by Russell Pollitt SJ

Fake news is not new but “the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news,” Pope Francis wrote in his World Communications Day Message 2018.

Fake news is the spreading of disinformation online or in traditional media. “It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate,” the Pope wrote. He said that spreading fake news can serve to “advance specific goals, influence political decisions and serve economic interests.”

“Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads to arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth,” Francis said. He went on to say that at heart of fake news is greed, rooted in the “thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy, which ultimately makes us victims of something much more tragic: the deceptive power of evil that moves from one lie to another in order to rob us of our interior freedom.”

American President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused US mainstream media of creating “fake news” about him when they have either been critical of his presidency or not reported what he wants them to say. Recently he announced the “winners” of his newly created “fake news awards”.

Last year many South Africans were shocked at how the British public relations company, Bell Pottinger, allegedly assisted the Gupta family in furthering their economic interests by spreading false information in order to manipulate and deceive. They exploited fragile race relations in South Africa, amongst other things, to distract the national conversation from corruption. There was also collusion with the Black First Land First (BLF) group to harass and discredit mainstream media organisations and individual journalists.

Pope Francis said that the effectiveness of fake news is its ability to mimic real news. He said that fake news “grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.”

South Africans have been exposed to disinformation and propaganda for several years through media organisations purporting to be legitimate purveyors of news. Social media has become one of the fastest ways to distribute false information.

The Pope says that fake news is aided by homogenous environments where people are not exposed to differing perspectives and opinions. Fake news thrives, he says, when there is an “absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue”. He says that fake news runs the risk of turning people into “unwilling accomplices in spreading biases and baseless ideas.”

Francis said that in an age of fake news discernment is needed to “unmask [the] ‘snake-tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time.” He said that what is true will lead to communion and promote goodness.

To end with, the Holy Father invited everyone to “promote a journalism of peace” – one which is “opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines”.

Next time you retweet or share a story on social media, you might want to pause and ask yourself if you are helping to spread the truth or serving a “crafty serpent’s” agenda