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Profiles in Catholicism

The Pope and Fake News

Father Joseph Chamblain, O.S.M.


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Most of us became familiar with the term “fake news” during the 2016 presidential campaign, and, more specifically, through the twitter account of President Trump. Fake news refers to the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media. What we may not realize is that fake news is not just an American phenomenon or even a recent phenomenon, but is an international phenomenon—so much so that Pope Francis, who so often has gone places no Pope has gone before, has devoted his annual message for World Communications Day to the subject of fake news.

Pope Francis traces the origins of fake news to the Garden of Eden, wherein the Tempter approached Eve “pretending to be her friend, concerned only for her welfare.” He notes that in painting a false picture of God, the Tempter uses partial truths and reinterprets the facts in ways that support his position. Pointing out that the results of the Tempter’s disinformation reach down to the present day, the Pope says that “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.” He goes on to note that many people today depend upon news and information sources that offer a very narrow interpretation of the facts. “Disinformation thus thrives on the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue; instead it risks turning people into unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas.” He further believes that a steady diet of negative and deceptive information “can end up darkening our interior life.” The Pope says that the best antidotes to fake news “are not strategies but people: people who are ready to listen, 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.” He urges journalism to be “less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts in order to promote a deeper understanding . . . a journalism committed to pointing our alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”

What the Pope is suggesting here is that the problem of fake news goes deeper than just reporting things or repeating things that are not true. Choosing to access only those sources of information that offer a negative interpretation of certain people and ideas can lead us not only to form an unbalanced view of that person or idea but of humanity in general. With such a negative view of the world, we are less likely to invest our time or energy in efforts to make the world a better reflection of “the kingdom of God.” This gives me another idea for Lent. During this season of fasting, if you are a faithful listener to one particular news source, what about fasting from it one or two days a week? One indicator that you have an addiction problem is that you are absolutely convinced that your source of information is the one and only honest and true source of news and that in no sense of the word can it be a purveyor of fake news. If you are open to doing even more penance, you could sample a cable news channel that you never listen to otherwise. Maybe you will still not agree with their perspective, but you will probably come away with a better understanding of why other people so passionately disagree with you. Going still further, you might carefully monitor your conversation and notice how often you repeat negative information that you picked up from your favorite news source. Do you ever repeat anything positive about anybody or anything? Sometimes we get a kind of satisfaction by diminishing the words and deeds of others because we think it makes us seem more intelligent and virtuous. But our faith tells us that we are already loved unconditionally by God, a slice of real news that is more important than anybody’s opinion of us.