Fake news that distorts public discourse and manipulates the public will not be countered effectively by a renewed interest in journalistic ethics or more laws aimed at improving disclosure of the sources of online content. It is a cultural problem.
In an increasingly secular society that no longer recognizes objective truth, politics loses a standard to which policies should conform, and the media loses its influence as an instrument of accountability and judgment.
The public discourse becomes merely a battleground for those driven by greed, ideology and the naked lust for power. In such a culture, leaders work not to defend the truth, but rather to gain control of the process and impose their own ends — their own “truth.”
The news business, especially, and the proliferation of media across social networks play a key role in the battle to manipulate hearts and minds for ideological, political and economic goals.
It is the truth, however, that sets us free from the slavery of the 24-hour media cycle and those who would seek to control it for their own interest.
But to convert our hearts to the truth and make them open to it, we need the truth of a person — the truth of Jesus Christ to transform a people who deceive and are willing to be deceived.
The fake news phenomenon
We should not be surprised by the presence of “fake news,” recently described by Pope Francis in his World Communications Day 2018 message as “the spreading of disinformation online 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,” he said. “Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions and serve economic interests.”
Fake news has instant allure for the consumer, wounded by original sin. As Pope Francis says, “The effectiveness of fake news is primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible. Secondly, this false but believable news is ‘captious,’ inasmuch as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.”
Pope Francis equates the tactics of the producers of fake news to those of Satan, the father of lies, whose use of mimicry is a “sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.”
Hearts open to truth
Undoubtedly, all of us have trafficked in fake news (gossip included), either as producers or as willfully ignorant consumers, spreading lies and disinformation to others, often to assassinate the character of other persons or achieve partisan or ideological goals. For example, clicking on and sharing media content with sensational headlines about a person without actually reading and evaluating its content is one way to fall into the functional equivalent of the sin of gossip.
As Pope Francis clarifies, “The economic and manipulative aims that feed disinformation are rooted in a 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. That is why education for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation.”
We combat the temptation to traffic in fake news by recognizing first that God does not need our lie to build his kingdom. What is needed to bring true peace and order into the world is an encounter with Christ the Lord, and the transformation that springs from that encounter.
According to Pope Francis, “We discover and rediscover the truth when we experience it within ourselves in the loyalty and trustworthiness of the One who loves us.”
When we open our hearts to the truth of Jesus Christ, Jesus opens our hearts to reality; that is, the truth of all that he has made and that he continues to sustain in existence by his love. This truth brings both the interior freedom and peace of soul that is the effective remedy to the cultural problem of fake news.
Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.
In his message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis highlights that to avoid being manipulated by fake news and to counter falsehoods with truth, we must read widely, go beyond our social networks and not be tempted to rely on information sources from only one cultural, ideological or political reference point. In other words, we must invite an encounter with ideas and people who might not share our own views, but from whom we might be able to learn.
This Lent, embrace the challenge of either stepping away from certain forms of media or expanding your reading list to include other perspectives. Encountering other perspectives does not mean embracing them. It can often lead to a deepening of one’s own perspective or convictions. But it will certainly assist one in not embracing every idea or purported fact that comes our way through the media.