The Church has called upon its faithful to utilize modern media in service to the common good and to counteract the negative influences that threaten peace, well-being and sense of solidarity. Shutterstock photo
The Church has called upon its faithful to utilize modern media in service to the common good and to counteract the negative influences that threaten peace, well-being and sense of solidarity. Shutterstock photo
“A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”

In an ironic example of possible “fake news,” the above quote – or a version of it – has been attributed to several individuals, including Mark Twain and the 16th century satirist Jonathan Swift. Regardless of who first coined the statement, it is a fair description of human interaction and a plausible explanation of why society is so profoundly impacted by the unfettered expansion of “fake news” or disinformation, particularly in the media that we consume and share.

We all have some kind of connection to the media – whether it is delivered through our televisions, computer screens, phones or print publications.  It is a good thing, and we have come to rely on the media for so many aspects of our lives.  From the youngest of children watching videos of their favorite shows, to our seniors, sharing news, photos and maybe a recipe or two . . . most of us are in front of screens and consuming digital and social media on a daily basis.

For many individuals, the use of new media is more than social . . . it is how we promote our businesses or communicate for our jobs, our studies, etc. And for people of faith, digital and social media has been a means to witness to our spiritual beliefs, to spread the Gospel and advocate for others in the name of justice and charity.

We Are Called

Indeed, for generations, our Church has called upon us to utilize modern media in service to the common good and to counteract the negative influences that threaten our peace, well-being and sense of solidarity.   We are charged with the role of preserving the truth and using it as an antidote to those who mean to do harm, as Pope Francis has counseled.

Understanding the truth is half the battle.  In a message published in early August, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., spoke of truth as embodied in our faith.  He wrote: “Truth is not true because we believe it. Truth is true whether we believe it or not. 

“Truth is not true today and false tomorrow. Truth is not the object of whims; it is not the subject of opinion polls or majority votes; it is not the ‘stuff’ of arbitrary decisions based upon what is easiest or most convenient to follow or what ‘feels good’ at any particular point in time. Truth is the Lord Jesus dwelling among us in the Church he established.”

In order to champion the truth in media, we need to stay informed, exercise responsibility and remain mindful of our mandate to “love one another,” even when it is our neighbors down the street who persist in posting hateful and disrespectful content to their Facebook page.  It’s a tall order, and easily thwarted by our human failings. 

Like all media consumers, Catholics need to know whether stories are accurate, biased, merely hearsay or downright fabricated. We need to recognize when sources are questionable, even though they are and posted and re-posted as if credible.  Finally, we need to know what to do when something isn’t legitimate or isn’t aligned with what we believe as disciples of Christ.

The Threats Are Real

As challenging as all of this may have been in the past, we are now entering a political season that brings with it even greater threats to the common good. National security officials have consistently warned that foreign-led campaigns are underway, attempting to influence our thinking and how we communicate with one another.  Add to that the home-grown extremist messages that aim to radicalize and gain followers.

Misinformation – and worse, disinformation, designed to cause harm – is pervasive across social media platforms, sometimes with deadly consequences. For instance, survey data collected in six countries by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford determined that 33 percent of people have been exposed to COVID-19 misinformation on social media.

Through the use of automated “bot” systems, bad actors have succeeded in infecting social media with an unfathomable number of fake accounts aimed at spreading disinformation and sowing division among those who hold different political, cultural and religious views. To combat this tidal wave of ill-intended content, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been fighting fire with fire – cracking down on bot-created fabrications with the use of artificial intelligence.

In June, Twitter disclosed that 32,242 accounts were permanently removed from service, including three distinct operations they attributed to the People’s Republic of China, Russia and Turkey. “In all instances, accounts were suspended for various violations of our platform manipulation policies,” Twitter posted on its site. Such manipulation can include commercially-motivated spam, attempts to make accounts or content appear more popular or active, and coordinated activity that “attempts to artificially influence conversations through the use of multiple accounts, fake accounts, automation and/or scripting.”

According to MIT’s Technology Review, Facebook took down close to 2 billion fake accounts per quarter in 2019. The tech giant’s advanced detection systems are often able to uncover fake accounts as they are created or before they go live.

Since July, both Facebook and Twitter have banned thousands of conspiracy theorists based in the United States and removed posts or limited functionality for hundreds of thousands of accounts who espouse similar ideology.

A Force for Good

It is true that disinformation has been weaponized by a myriad of forces who are aligned with influences across the ideological spectrum. There will be fake news articles, doctored photos and videos, posts that viciously attack others, and comments on posts that reflect extremist ideology and seek to pit us against one another. There will be attempts to demean the dignity of people in all stages of life; there will be attempts to incite hatred and contempt. 

But in order to fully succeed in their efforts, they need a catalyst – which society often seems eager to provide. Instead, Catholic Christians can utilize the tools of the Church – the Catechism, teachings from the Holy See, the statements of its bishops – to challenge destructive content in front of the social media community.

Staying well-informed about issues through reliable sources and being buoyed by the Gospel gives every person the power to respond in love to the hate that is all too easy to find.