“The truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace”: it is the theme chosen by Pope Francis for the 52nd World Day of Social Communications 2018.
The Pope’s invitation is certainly not meant to encourage falsely-good news. In fact, it intends to acknowledge that since “only the truth will set you free”, a first important step could be to recognize that the spread of baseless information escalates into a spiral fuelled by negative emotions (fear, contempt, anger…), triggered by the sensationalist depiction of tragedy and legitimatized or strengthened by a distorted use of the media.
With the theme chosen for the 52nd World Day of Social Communications 2018 Pope Francis strongly reaffirms the urgent need for widespread, in-depth reflections on a phenomenon of collective interest at the centre of a heated debate, relevant to the pragmatic consequences of communication, i.e. fake news: groundless information based on non-existent or distorted facts. For a closer view of this phenomenon and to identify some of its specific features it may be useful to start with Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of the expression “fake news”: “False stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke”.
This definition helps us identify at least three distinctive features typical of groundless information.
First of all, fake news can be camouflaged: in other words, such news may appear true despite being totally unfounded. It could be said that the dramatic effectiveness of this kind of content consists first of all in the ability to conceal its untruthfulness; perceived as credible information by some of its recipients within more or less large social circles marked by deeply-rooted expectations and prejudices.
In this sense fake news are highly insidious, coupled by strong gripping power and the ability to worm their way through.
The second factor that determines the spread of this phenomenon involves the role of social networks in triggering and spreading groundless content. While social media cannot be considered the main cause of fake news (indeed, disinformation is not a recent phenomenon nor is it strictly linked to the web), there is no doubt that the ways in which social networks are used, along with the criteria determining content visibility (designed to favour content regardless of its authenticity) play a key role in the performance of so-called echo chambers.
The latter magnify and reiterate content to the detriment of relevance, pertinence, reliability thereby generating a spiral which, as shown in recent studies, appears to be immune also to debunking activity carried out with scientific methods.
Third, it should be noted that the recreational use of fake news is increasingly used instrumentally for political purposes, consisting in uploading these hoaxes with potentially dramatic impact manifested by expressions of intolerance and hate that intensify their dissemination and pose a serious threat to democracy.
Planned disinformation is grounded in the depiction of others as enemies, in the demonization of diversity, in the polarization of an irreconcilable “us versus them”, a radical opposition that prefigures and foments the conflict.
Building on these considerations, Pope Francis’ decision to introduce the question of fake news within the theme of a journalism of peace holds special significance. The Pope’s invitation is certainly not meant to encourage falsely-good news. In fact, it intends to acknowledge that since “only the truth will set you free”, a first important step could be to recognize that the spread of baseless information escalates into a spiral fuelled by negative emotions (fear, contempt, anger…), triggered by the sensationalist depiction of tragedy and legitimatized or strengthened by a distorted use of the media. In the face of this worryingly insidious and fast-spreading phenomenon, the primary value of Pope Francis’ invitation to expert journalists consists in acknowledging that
The fight on disinformation, intrinsically based on the quest for the truth, implies the unveiling of prejudice, avoiding stereotyping and laying the foundations of a renewed relationship with the other person.