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Fake news and the “snake-tactics”: Pope Francis’ Message for the World Day of Social Communications 2018

The Pope addresses “the protectors of news” who, “in today’s world” perform “not just a job but a veritable mission.”  Amid “feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop,” journalists “must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons.” Referring to the interpretative key to prevent and determine the mechanism of disinformation, Francis identifies the “snake-tactics”, that “created the first ‘fake news’ (Cf. Gen 3:1-15), which began the tragic history of human sin, beginning with the first fratricide (cf. Gen 4) and issuing in the countless other evils committed against God, neighbour, society and creation”

It’s one of the topical issues debated by political leaders and academics, presidents and secret services alike. A ruthless struggle is being fought on the two sides of the Pacific Ocean, whereby Russians are suspected of having influenced the latest US elections thereby favouring the Republican candidate. For those seeking the greatest advantages fake news are the object of desire: fabricated stories, that were always told, whose strategic impact on the news environment has changed today with the use of social networks and research engines that expand their reach dramatically. Thus the theme chosen by Pope Francis for the message of this year’s Day of Social Communications, “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace”, bears major topical relevance.

Overload. The figures help picture this scenario, increasingly characterised by an overload of information, where every user can become a producer of content, in fact:

in 60 seconds 3 million Facebook posts are published, 430 thousand tweets are shared, 2.3 million Google searches are conducted, 150 million emails and 44 WhatsApp messages are sent, 2.7 million vidoes are viewed on YouTube.

This is the context addressed by journalists coping with readers/users submerged beneath a huge flow of information that cannibalize their attention and often isolates them into “echo chambers” acting as a bubble where one’s beliefs are reinforced or amplified. In the light of this situation the Pope turns to the “protectors of news.” “In today’s world”, states the Pope, “theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission.” Amid “feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons.”

Journalism of peace. Francis invites everyone “to promote a journalism of peace. By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice.”

A journalism, continues the Holy Father, “less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”

Already in an interview released in 2016 the Pope guarded against disinformation that “is probably the greatest damage that the media can do, as opinion is guided in one direction, neglecting the other part of the truth.”

The first fake news. How difficult is the task entrusted by the Pope to communication workers? Indeed, the Pontiff acknowledges, “fake news often goes viral, spreading so fast that it is hard to stop, not because of the sense of sharing that inspires the social media, but because it appeals to the insatiable greed so easily aroused in human beings.” In praising “those efforts [that] are being made to create educational programmes aimed at helping people to interpret and assess information provided by the media” along with “institutional and legal initiatives”, Francis goes further and identifies an interpretative key to identify and prevent the mechanisms of disinformation:

He defines it the “tactic of the snake”, who “created the first fake news (cf. Gen 3:1-15), which began the tragic history of human sin, beginning with the first fratricide (cf. Gen 4) and issuing in the countless other evils committed against God, neighbour, society and creation.” 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.” “The most radical antidote” to this “virus of falsehood”, writes the Pope, “is purification by the truth.”

Verification and fact checking. The implications for the world of journalism are of great import, while the need to place growing efforts in fact checking activity, data analysis and verification of sources can no longer be postponed; whilst viewing the social networks that set the daily agenda and influence public opinion with a critical eye, waiting for political institutions to finally gather around the same table with the (digital) world leaders to curb this phenomenon.

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