“The means of communication are the builders of a society. In and of themselves, they are made to build, to interchange, to fraternize, to make us think, to educate.” Pope Francis
I don’t know if you heard, but prior to the 2016 presidential election, Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump. Citing the FBI’s refusal to prosecute Hillary Clinton, the statement from Pope Francis concludes with: “For this primary reason I ask, not as the Holy Father, but as a concerned citizen of the world that Americans vote for Donald Trump for President of the United States.”
This endorsement was certainly a surprise, as Pope Francis and Donald Trump infamously clashed over immigration prior to the election.
Of course, the thing is, the above endorsement is actually fake. But that didn’t stop it from spreading like wildfire across social media. In fact, just one website’s post on this fake story (and there were numerous copycats) received nearly a million engagements on Facebook. If one searched the story on Twitter, one would quickly see how countless Trump supporters, some of whom have tens thousands of followers, shared the fake endorsement with followers.
We will likely never know if the hundreds of thousands of people who shared this fake endorsement on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets willingly knew the story was fake or if they purposely spread this fake story to incite confusion among Catholics and generate more votes for their favored candidate.
Truth be told, the common impulse to exclusively blame Russia and other creators of fake news is an easy out. The real danger our Republic faces doesn’t just come from the outside but from within.
In January, when Pope Francis met with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Pope Francis correctly stated, “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.”
People tend to forget the internet is simply a tool. Our minds, on the other hand, require the proper use of this tool, if we are going to develop our prudence and understanding of complex social and political issues. The pursuit of truth requires a willingness to put in the effort to discern what information is legitimate and useful versus that which is dishonest and distorted.
In a recent interview, Pope Francis said the media has a great responsibility to not spread disinformation. The problem is that traditional media outlets are now competing with both legitimate and irresponsible media sites that are products of the internet age. More than half of those between the ages of 18 and 49 get their news primarily through the internet. And it is increasingly clear that many are struggling to differentiate legitimate and illegitimate sources, either due to ignorance or indifference. When fake news is increasingly dominating the internet and outpacing traditional news outlets in engagement, the problems with this new reality are obvious.
But it is not just a technology problem. Fake news and the confusion it spreads are symptoms of a far more severe problem. America’s basic understanding of how our government works and the political realities we are facing as a country are eroding.
A poll conducted by the Civics Renewal Network in 2014 found that fewer than a third of the respondents could name all three branches of the US government and only a quarter knew it takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto.
Not knowing or understanding the structure or mechanics of government is one thing, but when it relates to policy issues, the level of misunderstanding is perhaps even more worrisome. This is especially true when uninformed citizens cast a vote based on serious policy issues without any factual understanding of the issues whatsoever.
This is true of both domestic and foreign policy issues. To name just one example, in 2013 a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that while 41% of Republicans felt Benghazi was the biggest political scandal in American history, 39% of couldn’t find it on a map. If you don’t know in which country the supposed biggest scandal in American history took place, perhaps some level of humility would be in order. But bravado and reckless claims are far more common. Can the Republic remain healthy with so many acting this way?
Perhaps the most effective long-term way to combat fake news and the disinformation it spreads is to heavily invest in civic education. Schools are already teaching K-12 students how to use the computer and internet. Now may be the time to update educational standards on civics as well, along with the intersection of civics and technology. Instead of trying to memorize names and dates year after year, as if historical and political events were equations or theories, the youth of America should be openly debating each other in the classroom and taking time to gather credible sources of information to back up such debates.
If nothing is done, our Republic may fatally succumb to the ignorance and irresponsibility promoted in the darkest corners of the internet. Let’s commit to being more careful consumers of internet content. Let’s encourage the people we know to do the same and helpfully correct them when they stumble. And let’s prepare a new generation of American citizens with the skills to be responsible citizens in the age of fake news.
Stephen Seufert is the state director of Keystone Catholics, an online social justice organization dedicated to promoting the common good.