Fake News, Faith in News, and Your Part in the News Cycle

Last year’s U.S. presidential election saw the emergence of an intriguing phenomenon: fake news.

While false stories are not new in the history of politics and news reporting, the fabrications that emerged from mysterious sources during the course of the electoral process gained significant attention due to the viral power of social media and the polarizing nature of the major-party candidates. With the help of Dr. Joyce Smith, associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University, the November 27 Theology on Tap in downtown Toronto unpacked a very pertinent question: of the myriad information we come across, what is true, and how can we draw on our Catholic faith to help us navigate the landscape?

Dr. Smith provided a useful definition of “fake news” to help frame our thinking: It is a story made up with the motive of hurting the reputation of someone (in the event of the election, one of the candidates). It is not news one doesn’t like to hear, satirical content, or mistaken and/or poor journalism. It is also worth noting that it is not a phenomenon belonging exclusively on one side of the political spectrum.

Social media has served as an enabler of fake news because of the ease with which content can be shared and spread to millions. However, there are more fundamental forces at play that feed fake news. For consumers, it is the desire to be confirmed in our beliefs. Negative stories about the opposing candidate are created in order to support the candidate who the story’s creator supports. Those who support that candidate share the story with others to convince others to agree with them. Peddlers of fake news are at times motivated by the simple need to survive. Dr. Smith shared one example of how one fake news website founder started a website because they had mounting college tuition bills and needed a way to earn easy money to pay those expenses. This is not to condone fake news, but a poignant reminder that real people – humans – are at the centre of this phenomenon, not just technology.

How do we respond to fake news, as humans, citizens and as people who try to live up to a higher standard? To paraphrase Dr. Smith, as Catholics, we are called as individuals to act to correct injustices and not lead others into error. Practically, we can learn how to identify clickbait and avoid engaging with it, which would diminish the profitability of fake news and thus the incentive to produce it. At the same time, we can also practice diversifying our sources of information and read stories from otherwise credible outlets whose perspectives may be different from our own. This would temper the need to be confirmed in our beliefs and help create space for dialogue with those who may not agree with us.

It is important to remember that the people who news is written about are indeed people. Put yourself in the shoes of some in public life, or their family’s shoes – how would you like to see something about yourself, or someone you loved published that was absolutely not true? In a time in which demonizing those who disagree with us is relatively easy, let us make the extra effort to instead humanize them.

By M.J. Santa Ana

M.J. began to fully embrace his faith after a life-changing experience at World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid. A political science major at York University, he served on the editorial board of a student-run academic journal and was also communications director for a campus chapter of a major political party. Also an original member of the campus evangelization program at York, he helped the Chaplaincy blog reach 11,000 people in 60 countries within the first six months of its launch. He is proud to volunteer with Faith Connections, where he feels that he can contribute to helping build a community of faith through enriching events.