Readers may recall my article dissecting a fake news piece that got linked to the Drudge Report and other sites as “actual news”. There is, sadly, a good deal more of that going on. There is an ever increasing proliferation of fake news, attempting to copy the Onion, some of it decent, some of it in bad taste. And of course, there is a lot of proliferation of Pope Francis fake news.
Admittedly, Francis is an easy target, and I am not uncritical of the Pope. Unguarded and careless statements, made off the cuff or otherwise, have become almost legendary. We have had, to name a few, “Who are you to judge”; “We don’t have to be like rabbits”; “The Reform of the Reform is a mistake”; “We need a one world political authority”; “We need a miracle for the Family to accept scandalous things” etc., all verified and true statements that have caused great concern and consternation among Catholics. Then we can add his actions, appointing an open manifest heretic, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., to a pontifical council, giving a platform to pro-abortion UN divines for his encyclical, inviting lesbians to the Vatican or apologizing for sharing the faith in Latin America, have likewise caused such scandal that, one can almost believe Francis would say anything. Increasingly, I find this sentiment amongst friends who go to the Novus Ordo. It’s not a Trad thing anymore.
Still, the latest is completely absurd: “Pope Francis says unwed mother’s must be forcibly sterilized to stop climate change.” The website is obviously fake, and it cites the source as Francis’ encyclical, where the Pope actually said the opposite (no. 50). This did make the rounds and in spite of it’s absurdity, some news sites and people, particularly on facebook, did accept it as fact, even though a quick google search would have pulled up an easy snopes article showing it is false (which is less work than verifying through the Vatican website, as I suggested the last time I wrote on this topic).
Now, the fake news article in itself is not particularly of interest to me. Rather, I have several observations.
1) That people could or would accept this is evidence of how poorly team Bergoglio has managed the Pope’s message. The frequent gaffes and off the cuff statements referenced above, combined with instant clarification from Fr. Lombardi, and the use of the Pope’s words by the media, whether in context or not, are evidence of the complete failure of the Vatican Press Office and others to use media to present what the Pope wants to teach, and as a result, people are prepared to believe anything. One can only blame the media so much, as it is obvious the secular media has an axe to grind against the Church, and poorly made and ill-prepared statements only give them the perfect opportunity. It doesn’t exculpate the media, but at the same time, the Vatican clearly needs to control how it presents info. All we need to do is turn back to John Paul II’s pontificate to witness an efficient and well run press office. Those who know me, or followed the old incarnation of this website, know I was no fan of that pontificate, nevertheless, John Paul II’s messages were carefully prepared and crafted, he never made off the cuff remarks that could be easily misinterpreted and taken miles in another direction by the media, let alone things disparaging to Traditional Catholics, though he no doubt strongly disagreed with them (e.g. Francis’ many pejorative terms for those cultivating traditional spirituality).
2) There is a wider critique here than Francis, which is the credulity our culture places in news, and it’s lack of discernment in regard to sources. Too often we read headlines, and take that to be true without any further question. The Drudge Report is an obvious example. Only crazy news junkies click on every single link and discerningly read every story. In reality most people skim and click on the more interesting stories. On top of that, Drudge then has a lot of power to manipulate headlines to his particular point of view. For example, one time he linked an article and wrote the headline: “Organic food contains ecoli”, but when you went to the article it was organic food sent to a packing plant that was contaminated with ecoli originating with conventional food. Such is the power of headlines. Not to say Drudge is evil, but it would be foolish to think he didn’t have his own agenda, and he would certainly admit to it, unlike the MSM.
3) This website is but one of many proliferating fake news under the guise of satire. The success of websites like The Onion has spawned a legion of fake news sites, well produced, tolerably written that are supposed to be “satire”. There are two problems with this.
a) A lot of these news outlets hire out writers and accept nearly anything, which is just stuff re-written from other news articles, and can include many false or incorrect things. I know this because I’ve earned money doing this on various contracting websites for writing, though I never wrote anything I knew to be false. Others did and it was clear. The goal is to get content with buzzwords that brings more clicks and increase advertising revenue. This doesn’t help inform the public, or provide any beneficial service. Internet has provided us with an easy way around the Main Scream Media, to reach out and provide news, find news, and in another word, form alternative media without them. The problem comes in with the fact that anyone can do this, and create nonsense. Alternative media needs to be self policing and adhere to strict standards itself, to prevent the proliferation of fake news.
b) Just as importantly, the proliferation of fake news occurs under the guise of “satire”. It would be helpful if we reviewed what satire really is. According to the Oxford English dictionary Satire is: “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” It uses irony, juxtaposition, oxymoron, humor and other things to mock something else.
There are several modes of satire, and it has been realized differently by different peoples. For the classical culture, i.e. Greek and Roman culture, satire could be a poem or prose that makes a mockery of social movements or peoples. It is often only understood by context (which is why St. Jerome famously burned his copy of Juvenal, saying “If you weren’t written to be understood, to the fire with you.”), and makes play of contemporary things. One of my favorite verses of Satire is from
Quintus Horatius Flaccus
Parturient montes, et nascetur ridiculus mus. (Ars Poetica, 139)
The Mountanins will labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be born.
The point of this is to poke fun at great labors which produce meagre results. In Fr. Vincent McNabb’s biography of St. John Fisher, he applies this verse to Cromwell’s great labor to open the safe in the Rectory of the Bishop of Rochester, thinking there was some great treasure inside. Cromwell employed several blacksmiths to get it open, and when it was done they found—a hair shirt!
Non satis est puris versum perscribere verbis.
It is not enough to lay out refined words in verse. (Satira, bk 1 Satire IV, line 54)
Here he means that some poets think they’re clever by literary devices, but there is no content being applied to them, similar to a history book name dropping all sorts of books but failing to provide a unified narrative to make the history intelligible. And so on and so forth. I could talk much more about classical literature, but this will do for now.
More recent satires can be seen in the 19th century with the British magazine Punch. While putting down a revolt in India, General Sir Charles Napier took the province of Sind, and he sent a dispatch back: “I have Sind.” Punch displayed the headline in Laitn: Peccavi. Today that would fall on deaf ears, but in an age where all the readers of Punch could be counted on to have classical educations, they would know that meant “I have sinned”, and thus the pun.
Or in another mode, Chesterton declared: “Politicians and diapers should be changed often, and for the same reason.”
Or more recently, after the Pope used a “burger king” as his sacristy in Bolivia, the Onion ran a satirical photoshop of Pope Francis flipping burgers on the balcony of St. Peter’s. This is amusing and useful satire, it draws attention to Francis condemning international capitalism, while using a creation of that for his mega liturgy in Bolivia. Now, in fairness to Francis, that might have been the only facility suitable for this purpose, who knows. The point remains.
All these are examples of satire to bring attention to cultural or political events. They make good satire, within the contexts they were written in. Part of today’s problem is that the culture is just so weird, it is almost impossible to satire. I wonder if Wodehouse or Waugh would be able to satire today’s culture? Perhaps not. The overarching point is that the proliferation of this fake news is not truly satirical, and frankly dangerous, because we are approaching a point where we can’t really know anything. When you read about a place called Russia, to which you have never been, you are taking it on natural faith that it is there, because people tell you or show you satellite photos or pictures purportedly from there. What if someone was to tell you that there is no such place, that it is a hoax produced in a studio with photo and video and the whole history is manufactured? If you have never been there, normally such while possible would not be plausible, for so many books could not be written, or a whole language created, so many people certain about a country that does not exist. Potentially, the endless proliferation of fake news makes such scenario somewhat plausible.