Father David Bellusci, OP

Finding truth in the midst of fake news

Voices June 13, 2018

Pro-lifers rally in Dublin in advance of the Irish referendum on abortion. “A rhetorical strategy of fake news” helped change attitudes about life, writes Father Bellusci. (William Murphy infomatique, Flickr)

The notion of “fake news” has received considerable attention since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and his repeated references to “fake news.” But “fake” information is nothing new.

“Fake,” often disguised as “rhetoric,” serves to manipulate politics, religion, and the society that is the recipient of the fake information.

In fact in postmodern society “truth” has been under attack and replaced with fiction narrative – or myth. Our understanding of God, the human being, and history continue to undergo revision.

In our present context, has untrustworthy and misleading reporting and writing finally become recognized as a tool in broadcasting and the press to disseminate atheistic ideologies?

The increasing political influence of social networks has been acknowledged, especially in Germany with regard to attitudes toward migration and in the U.S. in relation to the 2017 elections.

If news is “fake,” it cannot be reliable. Yet, citizens are supposed to “make up their minds” and judge for themselves in order to form an opinion.

How does this affect us as Roman Catholics? We need to confront reality: not everything we read and hear is true, whether in print, what is broadcast, or news feeds of social networks.

An ancient debate has been whether truth resides in premises (dialectic) or in the persuasiveness of the argument (rhetoric).

Have you ever wondered why you read what you read? Is it for information or entertainment? Is it possible to be entertained while being informed?

People enjoy learning while being amused or mystified, and this is where truth can be lost or blurred in rhetoric. How reliable is sensationalized news? We know that “sexy” sells, but does it betray truth?

Strategies that are used to change our view of the world should not come as a surprise, and this is a good thing if it leads to a deeper understanding of what is true. But it would be evil if our changes in perception lead to error, not unlike the serpent who tricked the woman and the man into disobeying God (Gen: 3). The fall of the woman and the man came through cunning words!

We can be informed about “How things are,” but also persuaded “how they ought to be.” This transition from “is” to “ought” is significant because it requires a radical change in our thinking and, if carried out, how things “ought” to be can “become” the new reality.

Let’s take a concrete example: Ireland, a traditional stronghold of Roman Catholicism. (Catholicism has declined six per cent in five years from 84.2 per cent in 2011 to 78.3 per cent in 2016.) Ireland has (until recently) upheld fundamental life and family values enshrined in the laws of the country in conformity not only with Catholic values but natural law: same-sex marriage and abortion were both illegal.

How does a Catholic society change its views on marriage and life at conception? The approach to social reconstruction has been a rhetorical strategy of fake news.

First, the aim is to undermine the very moral institution that upholds and teaches Christian values – ultimately, the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church.

Hence the news broadcasts, press headlines, and social media feeds repeat coverage of scandals to create collective anger and outrage. We can take any injustice, and our world is full of them, where tragic events can be revealed  or discovered, and present them to the public to form opinions, to change perceptions, to reconstruct society.

The question is whether the public is being informed by what is true and how it is communicated, or whether the manipulation of public opinion is the objective by distorting news and leading to errors.

Second, anger needs an outlet. And while anger may be justified, anger can also be fuelled. This finds some resolution when it’s time to vote. This strategy was used for the same-sex marriage issue in Ireland and more recently the pro-abortion vote. Media and social networks motivated by militant secular ideologies have been remarkably successful.

So, how is fake news packaged? Through selective underreporting, biased reporting, or non-reporting, while targeted news pieces are over-reported.

This is all determined by time, space and budgets. To increase the audience, sensationalized news pieces – “news” blurred with entertainment – move away from the truth and increasingly into the domain of rhetoric, which ensures a captive audience while competing to win audiences, fans, followers, readers, and “Likes.”

People move further from the truth and toward what makes “emotional impact” – erroneous perceptions – as the narrative is altered. Truth no longer matters even if it’s fiction. After all, who can really distinguish between fact and fiction in this age of fake news?

And so, Roman Catholics are expected to put up with sacrilegious movies, blasphemy in comedies, indoctrinating news reporting, and sick jokes coming from talk show hosts, all in the name of freedom of the press or artistic expression, as our societies become morally bankrupt.

St. Thomas Aquinas says the truth is not subject to change, but our intellect is, from truth to falsity (Summa Theologiae, Part 1, Question 16, article 8). And “fake news” has one objective: to change the truth so there is confusion, falsity, and a new narrative: fiction.

The Logos, the Word of God, cannot be replaced by anything fake or any error or any human reconstruction. Errors that circulate and spread like a deadly disease can only be treated – cleansed by the teachings of Christ, and his teachings do not change: the Word of God does not change, cannot change, and will not change.

For those who believe, they will live by the sacraments, witness the Gospel, and their lives will conform to – and be transformed by – the truth.

Father David Bellusci is a Dominican priest and assistant professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College in Langley.

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