Sharing 'fake news' makes one an accomplice in evil, pope says

IMAGE: CNS illustration/Joanna Kohorst

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — People have a responsibility to check
the source of what they share on social media to ensure it is not “fake
news” designed to further prejudices or increase fear, Pope Francis said.

Fake news grabs people’s attention “by appealing to
stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions
like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration,” Pope Francis wrote in his
message for World Communications Day 2018.

The message is a reflection on the theme, “‘The truth
will set you free.’ Fake news and journalism for peace.” World
Communications Day will be celebrated May 13 at the Vatican and in most
dioceses. The papal message was released at the Vatican Jan. 24, the feast of
St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists.

Fake news is so effective, he said, because it mimics real
news but uses “non-existent or distorted data” to deceive and

The first to employ the fake-news tactic was the serpent in
the Garden of Eden who convinced Eve she would not die by eating the fruit of
the forbidden tree, he said. The Bible story shows that “there is no such
thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can
have dire consequences.”

Pope Francis praised educators who teach young people how to
read and question the news and the information they see presented on social
media. He encouraged efforts to develop regulations to counter fake news and he
praised tech and media companies for trying to improve ways to verify “the
personal identities concealed behind millions of digital profiles.”

But, he insisted, individuals always will have the final
responsibility for discerning what is real news and what is helpful to share on
social media.

“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”
like the serpent in the Garden of Eden did.

The snake’s power grows as people limit their sources of
information to one outlet, especially if that outlet is a social media platform
whose algorithms are based on providing users with more information like they
have just read, the pope said.

“Disinformation thus thrives on the absence of healthy
confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively
challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue,” he wrote.

People who repost or retweet such false information, the
pope said, become “unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless

One way to know if something should be checked and not be
shared, he said, is if it “discredits others, presenting them as enemies,
to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict.”

In the modern world, with the rapid and viral spread of news
and information — both real and fake — lives and souls are at stake, he said,
because the “father of lies” is the devil.

True discernment, the pope said, means examining information
and keeping what promotes communion and goodness, while rejecting whatever
“tends to isolate, divide, and oppose.”

“We can recognize 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,” Pope Francis wrote.

Journalists, he said, have a special responsibility in the
modern world amid the media “feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a

Pope Francis asked media professions to promote “a
journalism of peace,” which does not mean ignoring problems or being
saccharine. It means “a journalism that is truthful and opposed to
falsehoods, rhetorical slogans and sensational headlines.”

A journalism of peace is at the service of all people,
“especially those — and they are the majority in our world — who have no
voice,” he said. It is “a journalism committed to pointing out alternatives
to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”

Pope Francis ended his message with his own adaptation of
the “Prayer of St. Francis” for both those who report the news and
those who read or watch it.

“Where there is shouting, let us practice listening,”
the prayer said. “Where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity.”

“Where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust,”
it continued. “Where there is hostility, let us bring respect; where there
is falsehood, let us bring truth.”

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Editors: The text of the pope’s message in English can be found here:

The text in Spanish is here:

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