Friday, 26 January 2018

What Pope Francis just said about Fake News and why it matters

By Isaac Withers

I got way too into the 2016 American election. Unlike our own elections here in the UK, Americans have two full years of campaigning before the final nominees are picked. I basically watched that whole process - both because it was entertaining and because I thought something morally troubling was happening on the world stage. I watched all three debates (none of my housemates wanted in) and I argued passionately with friends about why certain language used by certain people wasn't ok, when we as a Church always hold strongly to the dignity of the human person. That ultimately was why I was interested. Basically, I was the annoying guy at the house party.

And then, it all went more than a bit sideways, and I had to stop observing as it's safe to say it wasn't entertaining any more. But when I did check back in with what was happening, the conversation was no longer about issues, it was about the conversation itself, it was about truth. Did we need experts any more? Were we in a post-truth age now? Is there such a thing as unbiased news? All this was swirling around because suddenly the most powerful people in America were saying things that were factually untrue no matter what your political bias was. People were no longer just disagreeing with policies, but with what was real or not.

The Washington Post reported a couple of weeks ago that since becoming President, Donald Trump had made 2,001, 'false or misleading claims in 355 days, according to our database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president. That’s an average of more than 5.6 claims a day.However, that only matters if you think The Washington Post is legit news in itself. That's the sting of all this, if you can't agree on what's true and not, how can you ever have a mature political debate again, or work towards solutions? It creates a stalemate.

Post uni, I landed a great job in communications and have a friend who says 'fake news' as a joke so often, that I picked up saying it a bit. But apart from it being a joke, it seemed this conversation of truth had dulled down a bit. Well, this week the Pope made his World Communications Day Statement, and guess what it was all about? Here's what he had to say about fake news. 

Snake News

What most of the news reported about the Pope's statement was that it made a big claim: that fake news was biblical and therefore nothing new. Putting it in the context of Genesis and the lie that Eve was told, the Pope says this:

‘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.’

He mentions mimicry a few times, suggesting that fake news is succeeding because it is always close enough to the truth to make it believable. He then draws another parallel between fake news and the serpent: they tell us what we want to hear.

' grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.’

Pope Francis goes on to say that this is the same in Genesis with the serpent playing to Eve’s insecurities, ‘So she heeds his words of reassurance: "You will not die!" (Gen 3:4).’

The human consequence

The heart of this letter however, is something that I hadn't thought about too much and that the news hasn't talked about too much either: the human consequence. Pope Francis likes to quote people from outside the Church and he selects a really startling section from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov II to make 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).'

Using Dostoevsky's words, the Pope has called out fake news for what it is: lies. When we create this sub genre of news and call it 'fake news', we're really making it sound like something new, whereas when we acknowledge it as a lie, we realise that there's nothing new to it.

The link between being on the receiving end of lies and being unable to love was news to me though and I think it's super interesting. Again, it comes back to the fundamental lacking of a middle ground, of what is reality and what is not. How can you help someone if you can't agree on the truth?

The letter continues to be very strong on the human consequences of fake news, stating:

there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; 
on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences.’ 

Ultimately, he states that this cycle will rob us of our interior freedom.'

So what's the solution?

Pope Francis is pretty blunt about how to treat this very twenty first century issue. His solution is a human one, and a radical one.

‘The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: 
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; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language.'

But, I mean, he's also the Pope, so he's not gonna say we can fix this mess on our own, he's not gonna not bring Jesus into this.

‘The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth. In Christianity, truth is not just a conceptual reality that regards how we judge things, defining them as true or false...
Truth involves our whole life... 
The only truly reliable and trustworthy One – the One on whom we can count – 
is the living God. 
Hence, Jesus can say: "I am the truth" (Jn 14:6). 
We discover and rediscover the truth when we experience it within ourselves 
in the loyalty and trustworthiness of the One who loves us. 
This alone can liberate us: 
"The truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32).’

Because the Church's definition of truth is this, the revealed person of God in Jesus, it means that this isn't just something journalists should sort out, or something we should leave to Mark Zuckerburg. Pope Francis says to everyone:

None of us can feel exempted from the duty of countering these falsehoods.. 
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.’

So the next time you're that person at the house party, maybe keep those parameters in mind: that there's nothing new to lying, but that if Jesus is the truth, we've got something unique to add to the conversation. Just after we've listened to each other. A lot.

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