Fake News: Don’t Lie
The Eighth Commandment admonishes us not to bear false witness — but the sin of lying is becoming more and more easy to commit as our access to means of communications increases.
When we spread fake news on social media, blogs or e-mail, we make ourselves complicit in the act of bearing false witness, knowingly or unknowingly. Disinformation and propaganda are age-old strategies in the games for power and influence.
Of course, fake news is not a new phenomenon. Disinformation and propaganda are age-old strategies in the games for power and influence. Invariably, they are at the root of wars and violence — and of genocide, as the histories of places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda or Cambodia teach.
But in the past, fake news was the reserved domain for political leaders, writers and news media. Today, anybody with Internet access can produce disinformation — in order to manipulate public sentiment, to “satirise” current affairs, or just to accumulate clicks — and circulate it under a banner of implied credibility. And their mischief is then distributed by other users of the Internet.
Combined with an increasing distrust of traditional media, especially in the West, the spread of fake news is creating uncertainty among many people about which items they read are true and which aren’t. The danger we face is that discernment is abandoned and people will believe only what they want to believe — and often what they want to believe is what confirms their own preconceptions (and prejudices).
The danger we face is that discernment is abandoned and people will believe only what they want to believe — and often what they want to believe is what confirms their own preconceptions (and prejudices).
The term “fake news” is itself already meaningless as politicians freely direct it at traditional media which report on their transgressions. When one indiscriminately calls demonstrably fact-based coverage “fake news”, one attacks the truth.
Of course, the news media are not exempt from criticism; many are openly biased and some — such as Fox News in the US or the Daily Mail in Britain — blatantly entertain a hostile relationship with the truth. But not all news one disagrees with is made up. When one indiscriminately calls demonstrably fact-based coverage “fake news”, one attacks the truth.
But this is where it can become confusing, because disinformation derives the essential veneer of credibility by incorporating facts in its web of lies.
This is how it works: The fake news practitioner has an idea to fabricate a truthless article that populist leader Julius Malema has called for the extermination of white people. Since Mr Malema has a history of making inflammatory statements about white people, there will be those who think that such an absurd claim is plausible, especially if it confirms their preconceptions about Mr Malema.
By adding reasonable details of the context in which Mr Malema made that supposed remark — a place, a time, an audience — the deception gains further credibility. The effects of spreading such fake news are almost always injurious. Their purpose often is to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.
In the sincere belief that Mr Malema actually called for genocide, social media users then share the fake news item. They have been tricked into circulating a lie.
The effects of spreading such fake news are almost always injurious. Their purpose often is to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.
People of faith who are guided by the Commandments, and all people of goodwill, cannot tolerate fake news. Those who spread untrue content are complicit in lying, whether they share these lies deliberately or unknowingly. When they do so innocently, they must be aware of that.
There are techniques of media literacy which all consumers of media and users of the Internet should master.
Firstly, be incredulous. If a report makes a big claim, be suspicious and research whether credible news sites have covered that news in a slightly different way. If only one source reports that Zuma has been jailed, or the pope has praised the devil, or cancer has been cured, then it’s probably fake. If in doubt, use myth-busting sites like Snopes.com to confirm whether a story has already been flagged as fake, or confirmed as true.
Check if the article is from a “satire” or fake news site dressed up as a news organ. Does it provide credible sources? Is the writing style professional?
If in doubt, use myth-busting sites like Snopes.com to confirm whether a story has already been flagged as fake, or confirmed as true.
Secondly, be discerning. If a headline rouses you to anger or fear, calm down and employ the steps above. If the story is true, there’s still time to get angry or fearful.
As we celebrate the feast of St Francis de Sales, patron of writers and journalists, on the publication date of this issue, let us pray for the facility of discernment in the face of information overload.
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