinkers need to be aware of how data can be presented in ways that can lead to incorrect conclusions, so that we don’t fall prey to information that can have lasting negative consequences. To start, we’ll discuss what misinformation is, and talk about how it can be combated. Then, we’ll talk about propaganda in a similar way, and finally, we’ll discuss how to protect yourself against bad information. Let’s get into it.
Before we can launch into describing propaganda, we first need to understand what misinformation is. Misinformation is described as “incorrect or misleading information” (1). This kind of information serves critical thinkers very little good because in order to solve problems, we have to acknowledge the effects those problems have in reality. If we don’t understand the reality of a problem, that is, how that problem affects us in the real world, then we run the risk of implementing ineffective solutions. Keep this in mind as we proceed through the sources we analyze.
Let’s jump back to the example in the introduction. For those who don’t know what a seer stone is, the short answer is that it was a small, chocolate-colored stone that Joseph Smith used during the translation process. This hypothetical critic made the claim that the church was actively hiding the fact that Joseph Smith used a seer stone during the translation process of the Book of Mormon (2). If this was true, then members of the church who wanted to explain what happened would need to explain not only why Joseph used a seer stone, but also why the church was allegedly hiding the issue. In other words, those kinds of details would need to be factored into whatever analysis we did on the church and its truth claims. However, is it true that the church hid it? Well, the answer is kind of complicated, but I’ve found that it’s actually pretty universally “no.” For example, we have records of David Whitmer, a witness of the translation process, recording during his lifetime that Joseph Smith used a seer stone during the translation process (3). We also have Emma Smith, another direct witness, indicating that he used a seer stone as well (4).
This is where things get tricky though. These are both rather late sources, which if you remember from my article on evaluating historical sources, can sometimes make things a bit more complicated than we’d like. This led some members and leaders of the church to disbelieve the idea Joseph used a seer stone. Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, knew that Joseph Smith had the seer stone, but didn’t believe that it was used during the Book of Mormon translation (5). This sentiment arguably dominated the rhetoric of the time regarding the translation. However, this certainly wasn’t the unanimous opinion in the 1900s. We have records of historians such as Richard Lloyd Anderson, alongside apostles Neal A. Maxwell and Russell M. Nelson, who affirmed that Joseph used the seer stone in the hat during the translation a few decades later (6). As you can see, there’s far more nuance to this issue than meets the eye.
That brings us back to the topic of misinformation. With this in mind, is it really fair to say that the church as an organization was actively trying to hide the fact that Joseph used a seer stone? As you can see, this critic’s claim had information that was either misleading or even outrightly untrue. We have multiple general authorities affirming that Joseph Smith used a seer stone during a portion of the Book of Mormon’s translation. Was this detail contested? Sure, but that’s very different from saying that the church was actively, knowingly, and deceptively lying or hiding this issue from the general membership. Even so, we see this issue rehashed by critics of the church time and time again, despite the claim’s misleading nature.
Before we move on, it’s worth noting that there is some distinction between misinformation and its more devious cousin Disinformation. Disinformation is described as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth” (7). To put it another way, misinformation is just information that is incorrect, while disinformation is the intentional use of incorrect information. Now, I don’t like accusing people of spreading disinformation, because that would be assuming the intent of another person, which is very VERY difficult to prove with any degree of certainty. I think that Hanlon’s razor may be useful, or at least a variant of it: Don’t assume malintent when human frailty can account for the same behavior. Impracticality aside, it’s an important (albeit theoretical) distinction to make, seeing as it entails that we see the purveyor of disinformation in a different light than we see the purveyor of misinformation.
Now, misinformation is definitely a problematic thing, and its presence is felt in a lot of aspects of life and is often implemented in the realm of propaganda. Propaganda is described as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view” (8). Another source described propaganda as being “dissemination of information—facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies—to influence public opinion” (9). As you can imagine, this is often an instrument in much of political discourse, but as you can imagine, propaganda can also be found in a lot of other areas of life, such as in religious discourse.
If we study those definitions carefully, propaganda is focused on this idea of swaying people to agree with you, using a carefully selected concoction of facts and/or misinformation and fallacious reasoning to get people to agree with you. Researchers seem to agree with the idea that propaganda is information that is disseminated to elicit emotional responses, often using rhetorical devices and vaguely defined terms (10). However, as some writers have noted, there aren’t a lot of great ways to determine the difference between genuine persuasion and overt manipulation, and consequently, it’s difficult to define propaganda well (11). For our purposes, we’ll be working off of the definitions above wherein propaganda is more manipulative, biased, and misleading, even when it contains partial truths.
For example, consider this comment I saw on social media recently (source available upon request):
This is an excellent example of propaganda. It’s a claim made about the church that attempts to elicit an emotional response: A feeling of unfairness. It wants us to actively distrust the church, and leave behind the organization that is allegedly extorting money from us “under duress”. However, if we take some time to unpack this claim, we find it’s stringing together points that don’t make much sense. I don’t pay tithing because I’m under duress. I pay tithing because I love God and I want to give everything I can to him. I hope my family will do the same, but I recognize that some of them may choose not to. If they don’t want to be around me in Celestial glory, then they don’t have to be around me. I won’t do anything to force them to, and neither will the church. Think about this for a moment: How could anyone force them?
Now, more could be said on this topic from a theological perspective. For instance, according to LDS theology, if someone I love doesn’t want to live a Celestial life, our scriptures indicate that I’ll still be able to minister to them, and consequently be around them (12). However, this example shows how a deeper dive into propagandistic claims can expose the kind of half-truths inherent in a lot of these kinds of arguments. By oversimplifying the issue, and targeting the emotional response of the reader, the critic employing this kind of argument may cause serious doubt to a genuine believer.
Fighting Bad Information
How do we avoid falling victim to misinformation and misleading propaganda? Well, analyzing the data very much like I did now may prove to be useful. It’s helpful to go back over the primary sources, see what different people are saying, and then draw conclusions about the data. Drawing on the first article I wrote, a pattern of asking questions may also be useful. Asking questions like these may be helpful:
- What is the cultural background of the people who are talking about X?
- How has discourse about X shifted over time?
- Is there ambiguity regarding what the sources say that would be benefitted from further research?
- Is the person I’m listening to omitting important information, or focusing on information, about X in a way that alters their conclusion?
We can use tactics like these to analyze information regarding just about any topic, and there are definitely benefits from using these techniques when analyzing church history. While we should always be open to being wrong, following these patterns can lead us to be wrong less often, and consequently be more able to resolve problems in a practical, powerful way.
Luckily for us, critical thinking is also helpful in discerning what is true and what is not true in regards to propaganda as well. As it is with misinformation, asking questions can prove to be useful, and having at least a cursory grasp of the discourse behind the issues at hand is just as helpful. By knowing a thing or two about the topics being discussed, it can become easier for us to understand where the people presenting arguments are coming from, and consequently discern between bias, truth, and especially assumptions.
Honestly, as someone who has spent a significant amount of time parsing through arguments for and against the truth claims of the church, I’ve found that the most prominent thing that brings people out of the church is assumptions and negative feelings. The idea that Joseph Smith used a seer stone for portions of the Book of Mormon’s translation doesn’t necessarily bring people out of the church. More often than not, it’s the assumption that church leaders lied about their history, and often the negative feelings that follow thereafter (13). Manipulative propaganda thrives on assumptions, inferences, and fallacious reasoning. To avoid being misled, think about the presuppositions you have, so that you can study them out, and not allow your emotions alone to guide your behavior and thought processes. Figure out what presuppositions other people have so that you can parse through bias more effectively. In this series, we’ve talked about several tools now that can help us identify good information, and differentiate it from bad information. I hope those tools can be useful.
In conclusion, it’s valuable to us as critical thinkers to practice discerning between good and bad information. Misinformation runs rampant in every corner of our society, and manipulative, deceptive propaganda can cause just as many problems. Luckily for us, there are ways to combat misinformation, and to protect ourselves from those who would deceive us (intentionally or otherwise). Critical thinkers have a plethora of tools to help them find truth, and with those tools, we can develop the confidence we need to make decisions that will help us accomplish what we need, and to solve the greater problems in today’s world. As always, I’m of the opinion that doing so will help us become the kinds of thinkers, and believers, that God wants us to be.
- The reasoning behind this criticism varies significantly depending on the critic. Mostly though, this criticism ties Joseph’s use of a seer stone to local folk magic practices, which can make people uncomfortable. Many authors have tackled this topic more extensively than we have time to do here, but some great resources to study more about this include Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, alongside Michael Hubbard Mackay and Nicholas J. Frederick’s Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones. Other balanced sources include analyses from Mormonr, and FAIR presentations like this one.
- D&C 76:85-87, It is for this reason that I believe that the “together” part has to do with unity just as much as (if not more than) proximity. Families can be united in purpose and love forever, if they so choose. No one is going to be coerced to live a certain way, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.
- Fear Leads to the Dark Side – Navigating the Shallows of (Mis)Information – René Krywult; This video talks about much of what we talk about, and goes through examples of how to parse through claims made about LDS theology.
- Introduction to Propaganda; A great introduction to propaganda. Note how they indicate that propaganda in of itself is “morally neutral”, once again affirming how propaganda can be viewed and used in different ways.
- Finding Truth in the Misinformation Age; a BYU professor of communications outlines how to battle misinformation from a theological perspective.
Zachary Wright was born in American Fork, UT. He served his mission speaking Spanish in North Carolina and the Dominican Republic. He currently attends BYU studying psychology, but loves writing, and studying LDS theology and history. His biggest desire is to help other people bring them closer to each other, and ultimately bring people closer to God.