Memebusting: about that eyewitness report of a miracle performed by Jesus

Satire, clueless sharing, and digital literacy

Once-upon-a-time, satire was (pretty) clearly marked: think Mad Magazine, for example.

Then along came The Onion.

Today there are innumerable satirical news sites, some that make it very clear that they are farcical — such as having a statement on each page saying “satire!” —  and some that do not. This is a post about one that does not hit readers on the head that it is a satirical site,

Here are some challenges:

  • We want to share information that conforms to our worldview, that promotes our worldview, or that positions us as knowledgable within our peer groups (pdf). In other words, the urge to gossip is baked in.
  • In 2000, 4-in-10 American adults were online. Today it’s 9-in-10. A lot of folks are fairly new digital information consumers. And digital information is very easy to share (we call this frictionless).
  • False information is often (always?) more widely shared than the correction.

And generally speaking, we share information that triggers emotions. And emotions can be (and are) manipulated.

[A]ccording to Jonah Berger, the author of a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the sharing of stories or information may be driven in part by arousal. When people are physiologically aroused, whether due to emotional stimuli or otherwise, the autonomic nervous is activated, which then boosts social transmission. Simply put, evoking certain emotions can help increase the chance a message is shared.

A tale of two headlines

Here’s the (untrue) headline that has (at this writing) been shared 152,810 times, mostly on Facebook.

Newly found document holds eye witness account of Jesus performing a miracle

Here’s the rebuttal, shared 1,585 times. That’s two orders of magnitude difference.

No, nobody’s discovered a new eyewitness account of Jesus’ miracle

Here’s the story on Emergent

A historian discovered a text with an account of a miracle performed by Jesus


Deconstructing behavior

My first rule of sharing is this:

If something sounds too good (or too bad) to be true, it’s probably not. Double-check before sharing!

I know how difficult a task this is. I’m asking you to put the brakes on the emotional hit (delay that gratification!), and I’m asking you to do something (we are cognitively lazy).

IF someone had checked out the story before sharing, what would they have seen that might be a clue?

At the top of the page, there is a Disclaimer. How many news sites have disclaimers? If you follow About us, the poorly written page should have raised a yellow flag or two even though I’d prefer that the disclaimer info appear here. And then there are the promoted stories in the news ticker.

Disclaimer at


To the right of the story, in the related news features, see that “life after death” story? If this doesn’t trigger “wait a minute” thoughts, then there are issues in critical thinking beyond the issue of digital literacy.


What else might clue a skepticly-minded person?

The alleged researcher, Marcus Velleius Paterculus, died centuries ago. In AD 31.

Nevertheless, the fake news spread far and wide. And not just on Facebook.



A sample of screen captures


Final reminder: evangelicals are everywhere

I’d love to be able to do an analysis of the Facebook profiles of those 150+K people. How many publicly state that they are Christian or regularly post Christian-themed content?

My educated guess: most of them.

Despite the fact that the United States was founded by a bunch of deists or religious rationalists, the “US as a Christian nation” contingent is vocal and historically-challenged. And perhaps a bit gullible.


I’ll leave you with this reprise

 If something sounds too good (or too bad) to be true, it’s probably not. Double-check before sharing!



By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

3 replies on “Memebusting: about that eyewitness report of a miracle performed by Jesus”

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