Fake news is everywhere these days. Social media is plagued by fake news. It’s even wormed its way into formerly credible news sources. And, sadly, it’s also afflicting the Church.
We, unfortunately, saw just one extraordinary example of that recently at the fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
During a procedural vote on how to quote Pope Francis on Catholic social teaching, a debate over the status of the Church’s teaching on abortion arose. Sixty-nine bishops ended up voting against the procedural motion.
But some observers, including unfortunately one of the bishops, confused the procedural vote with the substantive issue of the abortion discussion. That led to social media claims that 69 U.S. bishops voted no to “uphold the preeminence of the sanctity of life of the unborn,” as the bishop’s tweet read. One well-known Catholic commentator amplified the outrage, ruing the fact that 69 bishops “weren’t Catholic.”
Except, the whole basis for such claims turned was false. The 69 no votes were on a procedural motion only, not the question about the preeminence of the Church’s pro-life teaching. (For those who want the details, J.D. Flynn, the editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency, has the complete breakdown of the story here.)
The incident reveals just how toxic fake news can be. Thanks to the misinformation, potentially many Catholics were misled into believing that the Church in the United States was becoming wobbly in its commitment to life and that 69 bishops may have outright abandoned it. One can easily see the unhealthy ripple effects this could have—distrust of bishops, unrealistic despair over the state of the Church, diminished confidence in the Church’s prophetic power to speak truth to sin, and so on.
Why Catholics Should Be Especially Concerned
Without the truth, we are living in a world of fiction and fantasy, at risk of seeking out what confirms our own internal biases and reacting to things that don’t really exist or didn’t really happen. Fake news is corrosive, channeling fear and anger to undermine institutions and breed distrust of our fellow man.
The desire for truth is inherent in our nature. In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Second Vatican Council said that all men, as beings “endowed with reason and free will” should be “impelled by nature and also bound by moral obligation to seek truth.” Once acquired, the document continues, men ought to “order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.”
As Christians, we have a special obligation to seek the truth. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “To follow Jesus is to live in ‘the Spirit of truth,’ whom the Father sends in his name and who leads ‘into all the truth.’ To his disciples, Jesus teaches the unconditional love of truth: ‘Let what you say be simply ‘Yes or No.’” (See Matthew 5:37). In moral terms, dealing in falsehoods, also puts us at risk of violating the Eight Commandment against bearing false witness against our neighbors.”
As Catholics, then, we have many reasons to be concerned about the deleterious effects of fake news. But identifying fake news can be a challenge.
A Very Brief History of Fake News
If we’re going to go about getting to the truth, we should begin by debunking a few myths about ‘fake’ news. When people talk about ‘fake news’ they often are referring to news that is misleading, biased, or otherwise poorly sourced and reported. But ‘real’ fake news is different than that. It’s not a story that the New York Times and CNN had to correct or clarify. It’s news that’s actually made up. Yes, there are actually websites that actually make up news with no effort to report it and no disclaimer that they are satire. (CBS News has a helpful slideshow here; also, the BBC has a history of the term here.)
To be clear, here, we are talking about fake news in a stricter sense of the term’s original meaning, but we’ll expand it just a bit to include news that isn’t necessarily made up but is still outright false, either out of mistake or due to malicious intent. That means that we can’t just rely on a list of bad sites. We have to learn how to recognize because it could be anywhere—in your Facebook feed, on your favorite blog, or even on an otherwise credible news site.
Five Tips for Recognizing ‘Fake’ or False News
1. Don’t rely on social media alone. You shouldn’t be getting all of your news from the same place you look at funny cat videos or photos of your friend’s lunch. The above kerfuffle over the U.S. bishops’ vote was started on social media. Social media has the potential to foster dialogue and the free exchange of ideas, but without truth it becomes a breeding ground for hate, divisiveness, and polarization.
2. Check the source. Of course, it’s impossible to ignore social media these days. So, if you must, follow one simple rule. If a social media post omits key facts over when something happened or when something was said—such as a date, time, and event—then take it with a grain of salt. If there’s no link to a credible news article, then proceed with caution.
3. Rely on more than one credible source. Soon after he was elected, an Italian newspaper that might otherwise seem credible ran a news story claiming that Pope Francis had denied the existence of hell. The story’s credibility very quickly came under fire—the report had been written by a retired 93-year-old reporter who was an avowed atheist and who reportedly admitted that he had written it based on memory, without the benefit of notes or audio. Not only did the Vatican deny the quotation, it denied that Pope Francis had ever granted a formal interview. (See here for a recap of the story.)
Read papers from the Left and the Right. Check out the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Keep tabs on both the National Catholic Register and the National Catholic Reporter. (Full disclosure: I am a contributor to the National Catholic Register.) The idea that you can get all your news from one single place is an illusion. This approach is biblically justified. Consider, for example, that God ordained that the Good News of Christ should be told from the perspective of four men—the authors of the four gospels, not one.
4. Develop a sense for what is real news. The above story about Pope Francis should have immediately triggered your false-o-meter. It’s extremely unlikely that any pope could deny such a clear teaching of the Church. If this story seems believable to you, then you’ve been spending too much in the underworld of conspiracy theories, extremist commentary, and fake news. Retrain your senses and hone your news sense by spending more time reading credible news sources. Yes, even CBS News and Newsweek, cited in this article, count.
5. Look at how the article is structured. Is it written without emotion or is the author clearly upset at something? Is the author reporting facts or pushing opinions? Are the two being blended together? If the latter, then you have reason to question the credibility of the article. Do quotations and factual claims come with people, dates, locations, and events attached to them? A real news article follows journalistic standards of attributing information to authoritative sources and includes details on who those sources are and how the information was provided. If that information is missing, that’s a red flag. Just because someone can publish a website or blog with good production quality doesn’t mean that they are adhering to traditional journalistic standards for fairness, accuracy, and truth.
So how do you learn to recognize news? Simple. Read newspapers and magazines (Sorry, talk radio and cable news aren’t beholden to the same standards!) Keep following your favorite social media commentators but make time to train your mind to recognize true and fake news. It doesn’t have to be a giant national brand like the New York Times or USA Today. Whatever newspaper or magazine is published in your nearest big or mid-sized city will work. This isn’t to say that you should blindly trust everything you read in any publication. But all major newspapers and magazines out there are at least bound by journalistic standards of truth and accountability, which means they have to publish corrections when they get something wrong or retractions when a story is horribly flawed. And, in the unlikely event that they don’t, rest assured that you’ll probably hear about it on social media.