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Truth in the age of Cyber Lies

As the Catholic Church celebrates World Communications Day, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya writes that the information age challenges us in ways that are not completely new. He also reminds us of what Pope Francis says about spreading falsehoods.

You must say, 'Jesus' disciples came during the night while we were sleeping, and they stole his body.' If the governor hears about it, we'll stand up for you so you won't get in trouble.” So the guards accepted the bribe and said what they were told to say. Their story spread widely among the Jews…” (Matthew 28: 13-15)

This is one of the oldest recorded examples of the phenomenon known today as Fake News.

As was the case in the days after the first Easter, fake news is a tool for knowingly distorting the facts or creating falsehoods with the intention of misleading the audience and benefitting from such a distortion or lie.

On Sunday, May 13, the church celebrates World Communications Day. Pope Francis places fake news in the crosshairs of what is emerging as the downside of the telecommunications explosion.

The Church’s celebration is intended to coincide with the United Nations celebration of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) that takes place annually on 17 May. The day was chosen to commemorate the day of the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention and the creation of the International Telecommunication Union in 1865.

The purpose of commemorating the day is to help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) can bring to societies and economies as well as to find ways to bridge the digital divide.

In a document issued in advance of the Catholic Church’s celebration of World Communications Day, entitled: “The truth will set you free – fake news and journalism for peace”, Pope Francis describes fake news as “satanic” and warns the faithful against becoming agents of falsehoods.

“Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth.”

“Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests,” the pope wrote, condemning the “manipulative use of social networks and other forms of communication.”

As the passage in Matthew’s Gospel shows, elites have over the millennia used their power and office to compel those under their authority to sow disinformation and wilfully create distortions.

In 2018 this power is not just held by religious or political leaders who use their positions to distort and withhold facts they do not like or want others to know. Media owners, advertising corporates and other organised interest groups through their patronage, can dictate how media professionals cover news and analyse current affairs with the express aim of swaying their audiences one way or the other.  With the advent of smartphones everyone now has the power to distort the facts.

In the telecommunication and information age the internet has become the tool of choice for spreading falsehoods and defamatory content. This is enabled by the cover of anonymity or assumed identity offered by the internet.

Throughout the ages, fake news has had devastating effects on lives, property and reputations.

Days after the death, and around the burial of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the world was taken back to the days when the apartheid government had a specific and well-resourced propaganda unit, Stratcom, whose aim was to spread falsehoods, fake news and smear campaigns against anti-apartheid activists. This ignited a heated and divisive narrative.

Despite it being common knowledge what Stratcom was founded for, many in South Africa accepted their new reports as gospel truth and questioned the credentials of world renowned human rights activists like former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But what makes fake news so attractive?

In an article by Forbes magazine, Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist who had just updated his September 2016 book, addressed some reasons for the allure of fake news.

“Humans have an evolutionary tendency towards gullibility and wanting to believe what people are telling them,” says Levitin, citing studies in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.

How then do we overcome this predisposition?

Levitin says the first step is to get humble. “If you have humility, you’re open to learning,” he says. “If you think you know everything, it’s impossible to learn. So approach new claims with some questions. ‘Who said so?’ ‘What’s the evidence for it?’”

“Before you hit the like button or repost something,” he adds, “take 60 seconds or so and figure out whether it’s true or not.”

Image: Pexels

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.