Fact: The Truth does set us free

May 8, 2018

AUSTIN — President Donald Trump has made “fake news” such an urgent topic that Pope Francis addressed it in his message for World Communications Day, which is on May 13 this year.

Fake news is not new, of course. Scripture reminds us lies have been with us since the Garden of Eden. And whether it is government propaganda, corporate cover up, yellow journalism, petty gossip, or the devil, manipulating the truth has never ended well.

While fake news is as old as humanity, what’s new is social media and its ability to amplify everything, regardless of its truthfulness. “’Fake news’ often goes viral, spreading so fast that it is hard to stop,” Pope Francis writes, “because it appeals to the insatiable greed so easily aroused in human beings.” He warns that viral lies make us victims of “the deceptive power of evil.”

The world is an extremely complex place, and the simple answers we find on Facebook and Twitter are so very tempting.

Here’s two points I try to remember before I hit the “share” button:

1. What’s the motive? Is the content presented so that it takes only a second or two for me to vehemently agree or disagree? Am I being psychologically manipulated by those whose goal is to encourage polarization and division? When I told a friend on Facebook that the post he had shared was completely fabricated, his reply was “I don’t care; I still think [the politician] is an idiot.” If we believe the truth sets us free (Jn 8:32), what happens to us when we stifle the truth with false memes, prejudice and our stubborn ignorance?

2. What’s the source? Does the article cite any experts? If so, are they real experts, or just someone being quoted? If it sounds too ridiculous to be true, I trust my own intelligence. While the number of websites claiming to be news sites has grown astronomically, very few employ journalistic technique, which includes checking accuracy and offering diverse views. Journalists aren’t perfect, but their professional reputation is what keeps them employed. I try to take a few minutes to check the post against a reputable fact-checking website. Professional journalists have nothing to gain – and we lose our souls — by spreading lies.

It’s encouraging to know more universities are offering media literacy courses. Although the Holy See’s ongoing call for media literacy expressed since the Second Vatican Council – even in this year’s World Communications Day message — has gone largely unheeded, some Catholic leaders are championing catechetical endeavors in this arena. 

I hope we can make media literacy a mandatory part of young people’s education – including in their faith formation, and I encourage my fellow “digital immigrants” to become more skilled in media literacy. 

We need to understand the difference between raw, unmediated information (sometimes outright “alternative facts”) and independent, verified reporting. We also need to accept the responsibility that comes with the ability to create our own media, using our smartphones. 

Mass communication allowed us to be somewhat passive recipients of information. Digital media, by its very nature, requires us to be active sharers of information. Our faith compels us to be ethical and morally sound in our contributions. 

The World Communications Day message can be found on the Vatican’s website at www.vatican.va.

Helen Osman is president of the World Association of Catholic Communicators.