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Pope compares fake news to ‘snake tactics’

Pope Francis compares the proliferation of 'fake news' to the story of the serpent in the biblical book of Genesis and says 'trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences.'

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Jan. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini; caption amended by RNS)

(RNS) — Pope Francis decried the “evil” of “fake news” in a message marking World Communications Day, saying those who create untruthful stories use “snake tactics.”

Speaking on Wednesday (Jan. 24) to mark the Catholic feast day of Francis de Sales — the patron saint of journalists — the pontiff compared the proliferation of “fake news” to the story of the serpent in the biblical book of Genesis. Noting how the snake (the devil in disguise) persuaded Eve to eat fruit from the forbidden tree, the pope said: “There is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences.”

In his address, titled “The truth will set you free — Fake news and journalism for peace,” the pope said fake news relies on the “manipulative use of the social networks and the way they function” to spread. He railed against “homogeneous digital environments” that are “impervious to differing perspectives and opinions,” saying fake news “is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred.”

Thus, he said, spreading fake news makes people “unwilling accomplices” in the spreading of “disinformation” — a form of evil.

“Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions and serve economic interests,” the pope said. “The effectiveness of fake news is primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible.”

Francis also focused on the role of journalists, whom he called “the protectors of news.” He said reporters have a “weighty responsibility” to make sure stories are accurate, adding “theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission.”

The pontiff then called for what he described as 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,” he said. “On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans and sensational headlines … a journalism 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.”

Francis said efforts to curb fake news are “praiseworthy,” including work done by “tech and media companies” that he said are “coming up with new criteria for verifying the personal identities concealed behind millions of digital profiles.”

The pope announced his choice of topic for the message in September, after experiencing fake news himself. In 2016, a satirical news website claimed that Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president — a story that was completely false. Yet it became one of the most widely shared fake news stories on Facebook in the months just before the election, according to BuzzFeed.

The pontiff was also critical of “fake news” in December, when he told reporters at the Vatican to avoid “sins of communication.”

According to Newsweek, Francis said such misdeeds can “harm people” and include “disinformation, or giving just one side, calumny that is sensationalized, or defamation, looking for things that are old news and have been dealt with and bringing them to light today.”

Wednesday’s address comes in the wake of controversy. Last week, Francis said sexual abuse victims in Chile were guilty of “calumny” for accusing Bishop Juan Barros of covering up the sex crimes of the Rev. Fernando Karadimas, a pedophile priest in the country. Victims say they reported abuse by Karadimas to church officials starting in 2002, but the Vatican only removed him from ministry after victims went public in 2010.

Francis later apologized for the remarks, saying they amounted to a “slap in the face” to victims.