Fake news is not new says Pope Francis

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In his message for World Day of Social Communications, Pope Francis has asked journalists, and all people of goodwill, to reflect on the spreading of disinformation or fake news. He has told journalists that theirs is not a job but a mission; journalism should not be concerned about breaking news but, rather, promoting alternatives, understanding and peace. The pope also said that the first fake news can be found in the scriptures.

Pope Francis has called for contributions to “our shared commitment to stemming the spread of fake news and to rediscovering the dignity of journalism and the personal responsibility of journalists to communicate the truth”.

Francis said that fake news refers to “the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. “Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.”

He said that fake news is effective because it mimics real news.  The pope said that it is “false but believable news… inasmuch as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration”.

“The ability to spread such fake news often relies on a manipulative use of the social networks and the way they function. Untrue stories can spread so quickly that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage,” the Holy Father wrote in his annual message.

He went on to say that it was difficult to unmask and eliminate fake news due “to the fact that many people interact in homogeneous digital environments impervious to differing perspectives and opinions”. He said that disinformation “thrives on the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue”. Francis said that it “risks turning people into unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas”.

The Holy Father said that the “tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonising them and fomenting conflict”. This causes “intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred” which leads to “the end result of untruth”.

Recognisning fake news

Nobody is exempt “from the duty of countering these falsehoods,” said the pope, recognising that this is not easy because “disinformation is often based on deliberately evasive and subtly misleading rhetoric and at times the use of sophisticated psychological mechanisms”.

He lauded educational programmes which sought to help people “interpret and assess” information in the media which “take an active part in unmasking falsehoods, rather than unwittingly contributing to the spread of disinformation”. He acknowledged those who take “legal initiatives aimed at developing regulations for curbing the phenomenon”. He also acknowledged work being done by tech and media companies who work on new criteria for verifying the personal identities concealed behind millions of digital profiles.

The pope said that “preventing and identifying the way disinformation works also calls for a profound and careful process of discernment”. He said that “snake-tactics” need to be unmasked. “This was the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news (cf. Gen 3:1-15)”

“The tempter’s ‘deconstruction’ then takes on an appearance of truth: ‘God knows that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil’ (Gen 3:5)” Francis said. “This biblical episode,” Francis continued, “brings to light an essential element for our reflection: there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects”.

The pope said that fake news spreads so quickly that it is hard to stop. It appeals, he said, to the “insatiable greed so easily aroused in human beings.”

He said that greed is a major contributing factor. “The economic and manipulative aims that feed disinformation are rooted in a thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy, which ultimately makes us victims of something much more tragic: the deceptive power of evil that moves from one lie to another in order to rob us of our interior freedom.”

“The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32)

The Holy Father said that the “most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth”. He went on to say that the truth, for Christians, is “not just bringing to light things that are concealed, ‘revealing reality’ but “involves our whole life”.

Francis said that truth, in the scriptures, “carries with it the sense of support, solidity, and trust”.  He said that “the only truly reliable and trustworthy One – the One on whom we can count [on] – is the living God. Hence, Jesus can say: ‘I am the truth’ (Jn 14:6).”

“To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose,” the pope said.  “We can recognise the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.”

Peace is the true news

The best “antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge”.

Pope Francis said that journalists have a “weighty responsibility” on their shoulders and they that are “protectors of news”.

Journalism is not a job but “a mission”. He said that at the heart of information is persons and not the speed with which it is reported or its impact. “Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives.”

The Holy Father said that accuracy of sources and “protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace”.

He concluded by inviting everyone to “promote a journalism of peace.” He said that this does not mean being “saccharine” and refusing to acknowledge “the existence of serious problems”. The pope says he wants to promote a “journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines”.

Francis said that journalism is “created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice”. He went on to say that he encouraged a “journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.” SA.

You can read the full Message for World Day of Social Communications here.

Image: Jeffrey Bruno

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