In this year’s Message for World Communications Day, which falls on May 13, Pope Francis delivers a blistering critique of fake news, equating it to the “snake-tactics” of the devil who used it to fool Eve, and said it’s only purpose is to the “deceive and manipulate the reader.”
Vatican News is reporting on the message, which is themed “The Truth will set you free. Fake News and Journalism for Peace,” calling it particularly timely in this era of agenda-driven reporting that is too often long on ideology and personal attack and short on facts.
Fake news “refers to the spreading of disinformation on line 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,” the document explains.
“The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict. 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.”
Fake news is a tactic that originates in the Garden of Eden when Satan approached Eve by pretending to be her friend and told her something that is only party true: “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” (Gen 3:1) What God actually said was that they could not eat from only one tree. She is slowly taken in by his deceptive version of the facts, which take on the appearance of truth, and eventually eats the apple.
This is precisely how fake news works and we must learn how to identify disinformation and prevent it.
“We need to unmask what could be called the ‘snake-tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place. 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), which began the tragic history of human sin, beginning with the first fratricide (cf. Gen 4) and issuing in the countless other evils committed against God, neighbor, society and creation. The strategy of this skilled ‘Father of Lies’ (Jn 8:44) is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.”
This episode calls for reflection, the document continues, because “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.”
Francis believes we need a kind of journalism that concentrates less on “the mad rush for a scoop” and pays more attention to seeking the truth and to “pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”
“The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people,” he writes. “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.”
He goes on to remind journalists that their responsibility is to inform and to be “the protector of news.”
“Theirs is not just a job but a mission: Amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons”.
He concludes by calling upon the world community to promote a “journalism of peace.”
“By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism 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. 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.”
The document ends with a beautiful adaptation of the Franciscan prayer for peace:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgments.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practice listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.