By Fr. Joshan Rodrigues –
It’s no surprise that Pope Francis has jumped onto the bandwagon of combating ‘fake news’, considering that he himself has been a subject of much ‘fake news’ going around. Yesterday on the Feast of St Francis de Sales (Jan 24), who is regarded as the patron saint of journalists, Pope Francis released his Message for the World Communications Day 2018. WCD is traditionally held on the Sunday before Pentecost, which this year will fall on 13 May 2018. As the Vatican website states, World Communications Day is the only worldwide celebration called for by the Second Vatican Council (“Inter Mirifica”, 1963). The first WCD was observed in 1967.
The theme of his message this year is ‘Fake News and constructing a Journalism for Peace’ based on the biblical quote “The truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:32) In short, the Holy Father discusses what is fake news, how to recognize it, how to combat it and finally invites everyone to work for a journalism of peace.
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The Holy Father says that though fake news is evidently false (but only once we have realized it), it has a high emotional impact on people precisely because it ‘mimics‘ real news – it seems true and plausible to its readers. This causes people to react immediately to it, without pausing to think about its truthfulness. We can see this by experience – even well-intentioned and well-meaning people end up forwarding false messages through Whatsapp and other social messaging apps. He goes on to say that ” Untrue stories can spread so quickly – through the manipulative use of social networks – that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage.”
This happens primarily because we text and interact in “echo chambers”, groups of people online who share similar ideas and beliefs and hence amplify and reinforce each others messages. This blocks us from accessing other points of view and differing opinions, which is essential for a healthy communication and understanding. This leaves us to wallow in our own prejudices and hypersensitive attitudes and turns us into ” unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas.”
What appealed to me the most was Pope Francis’ reflection on the inherent evil present in fake news, based on the temptation account in Genesis. The first fake news was created by the “crafty serpent” in the Garden of Eden, which led to original sin, the first fratricide (Cain killing his brother) and then all the countless evils through human history. Many elements of that story can throw light on the phenomenon of fake news today: the fact that the serpent (the father of lies) approaches Eve as her friend. He gives her a partial truth to make himself sound convincing, she has her doubts but he reassures her and she lets herself be taken in by the tempter’s version of facts. Through all this, the serpent presents himself as her friend, concerned about her welfare.
Pope Francis says that there is no such thing as harmless lies. Every falsehood has dangerous effects. Unintentionally forwarding fake messages may seem harmless to us and we may be tempted to brush it off, but in reality, it has far reaching negative effects. It robs us of our interior freedom and psychologically manipulates those who read them. This has devastating social, economic and spiritual effects. To combat the poison of the serpent, Pope Francis provides us with the antidote – a purification by the truth. We need an “education for truth” that helps us “discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation.”
Reading and forwarding fake news not only has negative effects on real people (whom we love), but also on ourselves. Constant contamination by deceptive language can end up darkening our interior life. Pope Francis gives an insightful quote from Dostoevsky which illuminates this point: “People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others. And having no respect, they cease to love, and in order to occupy and distract themselves without love they give way to passions and to coarse pleasures, and sink to bestiality in their vices, all from continual lying to others and to themselves.” (The Brothers Karamazov, II, 2).
Fighting fake news is a common project. We must root ourselves in The Truth i.e. Jesus Christ. Authentic communication is relationship. “Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another…People who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language.”
Pope Francis concludes by reminding journalists of the tremendous mission they have been entrusted as ‘protectors of news’. He asks them to remember that their core mission is not speed, or scoops or being the first to get the news out, but people. He advocates a journalism of peace, a journalism that promotes goodness, trust, accuracy, understanding, true relational communication and gives a voice to the voiceless. Rhetorical slogans, sensational headlines, breaking news and shouting matches are a disservice to authentic journalism at the service of the truth.
You can read the full text of the Pope’s message here:
At the end of his message, Pope Francis has included a beautiful prayer adapted from the Prayer of St Francis. This is a powerful prayer that reminds communicators, journalists, media personnel and information technicians of the tremendous responsibility that lies in their hands. It would be well to pray this prayer at the beginning of work each day. The prayer has been adapted into image form by Joanna Korhorst of Catholic News Service (CNS).
Fr Joshan Rodrigues is from the Archdiocese of Bombay, India. He is currently studying Institutional and Church Communications at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome. Travelling, reading and social media are his passions. His drive is to make Church teaching more accessible to younger audiences and he holds G.K. Chesterton, Bishop Robert Barron and the Venerable Fulton Sheen among his role models for this task. He analyses different aspects of daily Christian life and culture through catholic lenses in his blog, Musings in Catholic Land.