Kate Middleton, conspiracy theories, and lessons for an election year

by Ross Hendry, CEO CARE

Earlier this week my wife was travelling on a train when she overheard an animated conversation about the Princess of Wales. A group of young women were speculating about her absence from public life. One claimed to ‘know someone’ who ‘knew’ about the Prince of Wales’ ‘serial adultery’ and that Kate had been placed in a mental health institution.

To be clear, there is no evidence for either of these or even more outlandish stories that have spread like wildfire across social media in the last couple of weeks. Despite no credible evidence whatsoever, idle speculation has turned into conspiracy theories that have been circulated and ‘liked’ tens of millions of times.

I do not want to give any credence to such stories or trends. Yet when the mainstream media begin to report on these matters we cannot ignore the warning these stories hold for the nature and content of discourse across the public square, and the dangers this holds, particularly in an election year.

Let me suggest three standards that Christians must advance as the foundation of our common life together, that stand as a challenge and in contrast to the gossip and rumours about the Prince and Princess of Wales and similar stories.

We must be people who love truth and hate falsehood

We follow a God who says that he is truth, that he stands for truth (John 14:6), and who sends us the Spirit of truth to be truth tellers (John 16:13).

As a result, throughout the Bible one of the distinctives that mark out God’s people is a love of truth and opposition to lies. “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” and “truthful lips endure forever.” (Proverbs 12:22, 19). Paul tells the church in Ephesus to “put away falsehood, (and) let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour.” (Ephesians 4:25)

We know this is part of what it means to be a Chirstian.

Yet too often Scripture has been twisted for unhealthy purposes, to justify gossip shared under the pretense of false concern for our neighbour or truth seeking.

Conspiracy theories are perpetuated by deploying verses such as John 8:32, “and you will know the truth and the truth will see you free,” when the stories being told are neither true not liberating but rather designed to stoke conflict and increase anxiety.

In an age of Deep Fake, AI, and social media algorithms that feed confirmation bias, we have a responsibility as those who love truth to work even harder in investigating ‘big’ claims and a responsibility to verify allegations, lest we unintentionally cause harm through deceit.

In the run-up to the General Election the political rumour-mill will kick into overdrive and doom-filled stories about politicians’ intentions will be rampant. We must be alert, careful and intentional about seeking and sharing what is true.

We must be people who embrace real­ity not fantasy

It can be tempting to create a picture of the world as we would like it to be. We can, without realising it, and quite easily, construct a world around us that confirms our own desires and excludes inconvenient realities.

Let me give you a simple example. The numbers of homeless and rough sleepers have increased significantly in recent years. My awareness of this issue can be directly impacted by my journey to work. There is one route I can take through ‘nice’ neighbourhoods where I do not see any rough sleepers, or another where I can see firsthand a growing community of rough sleepers in the shadow of a major London railway station. It is more comfortable for me to take the first route and live in a world without rough sleepers. But it is not reality.

We can also construct a world where we falsely inflate dangers and threats so that we live not in blissful ignorance but in a state of heightened conflict and anxiety. There are many political debates that are ignited by inflating problems to be greater than they really are, in order to promote fear and anxiety for political gain.

For much of my career I have sought to shine a light into some of the very darkest corners of our communities. Crippling poverty, the exploitation and abuse of children, violence in family homes, discrimination of disabled people, and the alienation of those who are different are just some of the dark realities of a sinful world. These break our Lord’s heart.

One day there will be justice and he will make all things new. And as I long for that day, it is the gospel and God’s word that help me understand the brokenness he calls us to confront, challenge and tackle; and to have eyes to see his goodness, provision and common grace all around me.

We must see the world for what it is. We must resist the temptation of seeking a world which makes us comfortable (often at the expense of others). Whether it be the words of the prophets or Paul’s letter to the Romans, those who love God’s word have always had eyes to see the world as it really is and to embrace reality in both all its wonder and all its brokenness.

We must par­ti­cip­ate in genu­ine com­munity and not retreat into insu­lar networks

Technology and social media are not intrinsically bad, but perhaps inevitably our sinful nature, played out in unboundaried communities, where our base instincts are encouraged and exploited for profit by large corporations, can lead to great harm being done.

When James warned the early church about the power of the tongue it was in the context of speaking directly to an in-person community. Today the power of our tongues and the potential harm that our words can cause have been multiplied thousands and even millions of times over through the power of social media.

For example, some patently ridiculous stories being spread online about the Princess of Wales have been viewed by over ten million people and reposted hundreds of thousands of times.

We may look haughtily at these stories and congratulate ourselves at not being so naïve, while at the same time, rarely seeking out opportunities to engage and understand views that may challenge our own preconceptions.

In this election year, let us consciously seek out sources of news and information that may challenge our own preconceptions, not to cause anxiety, or to undermine our confidence and hope, but with humility, to refine and sharpen our thinking. We may learn much and come to a better understanding of others, seeing them not as our enemies but as our neighbours.

Even better, try to get to know others with different views to your own. Let’s bring our own convictions into the public square with civility, and build surprising new relationships as a result.

An election year gives us a great opportunity to do this. Reach out and get to know your local candidates and those who may have different political convictions to your own. Do so not simply to beat them in an argument or even to win them to your side, but, at a primary level, to get to know them and to understand them better. Rather than de-personalise, build a relationship of respect for your fellow image bearer.

The last week’s stories about the Prince and Princess of Wales serve as a warning to us about the allure and the danger of speculation and conspiracy theories as a form of modern-day Gnosticism. Such stories, and their political equivalents that will multiply in the months ahead, are a siren’s distraction from truth, reality, and genuine community.

Let us use our time, attention, efforts, and endeavours not in idle speculation, but in the things that matter to God.