Seven months before Pope Francis issued a message that defined and condemned “fake news,” the Catholic bishops of the Philippines published a similar exhortation that challenged the toxic social media support for President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal policies.
Their experience in taking on “fake news” is instructive and, it seems, their outspoken response contrasts with that of the U.S. Catholic bishops, who have been mostly tepid on the subject.
The Philippine bishops spoke out in the poisonous context of Duterte’s backing for a massive campaign to murder suspected drug dealers, which has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial slayings. It’s hard to see how the bishops could ignore this, and yet their opposition to the mass of murders led quickly to charges from Duterte and major newspapers that they were being too political. It’s a charge that sticks easily to the Philippine bishops because they have in fact been major political players, whether in helping to topple Ferdinand Marcos and his kleptocracy in the 1980s or in their long but unsuccessful attempt to preserve a law that barred artificial contraceptives.
The extrajudicial killings and other Duterte policies were supported in social media by the now-familiar fabrication of “news” that is either totally false or deliberately misleading propaganda. Critics of Duterte face email inboxes filled with threats and hostile “socialmedicide” campaigns.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines responded last June with the pastoral letter Consecrate Them in the Truth. “A fact is anything that is or that happens,” the bishops declared. “If one man kills another, it cannot but be a fact that the deed was done, and any ‘alternative fact’ that would have it so that no killing was done is simply false, and, when meant to deceive, a lie!”
The bishops described “fake news” as “a sin against charity,” and said that the Catholic faith requires Catholics not to patronize or recirculate it, and to “rebut and refute falsehood whenever they are in possession of facts and of data.” Earlier, they had published “Pastoral Guidelines on the Use of Social Media,” which included an appendix listing 29 websites “carrying fake or unverified contents.” The sites were pro-Duterte; some also touted Donald Trump.
One can argue about the choices made; a few sites say they’re just offering opinion, not phony facts. Other sites shut down. At least the bishops’ statement is a serious attempt to define “fake news,” a term Trump has turned into an all-purpose putdown for news reports he doesn’t like.
U.S. bishops have been much slower to respond publicly to the xenophobic alt-right media, including extremist sites that claim the banner of Catholic orthodoxy to justify an online Inquisition that revels in gay-baiting, anti-Muslim polemics, and mean-spirited personal attacks. The bishops’ strategy seems to be based on the assumption that paying attention only encourages the propagandists—and it may also reflect a fear of the same consequences that the Philippine bishops have faced for confronting Duterte and his online allies.