VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Fake news may be a recent phenomenon but for Pope Francis it’s a diabolical practice as old as Adam and Eve.
In what is, in effect, the first papal document on misinformation spread online, the pontiff connected what is now commonly called “fake news” to the story in the Book of Genesis in which a serpent tricked Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The pope’s message on communications, released by the Vatican on Wednesday (Jan. 24), reflected his growing concern about the dangers of misinformation on the internet that exploits people’s “anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.”
During Francis’ papacy the discourse even in Catholic media has grown increasingly polarized between conservatives and progressives.
“Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred,” the pope wrote. “That is the end result of untruth.”
With the linking of fake news to the Bible, the pope’s message gives a theological context to a phrase that has been made famous by President Trump and first used in mid-2016 to describe the growth of made-up stories. For his part, the pope has been on the receiving end of fake news stories, including one published by a fantasy news site that claimed he endorsed Trump for president and another — circulated during a major gathering of bishops in the Vatican in 2015 — suggesting he had a brain tumor.
In the Genesis story, which for Christianity explains how human sin enters the world, the pope said the serpent tricked Eve by taking on the “appearance of truth” and pretending to be the woman’s friend.
It is this strategy of the “crafty serpent” that he said is being used to present damaging lies as truth.
“We need to unmask what could be called the ‘snake tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place,” the pope wrote in the message, released on the Catholic Church’s World Day of Social Communications.
It is the work of the devil, he suggested, using a reference to Satan from John 8:44: “The strategy of this skilled ‘Father of Lies’ is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.”
For Francis the use of misinformation comes down to an “insatiable greed” for power and money.
The remedy, he said, is for journalists to take on a new role as “protectors of news,” something he described as a “mission” rather than just a job. Francis insisted that reporters must be accurate and fair given that even a “slight distortion” of the truth has negative effects.
For him, that means a new approach in which reporters focus less on scoops and breaking news and more on reporting that people can trust.
“Amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they (journalists) must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons.”
Good journalism, he went on, can help contribute to world peace by exploring the root causes behind conflicts and showing the alternatives to “the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”
In the text released Wednesday, the pope alluded to media bubbles by describing them as “homogeneous digital environments impervious to differing perspectives and opinions.”
The pope said disinformation thrives when there is an “absence of healthy confrontation” that challenge prejudices.
“The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict,” he said.
His message, titled “‘The truth will set you free’ — fake news and journalism for peace,” was timed to coincide with the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists.
(Christopher Lamb is The Tablet’s Rome correspondent and a contributor to RNS.)