Pope Francis decried the “evil” of “fake news” in a message marking World Communications Day, say those who create untrue stories “snake tactics.”
Speaking on Wednesday, 24 January, on the occasion of the Catholic feast of Francis de Sales — the patron saint of journalists — the pope against the dissemination of “false news to the story of the serpent in the biblical book of Genesis. To see how the snake (the devil in disguise) persuaded Eve to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree, the pope said: “There is no such thing as harmless misinformation; on the contrary, the trust in a lie can have serious consequences.”
In his speech, titled “The truth will set you free — Fake-news and journalism for peace,” the pope said fake news is based on the “manipulative use of the social networks and the way they function” to spread. He railed against the “homogeneous digital environments,” “insensitive to different perspectives and opinions,” says fake news ‘ is a sign of intolerance and hypersensitive attitudes, and only leads to the spread of arrogance and hate.”
“The spread of false news can serve to advance certain objectives, influence the political decisions and the promotion of the economic interests,” the pope said. “The effectiveness of fake news is mainly due to its ability to mimic real news to seem plausible.”
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Francis also focused on the role of journalists, whom he named “the protectors of the news.” He said reporters have a “heavy responsibility” to ensure that the stories are correct, adding: “theirs is, in every sense of the word, not just a job; it is a mission.”
The pope then called for what he described as a “journalism of peace.”
“I do not mean the sugar kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism,” he said. “On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and in contrast to lies, rhetorical slogans and sensational headlines … a journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflict, to promote deeper understanding of and contribute to the resolution of the institution in the place of virtuous processes.”
Francis said efforts to curb fake news “praiseworthy”, including the work done by the “tech and media companies,” he said, “to come up with new criteria for verifying the personal identity hidden behind the millions of digital profiles.”
The pope announced his choice of a subject for the message in September, after the experience of false news itself. In 2016, a satirical news website, claimed that Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president — a story that was but it was one of the most widely shared fake news stories on Facebook in the months just before the elections, according to BuzzFeed.
The pope was also critical of “fake news” in December when he told reporters in the Vatican to prevent “the sins of the communication.”
According to Newsweek, Francis said that such crimes can be “harmful to people” and “misinformation, or giving only one side, slander and libel that is sensational, or slander, looking for things that are old news and have been dealt with and brings them to light today.”
Wednesday is the address comes in the wake of the controversy. Last week, Francis said sexual abuse victims in Chile were guilty of “slander” for accusing Bishop Juan Barros of covering up the sex crimes of the Rev. Fernando Karadimas, a paedophile priest in the country.
Victims say they reported abuse by Karadimas to the church officials, starting in 2002, but the Vatican only removed him from the ministry after victims went public in 2010.
Francis later apologized for the remarks, saying that they are out on a “slap in the face” to the victims.
This piece by Jack Jenkins originally appeared in Religion News Service.