Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel — far from the most inspiring of Biblical stories. And so, they are the ones that jump out at you upon reading Pope Francis’ recent message on “fake news” and our communications today. As I quickly checked Twitter before starting to write this column, I saw someone express a wish that another person gets hit by a bus — simply for having a different point of view! The pope’s message seemed like an urgent plea in a time when we are losing our grasp on the reality of our common humanity.
Pope Francis talked about how it can be difficult to unmask and eliminate fake news because “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.”
Intolerant and hypersensitive much, these days? Isn’t it everywhere in people’s frequent inability to read beyond a headline? I’ve seen it for years online, but in the recent past it has often taken the form of an email from someone who disagreed with me, saying something about hoping me and my loved ones would die long, agonizing deaths. Oftentimes, I’d find myself emailing back with a heartfelt word or expressing sorrow I might have said anything that would elicit so much painful anger. Usually it would get a response of embarrassment — the emailer was venting and never thought anyone would actually read their email. What a relief for humanity a simple opinion column did not truly bring out venomous wrath in another. And yet, now, with the speed of and overwhelmingly ubiquitous nature of many modes of social communications, it becomes increasingly difficult to have a meaningful human encounter that moves beyond mere reaction.
Pope Francis aptly diagnosed the problem when he wrote: “Constant contamination by deceptive language can end up darkening our interior life.” He quoted Doestoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”: “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.”
He ultimately offered a new vision, inspired by Saint Francis’s prayer for peace, encouraging a “journalism of peace,” and offered a prayer that exactly addresses the ills that our deforming our world: “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 only be for journalists. It could be prayed and practiced by any one of us and our platforms and opportunities for communication. This prayer could apply to behavior at 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.