It is possible to trace the origin of what is popularly called fake news to a garden long ago — where a promise was made.
The promise was a lie, uttered by the one who Jesus said was the father of lies — and by whose very nature it was to be untruthful.
Jesus, of course, claimed to not only speak the truth, but to be Truth itself. And despite the timeless words of Pilate, “What is truth?” — words that echo today around soulless editorial boardrooms and flickering control rooms — there is such a thing as absolute truth, the knowledge of which brings freedom.
Since that first broadcast of fake news — “You will not die; in fact, you will be like God” — the manufacturing of truth, the obfuscation of truth, and the creation of falsehoods masquerading as truth have become an art form. The terrible danger this poses to democracy and a free society was identified decades ago by the great historian of culture, Christopher Dawson. Writing in the 1930s, when the two atheistic systems of communism and Nazism were busily and systematically manufacturing news, Dawson spoke of the “new black arts of mass suggestion and propaganda.”
Those could almost be described as the essence of fake news — used at different times but for the same effect.
Dawson correctly identified this phenomenon as “black arts”; he knew their origin and the almost magical power they could have to manipulate and convince. The Soviet system was almost the definition of a self-perpetuating lie, from fake grain harvest figures to Stalinist show trials. Joseph Goebbels, in Nazi Germany, created one of the greatest propaganda machines the world has ever known, using all that was current in the modern technology of screen and sound to spread the foul and poisonous message of racism and hate.
Propaganda, it could be argued, can be fairly easily identified — today it might be described as an editorial slant. And if identified, it allows the consumer of such news to balance the opinions, if the individual’s media filter is sufficiently attuned. One can watch, for example, Russia Today and then switch to Al Jazeera — and be fairly aware that both organs have a particular point of view, to put it gently. It is more difficult when formerly trusted news organizations — like the BBC, or the major networks in the U.S. — no longer appear to present factual news but present “news” with added editorial comment. What is propaganda and what is truth?
Mass suggestion — the first of Dawson’s “black arts” now known as fake news — is much more pervasive and, precisely because of that, much more dangerous. This is how most people today experience so much that can be described as fake news. Suggestion — via innuendo, selected facts, unnamed and unverified sources, all wrapped up and beautifully packaged and produced — is an art form that would warm the hearts of Soviet media specialists and Nazi technicians. Mass suggestion, the more attractive and more subtle twin sister of propaganda, usually takes two forms: the actual creation of falsehood, or the failure to include relevant and necessary information that would change the story.
The sin of omission in fake news can often be the most deadly of its black arts — leaving out that crucial quotation, failing to describe a scene fully, or omitting a fact.
This is, in fact, what every Catholic confesses each week during the “confiteor” at Mass — “what I have done and what I have failed to do.”
The sin of omission in fake news can often be the most deadly of its black arts — leaving out that crucial quotation, failing to describe a scene fully, or omitting a fact. The important and diabolical power of omission in fake news is the ability to sow the seeds of doubt (as in, “Maybe there is some truth to this story?”).
A manufactured story, a false story or an actual lie will often be discovered more quickly, but is still has the same demonic power to alter perception. A story can be created using multiple “unnamed sources” who describe events that are alleged to have happened — or that will happen in the future. But no one can know for certain because no one is named or identified.
Then there is the question of perception, also susceptible to the black arts of suggestion. King Theseus, in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” said that the “lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact” — in other words, what they perceive to be real is reality. This is almost the definition of fake news! They have, said Theseus, such “seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.” If falsehood is presented as reality for long enough, and forcefully enough, it will eventually be perceived as reality — “such tricks hath strong imagination.”
One of the best portrayals of the creation of fake news was in the movie “Broadcast News,” a favorite of all media junkies. The notorious scene, where the reporter played by William Hurt fakes a tear when his headshot is being recorded after an interview, is a classic example of manipulation. And, of course, the Hurt character goes onto become a national anchor — the devil rewards the practitioners of his black arts.
As Pope Benedict XVI has written, truth is the “medium in which men make contact, whereas it is the absence of truth which closes them off from one another — man, deprived of truth, has been dishonored.”
A world where fake news is normal and almost impossible to discern from reality is a world in which Eden has not been redeemed — and where the fall is glorified and the redemption is a myth. St. Thomas Aquinas said that truth is the “ad equation” of the intellect to reality, so those who fail to perceive the truth, or who manufacture falsehood, are actually living in unreality. As Pope Benedict XVI has written, truth is the “medium in which men make contact, whereas it is the absence of truth which closes them off from one another — man, deprived of truth, has been dishonored.”
Satan’s essential function is to divide — and the creation of fake news is his greatest weapon and the most powerful of his black arts. Those who work to proclaim the truth, in the sphere of the sacred or the secular, are connecting and uniting — when the falsehood of division is so much more acceptable and popular.