In January President Trump presented his Fake News Awards. The New York Times led the list. Fake news is all the rage: a modern phenomenon which seems to have been born at the last presidential election. Pope Francis dedicated this year’s World Communications Day message to it.
It is true that the modern world is particularly vulnerable to fake news, although it has a somewhat longer history. Pontius Pilate cited false reports when he arraigned Jesus, and in the Middle Ages fabricated stories of murderous Jewish activities were circulated successfully, and ultimately bloodily. Similar stories with similar objectives and outcomes were used by the Nazis, and believed as readily. The idea that we upright Brits would not have been fooled by such propaganda, in the same circumstances, is dangerously optimistic.
The target of course is mobile vulgus, the “fickle crowd”. It has always been with us – as the use of the Latin phrase indicates. Its characteristic is its tendency to believe the evidence that supports what it would like to be true. There is no doubt that, while the universal mob response can be tracked through history, it has become more common through the press, radio and television. Today we can add social media.
Fortunately, none of us belongs to a mob. Really? The tendency to accept evidence which supports our own view is shared by the educated, the politicians and the man in the street. And I include myself. The only hope of defence is an internal scepticism through which we continually question evidence which appears to support what we think to be true. And that’s difficult.
The problem is reinforced by the discovery that our brains are set to reward us when we find that our opinion is shared among the groups to which we belong. It appears that in the earliest times safety required that communities be united in their views. Conformity was safe, disunity was dangerous. Moving, as I do, between various Catholic groups, I find that only a few minutes are needed in order to know what kind of opinions are acceptable in that group. It is ironic that the Catholic Herald, the first Catholic newspaper to have an uncensored letters page, was criticised more than 60 years ago, often from high places, for encouraging the laity to express their views and to have a liturgy in their own language. If the Herald had had its own way there might have been no need for Vatican II…
If the mob response has always been with us, we should note that available methods of communication may be the key to its extent. Remember how the power of printing enabled Protestant reformers to publish the Bible in the vulgar tongue and the circulation of other important documents. Without printing power that great cultural change might never have taken place. Perhaps its strongest stimulant is social media: enabling a staggering capacity for firebrands to communicate to thousands of people. It may well change the culture of our society, and indeed of our democracy, as did the invention of the printing press.
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