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Vatican City, January 24, 2018 (Vatican News). Pope Francis’ World Communications Day Message has just been made public. It is entitled: “The truth will set you free "(Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace”. We asked Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication, to help us reflect on the Message.
Q - Monsignor Viganò, this is the second World Communications Day Message by Pope Francis since the creation of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication. Both messages have something in common with their specifically biblical references. Last year it was: "Be not afraid, I am with you" (Is 43:5) And this year the title is: “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).
The choice isn’t random. In fact, the whole message, even when it talks about current topics, is based on strong biblical roots, like last year’s Message. The Holy Father begins the Message by recalling the stories of Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel (Gen 4:1-16; 11:1-9), precisely to explain that when "humanity follows its own pride and selfishness, it can also distort the way it uses its powers of communication”. How can we forget the Letter to the Hebrews? "In various times in the past and in different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, He has spoken to us through His Son, the Son He has appointed to inherit everything and through whom He made everything there is” (Heb 1:1-2). The whole history of salvation, namely, the Covenant continually renewed by a faithful God with an often unfaithful people, is a dialogue interwoven with invitations, appeals and blessings. Up until the manifestation of Jesus who, as the Message says, is Truth. This is the cornerstone of the Message, on which rest the Pope’s reflections and his final invitation to "promote a journalism of peace". "I am the truth" (Jn 14:6) is not a conceptual affirmation or abstract knowledge. In Christ, the two natures, human and divine, are not confused but coexist in a personal unity. The revelation of God in Christ contains this coexistence within itself thus marking truth as a relationship. This alone can liberate humanity: "The truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32).
Q - There are powerful references to the quality of relationships, stemming from the biblical context.
In terms of relationships, it is clear how much communication can create and how much it can destroy. Cain and Abel, like the Tower of Babel, are clear proof of this. Not only ... There is a beautiful line from Dostoevsky, which the Holy Father quotes in the Message: "People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others. And having no respect the cease to love, and in order to occupy and distract themselves without love they give way to passions and too coarse pleasures, and sink to bestiality in their vices, all from continual lying to others and to themselves”. (The Brothers Karamazov, II, 2). Let us therefore question ourselves on the quality of our relationship with others and with ourselves. "Communication”, recalls the Pope, “is an essential way to experience fellowship". But if our relationships are poisoned, what communion can we possibly live?
Q - To complicate matters we have the phenomenon of fake news. Could fake news be described as the cause of this poisoning?
Fake news is one of the elements that poison relationships. Fake news may seem real but it, in reality, it is unfounded, partial news, or even blatantly false. The problem with fake news is not its lack of truthfulness, which is very evident, but the fact that it is believable. In his Message, the Holy Father speaks extensively about this: he recalls the strategy used by the "crafty serpent", in the Book of Genesis, "who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news" (Gen 3:1-15). His dissimulation “began the tragic history of human sin, beginning with the first fratricide (Gen 4) and issuing in the countless other evils committed against God, neighbour, society and creation". It is hard to recognize fake news because it uses a mimetic physiognomy: these are the dynamics of evil which always presents itself as an easily attainable good. The dramatic effectiveness of this kind of content lies precisely in disguising its own falsehood, in appearing to be plausible to some, putting pressure on skills, expectations, and prejudices already rooted within more or less large social groups. For this reason, fake news is particularly insidious, capable of catching on and easily influencing. These aspects are enhanced by the role of social networks in setting it up and spreading this kind of news. When it is used manipulatively, it can lead to forms of intolerance and hatred.
Q - What is the antidote to the poison of fake news?
False news is the result of prejudice and an inability to listen. "The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood”, writes the Holy Father in his Message, “is to be purified by truth". This is the only way we can combat the rise of prejudice and unwillingness to listen, which inhibit all forms of communication, and close off everything in a vicious circle. The capacity to listen and to dialogue requires a human maturity that favors being adaptable to different and unexpected circumstances. Communication is not just the transmission of news: it is availability, mutual enrichment, relationship. Only with a free heart and attentive, respectful listening, can communication build bridges and opportunities for peace without pretense. All this encourages us to persevere in searching for and spreading truth, especially through the education of young people. As Paul VI wrote ("Social communications at the service of truth" – 1972): "Humanity, and even more so the Christian, will never abdicate the ability to contribute to the conquest of truth: not only the abstract or philosophical, but also the concrete and daily truth of individual events: if it did, it would damage its own personal dignity".
Q - How can journalists and institutions put this message into practice?
First of all, I believe that the responsibility of communicators lies at the core of the debate. Together with freedom of expression, responsibility creates the conditions in which communication itself becomes a space of listening, of dialogue and even of dissent - of course within normal forms of dialectics and interaction. So, based upon the prerequisites that pertain to professional ethics, it is necessary to put together a context in which the facts reported upon shine with authenticity, and are not overshadowed by “half-truths” or “verisimilitudes”. I think that both the public and the institutions must form new alliances within this process, from schools to the political arena and to professional federations. Otherwise, the journalistic profession will lose not only its credibility, but its very identity.