Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel: These are far from the most inspiring of biblical images. And so they are the ones that jump out at you upon reading Pope Francis’s recent message on “fake news” and our communications today. As I quickly checked Twitter before setting down to write this column, I saw someone express a wish that an ideological opponent would get hit by a bus, simply for having a different point of view. In such a climate, when we are losing our grasp on the reality of our common humanity, the pope’s message seemed like an urgent plea from a wise pastor.
Pope Francis talked about why it can be difficult to unmask and eliminate fake news:
Many people interact in homogeneous digital environments impervious to differing perspectives and opinions. Disinformation thus thrives on the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue; instead, it risks turning people into unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas. The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict. Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth.
Intolerant and hypersensitive much these days? Aren’t we seeing such states of mind everywhere in people’s frequent inability to read not just beyond a headline but even past a word or a name? (And honestly, one name in particular, of a man who happens to currently occupy the White House — and you don’t even have to take a stand on him to acknowledge that we might have an unhealthy attachment to him, whether you might find yourself gawking at, denouncing, defending, or celebrating him.)
I’ve seen intolerance for years online, but in the fairly recent past, it often took the form of an email from someone who disagreed with you who hoped that you and people you loved would die long, agonizing deaths (thinking of my own inbox over the years). Oftentimes, though, I’d find myself emailing back with a heartfelt word or with sorrow that I might have said anything to elicit so much painful anger.
Usually I received a response of embarrassment — the emailer was venting and never thought anyone would actually read his message. What a relief for humanity that a simple opinion column did not truly bring out venomous wrath in another. And yet, now, with the speed of many modes of social communications and their overwhelmingly ubiquitous nature, it becomes increasingly difficult to have the kind of actual human (albeit cyber) encounter we once had over email.
Pope Francis diagnosed the problem well when he wrote: “Constant contamination by deceptive language can end up darkening our interior life.” He quoted The Brothers Karamazov as “illuminating”:
People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others. And having no respect, they cease to love, and in order to occupy and distract themselves without love they give way to passions and to coarse pleasures, and sink to bestiality in their vices, all from continual lying to others and to themselves.
He ultimately offered a new prayer, inspired by Saint Francis’s prayer for peace, encouraging a “journalism of peace,” including:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion. . . .
Where there is shouting, let us practice listening; where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony; where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity; where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity; where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety; where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions; where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust; where there is hostility, let us bring respect; where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.
This prayer needn’t be only for those employed as journalists or writers. It could be well prayed and practiced by any one of us with all varieties of platforms and opportunities for communication. This could be an international television network, on social media, or at your office water cooler or kitchen table. Pope Francis writes that “the effectiveness of fake news is primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible.” Similarly, some of the poisonous social-media exchanges only mimic real human communication. Let’s raise the bar — in person and online.