Himself the subject of one of the bigger “fake news” stories in 2016 and targeted again in 2017, Pope Francis dedicated his message for the 2018 World Communications Day to this growing phenomenon. He takes on the troubling topic in ways part obvious and part provocative.
The obvious part defines what fake news is: “the spreading of disinformation.” He explains that it works by appearing to be plausible, by appealing to stereotypes and by exploiting natural emotions. It points out the tragic results, in that fake news “discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict.”
The provocative thought comes when Pope Francis theorizes about the nature of truthfulness in communications. “In Christianity,” he writes, “truth is not just a conceptual reality that regards how we judge things, defining them as true or false.” Rather, what is really true “carries with it the sense of support, solidity, and trust, as implied by the root ‘aman, the source of our liturgical expression Amen.”
From this relational sense of truth, the pope draws a striking conclusion: “An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. 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.”
Journalists, whom the pope singles out in the message as “the protectors of news,” may quarrel with that claim. After all, as Christopher Altieri notes, “information that might damage a reputation if brought before the public may well merit public scrutiny nonetheless.” As he also points out, the primary duty of professional journalism is “to frame issues fairly, not favorably.”
Setting aside the worthwhile journalistic debate, the pope’s analysis opens a bigger window on the subject. As much or more than a professional concern, fake news can be a prominent matter in interpersonal communications. Everyday conversations also contribute to the spread of fake news whenever we complain about, gossip with, or mock others.
St. Francis de Sales, on whose feast day the pope’s message was published, addresses the virtuous character of ordinary speech in his Introduction to the Devout Life (part III, chapters 26-30). His advice there reflects the same relational approach to truth that informs the pope’s message.
Complaining seems commonplace these days. We bemoan the positions or decisions of others because we don’t agree. Were it up to us, we would choose or do differently. But when disagreement turns to denigration, truth gives way to presumption and arrogance. Even in blaming vice, says the saint, we should “spare as much as (we) can the person in whom it lies.”
Gossiping appears to be a social pastime. Speaking critically of persons not present during the conversation is so easy to do. But it makes mounting a self-defense impossible. Toward our neighbors, however, charity should always prevail. Even when being critical of another, “it is essential that the criticism be beneficial either to the person to whom one speaks or the one about whom one speaks.”
Mockery masks its fakeness in amusement. We poke fun at others, even when such ridicule is not so fun for them. To speak in jest can be cleverly humorous. But between mirth and meanness stands the fine line of the speaker’s intention. For de Sales, “derision and mockery are never found without scorn.”
Today, we refer to fake news as what we see in print or on screen. It proliferates through the manipulative powers of new media. But it begins with the one who writes or posts, in how we think and speak.
For the saint, we are its source, since “our words are the true indicators of the condition of our souls.” For the pope, we are also its remedy. “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.
Between the two Francises, this is truth. And it’s news worth sharing.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood.