11 Mar 2021

The Campaign Against Truth – Part 3: Knowing the Influences

For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works. 

2 Corinthians 11:14-15


Influence and deception are things not always easily seen or detected. In many cases, people who seem to be trying to help others may actually be trying to influence or lead to deceit. These methods are staples of mankind’s diet. From man’s departure from Eden, men have tried to gain influence over other men through all kinds of practices. In each case, those trying to influence, or deceive, are trying to exploit “weaknesses” in our “defense systems.” Someone may even appeal to something you like or agree with. In today’s world, these methods are present in everything from business practices, to politics, to science, to worship.

As members of God’s Church, we need to know what can influence us. In too many circumstances, people are being led around by others. Even within the Church, people have and are influencing brethren to behave in negative and ungodly ways. We should always remember our leader and shepherd is Christ! We should not be influenced into thinking anyone is incapable of deceiving us.

Know the Influences

Influences are things (especially concepts and tactics) that have the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways. [1] Deception and influence are integrally connected, as people can only deceive if they know how to influence you.

The topic of what influences people is an area of research that has been studied for years. While there are a lot of ideas on what exactly influences someone to believe something or do something, it is ultimately very individual. What may be very influential in someone’s life may not be as influential in another’s. There are also many different types of tactics and concepts that influence people. We’re going to talk about three different influences that are very relevant to today’s society: 1) sensationalism; 2) social media; and 3) cognitive biases. As you’ll see, each of these areas build off each other to create a concerning narrative about our society.

Sensationalism – Provoke to Action

Have you ever heard a headline and thought, “That’s too good to be true!” or “I can’t believe that happened!” Most of the time, it is too good to be true, and you shouldn’t believe that happened. Sensationalism is the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.[2] Sensationalism can be utilized in many different ways ranging from satirical to nefarious. And it’s been used for as long as there has been print media, and likely long before that!

In years past, the term “Yellow Journalism” was used to describe stories that were sensationalist in nature and weren’t true. Today, we talk about “fake news” and “clickbait.” Clickbait is purely sensationalist headlines in order to get you to read the article that isn’t as interesting as its title. And while we do see fake news today, we mostly see biased news; the stories might not be fake, but the facts are exaggerated or the author adds his or her own commentary, as if it was fact.

Over the years, we’ve witnessed an increasing trend in sensationalist news reporting. Now, it seems as commonplace as unbiased news reporting. But why is it such a problem? The problem is the intention behind the sensationalism. In many cases, these stories are built to polarize, and they’re pushed by very biased sources, which don’t care about being truthful. What the source does care about is stirring up its base of supporter to increase ratings and traffic. Thus, it adds to the polarization, pitting the base against the “others.” We’ve been seeing more and more of this during the past year.

But why do people gravitate to these sensationalist headlines? What is it about overreaction that grabs people? According to one study, the novelty of false news may influence people to share it more frequently than true news.[3] And as discussed in the previous blog, false information travels faster than true information. So, this false news is easily circulated. To add to the perfect storm, many studies have shown that people are more likely to believe something is true if it is shown repeatedly to them.[4] That creates a vicious cycle with false information. The cycle is further complicated by the fact that people are more likely to believe information that comes from someone they trust and people they perceive as similar to them.[5] In our social circles, this type of cycle can be perpetrated very quickly without anyone knowing.

Social Media – A People Problem

In today’s society, social media is the favorite scapegoat of those in government and the “normal” person. It is true that over the last ten to fifteen years, social media has exacerbated the problems brought about by sensationalism, while also bringing to light even more problems. Of course, social media isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s used on a daily basis to connect people in positive ways all over the world. The problem is it’s populated with people, and people abuse social media. Sometimes, that abuse isn’t even conscious.

But the problem didn’t start with social media. The launch of the internet led to a dramatic increase in available information. This created a challenge for people seeking to distinguish fact from opinion. In a 2004 report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the authors noted, “Quality news and information are more available than ever before, but in great amounts so are the trivial, the one-sided, and the false.”[6] The average person was given a platform to spew false and misleading information whenever they wanted. What did that lead to? We created echo chambers.

Echo chambers are environments in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced, and alternative ideas are not considered.[7] Within these echo chambers, alternative ideas are shot down without thought precisely because they’re different. The result is that messages from these echo chambers misrepresent what is happening in the real world, as the focus is only on finding information that agrees with the prevailing opinion. For instance, many people will believe the condition and trends of social issues  – such as unemployment, immigration, and crime – are far worse or far better than is actually the case. It breeds mis- and disinformation. This then results in the decline in trust and faith in institutions that aren’t biased.[8] While there are inconsistencies in studies done on echo chambers, there are some key insights. People are more likely to “like”, view, and share things that they agree with; echo chambers have contributed to the increase in group polarization; and echo chambers are partially responsible for the increase in extreme attitudes of its members. Meaning, members who didn’t show extreme tendencies beforehand began to show them after time in these echo chambers.[9]

Social media platforms act as large echo chambers, bringing in people from all over the world. Currently, media outlets and pundits talk about Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Parler, Signal, 4chan, and 8chan – just to name a few – as contributing to radical and extremist beliefs because of precisely the process we just discussed. Likeminded individuals get on these platforms and influence each other to a large degree. In circumstances like these, the social proof effect becomes evident. The social proof effect is the idea that people are more highly influenced by peer groups. One of the major implications of this phenomenon is individuals tend to become more extreme in their views when exposed to groups holding similar beliefs. It’s a constant cycle of reinforcing one’s beliefs in a polarized environment, which drives people to radical or even violent beliefs.[10] In the vast majority of domestic and “homegrown” terrorist incidents, the perpetrator radicalized in a similar environment.

Cognitive Biases – It’s About the Way You Think

One of the biggest reasons people succumb to sensationalism and the problems exacerbated by social media is because of people’s cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are predictable mental errors caused by overly simplistic information processing.[11] In other words, they are problems in how we think. There are many cognitive biases, too many to cover in this blog.[12] So, I want to talk about three key biases that impact us all: 1) confirmation bias; 2) anchoring bias; and 3) the availability heuristic. These biases – and the many others – are extremely important in understanding our current social, political, and religious climate.

Confirmation bias is when people favor or seek out information and arguments that confirm their existing views.[13] Some studies have shown the best-informed people on a particular issue hold most tightly to their established beliefs. To add to a troubling bias, when information aligns with what people want to believe, they are more likely to believe it. For example, people interpret scientific evidence as more persuasive when it is consistent with their preexisting opinions.[14] This leads to a major vulnerability in people’s thinking that can be taken advantage of by those who know how to exploit this type of reasoning. Also, we can mislead ourselves by not doing our due diligence to make sure something that seemed so enticing to us was really true.

Anchoring bias is when the first piece of information you see influences how you view additional related information.[15] For example, if you’re buying a car, the first price a car salesman gives you may influence if you think your counter offer is reasonable or unreasonable. This principle is true for religious belief, as well. In the Church, sometimes, we anchor on a belief regarding a particular cultural practice or an aspect of prophecy, which influences the rest of our understanding on the subject. Even though those ideas may not actually be rooted in scripture, we twist or leave out scripture to keep the anchored belief intact. This kind of bias keeps people from making significant changes because of the reliance on a previous belief, way of thinking, etc.

The availability heuristic (or availability bias) is when your judgments are influenced by what springs most easily to mind.[16] In other words, whatever comes easily to mind must be the most important or impactful solution, idea, or reason. Here is one example: People would tend to think that between being a cop and being a logger, it is more dangerous to be a cop; however, statistics show that loggers are more likely to die on the job than cops. Since that person is focused on the positive aspects of their life, they are more likely to think of positive things that can happen. The problem with this mode of thinking is it restricts idea generation and misconstrues the reality of a given situation. Modern innovations in technology and science were not the first idea or solution of some inventor or business. If you want significant change to happen, you must dig deeper than what most easily comes to mind.

Understand the World Around Us

The world is filled with many people disguising themselves as “angels of light” to quote the opening scripture to this blog. Each of us has to be aware of the potential that someone is trying to deceive us in some way, whether it is to believe something politically, socially, culturally, or even religiously. While the three areas we covered in this blog are important areas of influence in today’s society, there are many others. The effort we put in to try and evade deception is important, if we want to also grow and learn God’s way!

As we discussed these three influences, I hope you were able to make connections in your own life. But identifying poor habits versus implementing change is a tough task. We know that our Christian walk is a lifelong walk, filled with trials and tribulations. But God does expect us to put in effort to grow and work out our own salvation (Philippians 2: 12-13). In the next blog in this series, we’re going to talk about how to better understand ourselves and how we can better engage with the world and with each other.




[1]Merriam-Webster Online English Dictionary

[2] Oxford Online English Dictionary

[3] Vosoughi, Soroush & Roy, Deb & Aral, Sinan. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science. 359. 1146-1151. 10.1126/science.aap9559.

[4] Mazarr, Michael J., Ryan Michael Bauer, Abigail Casey, Sarah Anita Heintz, and Luke J. Matthews. The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare: Social Manipulation in a Changing Information Environment. RAND Coorporation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2019.

[5] Ibid

[6] Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The State of the News Media Report: 2004,” Pew Research Center, undated.

[7] Ibid

[8] Mazarr, Michael J., Ryan Michael Bauer, Abigail Casey, Sarah Anita Heintz, and Luke J. Matthews. The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare: Social Manipulation in a Changing Information Environment. RAND Coorporation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2019.

[9] Mazarr, Michael J., Ryan Michael Bauer, Abigail Casey, Sarah Anita Heintz, and Luke J. Matthews. The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare: Social Manipulation in a Changing Information Environment. RAND Coorporation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2019.

[10] Mazarr, Michael J., Ryan Michael Bauer, Abigail Casey, Sarah Anita Heintz, and Luke J. Matthews. The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare: Social Manipulation in a Changing Information Environment. RAND Coorporation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2019.

[11] Heuer, Richards J. Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1999.

[12] For more information on specific cognitive biases, please visit this website: https://yourbias.is/

[13] https://yourbias.is/confirmation-bias

[14] Mazarr, Michael J., Ryan Michael Bauer, Abigail Casey, Sarah Anita Heintz, and Luke J. Matthews. The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare: Social Manipulation in a Changing Information Environment. RAND Coorporation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2019.

[15] https://yourbias.is/anchoring

[16] https://yourbias.is/the-availability-heuristic



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About the Author

Stephen Russo is a second-generation Church of God member born and raised in New York. In 2018, Stephen received his Masters of Science in Applied Intelligence from Mercyhurst University and currently