'Snake news': Pope Francis takes on 'fake news,' without asking some crucial questions

There he goes again. Pope Francis has jumped into another crucial issue in the public square, one involving everyone from the New York Times DC bureau to Fox News, from Facebook to Donald Trump's White House spin machine.

We're talking about "fake news." The problem, of course, is that hardly anyone, anywhere, agrees on a definition of this omnipresent term.

Fake news as in tabloid-style coverage (or worse) of mere rumors, acidic political fairy tales and outright hoaxes?

Fake news, as in screwed-up, mistake-plagued coverage of real events and trends?

Fake news, as in biased, advocacy journalism about real events, whether in shouting matches on talk-TV or on the front pages of elite publications?

Fake news, as in reporting based totally on anonymous sources, leaving the public in the dark on the motives of those providing the information? Waves of news from journalists who basically say, "Trust us? What could go wrong?"

Fake news, as in news that partisan leaders -- in government and in the press -- simply don't like and want to see suppressed?

So what are we talking about here? Here is the top of the Los Angeles Times story on the "snake news" blast from Pope Francis:

Pope Francis has brought a biblical bearing to the global debate over fake news by condemning the phenomenon as satanic and saying it began in the Garden of Eden.
In a document released Wednesday, Francis claimed peddlers of fake news use "snake tactics" and "disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place." Francis pinned responsibility for the start of disinformation on the "crafty serpent," who, according to the Bible, "at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news."
By persuading Eve there was nothing wrong with eating an apple from the tree of knowledge, despite the stern warning from God not to do so, the snake, with fake news, "began the tragic history of human sin," Francis wrote.
The concept of "fake news" has been referred to repeatedly by Donald Trump to attack media outlets critical of him and has been used to describe falsities spread on the internet by Russian hackers during the 2016 U.S. election campaign.

Ah, so fake news is a problem on the political and cultural right, there are no "fake news" problems to deal with, other than things related to supporters of Trump. This is all about Trump, period, not strong, long-term trends in journalism, digital niches online, or a growing partisan divide at the heart of American life?

The pope released this message on Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, who is considered the patron saint of journalists. The message itself is linked to the May 13 observance of World Communications Day. The pope's theme: “ ‘The truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace."

On the definition issue, if helps to read the pope's own word (care of the document posted at the always helpful Whispers in the Loggia blog):

The term “fake news” has been the object of great discussion and debate. In general, it refers to the spreading of disinformation on line or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.

The effectiveness of fake news is primarily due to its ability to mimicreal news, to seem plausible. Secondly, this false but believable news is “captious”, inasmuch as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration. The ability to spread such fake news often relies on a manipulative use of the social networks and the way they function. Untrue stories can spread so quickly that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage.

The difficulty of unmasking and eliminating fake news is due also to the fact that many people interact in homogeneous digital environments impervious to differing perspectives and opinions.

There is much more to say, of course, about the pope's essay.

However, at this point let me point readers to another commentary on the media and Catholic issues, written by my journalism-faculty colleague Clemente Lisi, of The King's College. He's a veteran mainstream journalist in New York CIty, reporting and editing at The New York Daily News and elsewhere, and this is another essay for The Media Project website.

Here's the overture:

Christian tradition dictates that we need to be aware of the seven deadly sins:
pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Add the distribution of fake news to that list. If Dante were around today, he would certainly add a circle in hell that includes journalists for the way many people perceive that we twist facts and purposely disseminate misinformation to millions upon millions of people each day.
Fake news -- and the overuse of the term itself -- has become so pervasive that even Pope
Francis felt strong enough about it to address the phenomenon plaguing our Facebook feeds and Google searches.

So where is the papal finger of doom pointing, in this case? Are journalists the key snakes, or people who abuse the technological tools of social media? Here is the heart of the matter, for Lisi:

Fake news is often in the eye of the beholder. That’s the problem we find ourselves at a time when we can’t agree on basic truths. When President Donald Trump dislikes a news story or wants to discredit a media organization, he blasts them as “fake news.” In this instance, Pope Francis is doing a similar thing, conflating journalism with the social media tools that distribute that information. In calling for a journalism that is "truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines,” the pope fell into the same trap as Trump.
During his recent trip to South America, Pope Francis accused victims of Chile’s most notorious pedophile of slander. The pope said that until he sees proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the sex crimes of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, such accusations against the bishop are defamatory. The Associated Press reported that Karadima’s accusers were credible enough by the Vatican in 2011 and that a Chilean judge also found the victims to be credible, saying she had to drop criminal charges because the statute of limitation had passed. Although the pope never used the words fake news to rebuke the victims, his comments did ignore fundamental truths about Barros’ in action after victims came to him about abuse allegations.

Yes, there is much more. But here is the bottom line, for Lisi:

Fake news is a real problem, but the devil really is in the details when it comes to who’s really to blame.

Read it all. And pass it on to others.

Note from tmatt: My first form of "fake news" has been tweaked to make my point more clear.

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