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Countering “fake news” with the Good News



Fr Joshan Rodrigues - published on 08/22/17

What is truth? Pilate's question has come back to haunt us, and perhaps only the Church can rightly give answer.

“What is truth?” Pilate famously asked Jesus, when he was brought before him for judgement. The question was more rhetorical in nature because Pilate walked out to the crowds before Jesus could give him an answer. In fact, Truth in the flesh was standing before him, but Pilate’s eyes were closed to this reality. Jesus alluded to this when he told Pilate earlier “I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” But Pilate was thinking of factual truths, not heavenly ones.

We are currently living in an era of “post truths” and “alternative facts.” The Oxford Dictionary defines post-truth as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” which means that, in 2017, emotion trumps objectivity; it helps the phenomenon of “fake news” become very real to individuals (and, sadly, some professional media) who need it to feed their appetite for ideology, malice, and the mayhem that helps it all to swell and grow.

The current mood of fakery may have ridden into society on the back of satire (Stephen Colbert’s faux Fox New take-off “The Colbert Report” regularly celebrated the merits of “truthiness”) but fake news is not a recent invention. In the 19th century, “yellow journalism” increased readership (and influence) by emphasizing sensationalism over facts, somewhat like tabloid journalism.

The Bible is not fake news in any way, but we do see the concept in a number of biblical events. Just to name one — and probably the most important — the disciples of Jesus were accused of spreading “fake news” when they claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead. Of course, the real “fake news” had been spread by the chief priests and elders in this instance to discredit Jesus and his followers (Mt 28:12-15).

A number of surveys have shown that people are losing faith in the “truthfulness and objectivity” of the traditional press. They are less likely now to believe what they read in the newspapers than a decade ago. The widespread and easy access to the internet has shown people that a story can be presented in many different ways, simply by what is emphasized or ignored, and that traditional media — which once held a monopoly on reportage — may not always have been telling them the whole story. Journalism, particularly when involving stories of political moment, too often seems to surrender objectivity in order to either support or defeat an object.

Added to the sense of distrust and is the dispersal of unreliable information being spread on social media and through echo-chamber websites that serve up fodder for any taker who really wants to believe it. Take Pope Francis for instance. It’s not uncommon for people to receive messages about his statements or homilies that archly twist his words, or his meaning. “You don’t have to go to Mass in order to be a good Catholic” is one of them; “Divorce doesn’t matter” is another. A simple Google search can confirm that the pope has never said either statement, yet the people who want to believe it – who find it the preferable truth — will keep forwarding such nonsense to their friends. So. too, will people who know better, but who are not fans of this pope.

What is truth? Pilate’s question has come back to haunt us.

We are at a critical juncture in history, when the world seems to need to be reintroduced to the answer. The Church can reassert the universal nature of objective truth based on divine principles.

A priest friend is doing his doctoral research on media ethics and he recently told me that a number of reputed scholars within secular journalism had privately expressed to him their wish that the Church should play a larger role in advocating ethics and transparency in news and media. They did not agree with the Church on many issues but they recognized that the Church, with its immense moral and ethical standing, was one of the few global institutions remaining that could objectively speak on behalf of the truth.

Fake news can be countered with the Good News. The Bible is the source of what is True, Good and Beautiful. And the Truth was incarnated in the person of the Son of God. I see John’s prologue as the defining exposition of this claim. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) For our context what that means is that truth and fact originate from the divine; from that which existed before us and which will continue to exist long after us. There is therefore no danger of truth being confused with opinion or alternative facts or willful under-representation of the truth.

What makes the Divine truth such a great moral force is that it places the human being at the center. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It is only the real truth that will set humankind free. The Bible focuses on justice, mercy, love, forgiveness, peace and obedience to God’s will as central aspects of the Christian way of life. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that humankind would achieve peace and prosperity if we would follow God’s tenets instead of man’s.

Facing a lot of flak for his company becoming a conduit for fake news during the presidential elections, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that identifying the truth “is complicated” for a computer algorithm.

Living the truth is hard for human beings – even for saints, it is sometimes hard — but the Truth itself is not complicated to recognize within the gift of Truth by divine revelation.

Living in service to that Truth, rather than the truth we prefer, answers Pilate’s question.

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