In light of the spread of “fake news” in today’s rapidly changing world of communications, Pope Francis has invited those working in the media to “promote a journalism of peace” that is truthful and helps to form others, but is not harmful or sentimental, refusing to acknowledge serious problems.

In his 52nd World Day of Social Communications message on the theme “'The truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace,” the Holy Father warned that spreading disinformation can have “dire consequences,” feeds on “greed” and the “thirst for power,” and thrives on the absence of a “healthy confrontation” necessary for “constructive dialogue.”

The Vatican released the message on Wednesday, on the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and journalists. The World Day of Social Communications, the only world day established by the Second Vatican Council (“Inter Mirifica”, 1963), will take place on the Sunday preceding Pentecost, 13 May.

The term “fake news” rose to prominence during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election campaign when false election-related articles began appearing on Facebook. President Donald Trump has subsequently directed the label against traditional news agencies which he sees as unfairly or inaccurately reporting on him or the Trump administration. 

Noting how man has always had a “capacity to twist the truth,” the Pope stated that he wished to contribute to “stemming the spread of fake news and to rediscovering the dignity of journalism and the personal responsibility of journalists to communicate the truth.”

He delineated what is “fake” about “fake news,” saying it is based on “non-existent or distorted data” to advance political or economic interests. It mimics real news “to seem plausible,” Francis added, and said it is “captious” as it “grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices,” exploiting emotions such as “anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.”

Many people use digital media which can be “impervious to differing perspectives and opinions,” making “fake news” hard to unmask, the Pope continued, adding that the “tragedy” of spreading disinformation, especially through social media is that it “discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict.” Fake news, he said, “leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred” — the “end result of untruth.”

Francis praised educational programs, legal initiatives and technological advances aimed at combatting the phenomenon, but he also stressed the importance of discernment to unmask the “snake-tactics” used by those creating fake news, which he believes is primarily motivated by an “insatiable greed” and rooted in the “thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy.”  

He referred to the Book of Genesis and how, through the serpent, the “Father of Lies” seduces his way into the hearts of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with “false and alluring arguments.”  The story, he said, is a warning of how even a “slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects,” and stressed that “education for truth” will help people to discern and not to yield to “every temptation.”

“The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth,” the Pope went on, and this is achieved by experiencing the “loyalty and trustworthiness of the One who loves us” which sets us free.

The ability to discern the truth, he stressed, comes from relationships, “listening to one another,” and seeking the truth. The Pope said an “impeccable argument” can rest on “undeniable facts” but if it is used to hurt or discredit another, “it is not truthful.”

“We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results,” the Pope said.

The best antidotes to falsehoods come from those people who are “ready to listen” and “engage in sincere dialogue so the truth can emerge,” the Pope said. And he reminded journalists that they are “protectors of news” whose mission is not to “rush for a scoop” but to recall that the “heart of information” is persons. Their task, therefore, is to ensure accuracy of sources and protect communication in order to promote “goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.”

He also warned against a “saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism.” Instead, he called for a journalism that is “truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice.”

He further advocated reporting that is “less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”

The Holy Father closed by recalling the famous “Franciscan prayer” that begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace” and adjusted it for those working in today’s media:

“Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.

Help us to remove the venom from our judgments.

Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.

You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:

where there is shouting, let us practise listening;

where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;

where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;

where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;

where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;

where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;

where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;

where there is hostility, let us bring respect;

where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.

Amen.”