Word of Welcome

Stefano Zamagni, President | H.E. Msgr. Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor | Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, Vice-Chancellor

Word of Welcome

Word of Welcome

Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò

Welcome, and thank you for sharing your time and knowledge on the communication, which indeed is a particularly central issue today.

The Magisterium of Pope Francis determines a change of course after the long phase in which Papal Magisterium was characterized by what I define as the so-called “double pedagogy” towards the media.

In the encyclical letter Laudato si’ (24 May 2015) he recalls how “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build” (LS, n. 107).

The epistemological approach to the world of the media changes by the reflection of the Church. Indeed, if Pope Francis affirms that “the Net is a resource of our time. It is a source of knowledge and relationships that were once unthinkable”, he is not silent on the fact that “in terms of the profound transformations technology has brought to bear on the process of production, distribution and use of content, many experts also highlight the risks that threaten the search for, and sharing of, authentic information on a global scale”.[1] And more radically, the Pope is aware of the fact that “mere training in the correct use of new technologies will not prove sufficient. As instruments or tools, these are not ‘neutral’, for […] they shape the world and engage consciences on the level of values”.[2]

Under these premises and in this framework, we structured this webinar that starts today and will develop during three sessions.

I thank you all, and I give the floor to the Chairman, President Zamagni, for the first Session titled “From legacy media to digital platforms”.

End Notes
[1] Francesco, Messaggio per la 53a Giornata mondiale delle comunicazioni sociali, «“Siamo membra gli uni degli altri” (Ef 4, 25). Dalle social network communities alla comunità umana», 2019.
[2] Francesco, Discorso per la Plenaria della Pontificia Accademia per la vita, 28 febbraio 2020.


On Fake News and the Crisis of Truth

Introductory remarks to the Webinar Changing Media in a Changing World

Stefano Zamagni, PASS President

1.              In the last decade, the debate on the causes and consequences of online misinformation has acquired increasing relevance in the public sphere and in the agenda of national and international institutions. The issue of fake news, however, should be placed in the context of a generalized crisis of trust in those actors traditionally assigned with the role of producing reliable information: democratic institutions, traditional media and the scientific community. The spread of the term “post-truth”, elected by the Oxford Dictionaries as word of the year 2016, aims to capture precisely this weakening of confidence in “experts”, including scientist working in different field of research.

A recent study by MIT’s Media Lab (Boston) has found that false news has an higher probability of being disseminated via the web that true news, whatever the topic considered. Specifically, false news dealing with politics spreads at a speed three times higher than any other news, reaching twice the number of people (S. Vosoughi et al., “The spread of true and false news online”, Science, 2018, vol. 359, pp. 1146-1151). On the other hand, the 2018 edition of the Global Risks Report indicates that the digital platforms of the main social media, such as Facebook, have directed in the last years almost 40% of traffic towards websites of false news (World Economic Forum, Geneve, 2018, p. 48).

The same Report indicates that the major high-tech corporations have started to fight against what are known as digital wildfires, i.e. news that misrepresents, misstates or conceals relevant information. In turn, the European Commission has defined misinformation as “all forms of false, inaccurate or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit” (“Report of the Independent High-Level Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation”, Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2018). The ability to customize our informational environment, delivered by social media, makes it less likely that citizens will come across information that would change their minds.

There is now a near-consensus – at least among those who are not completely steeped in social-media propaganda – that the current public sphere does not serve us well. “Social media is broken”, A. Newitz wrote in a 2019 commentary for the New York Times. Social media was born not to vehiculate news and information, but to generate sentiment and emotion. “It has poisoned the way we communicate with each other and undermined the democratic process. Many of us just want to get away from it, but we can’t imagine a world without it”.

Nowadays, the problem is not a single demagogue, but a public sphere beset by swarms of “influencers”, propagandists, and bots, all semi-coordinated by the dynamics of the medium itself. Once again, ideas of dubious quality and provenance are shaping people’s thoughts without having been subjected to adequate evaluation and analysis. Needless to say, there is a great deal of money and power to be gained by shaping public opinion online. If you want to get your views out there, it is easier to piggyback on the outrage machine than to develop a comprehensive rational argument.

2.              A question naturally arises: why is fake news so widespread today? I do not hesitate to suggest that one of the main causes is the weakening of the passion for truth. We are currently living in a post-truth era in which truth, objective facts and science itself are increasingly under assault. Today, we are witnessing a resurgence of C.S. Peirce’s theory of truth, that is, the pillar of American pragmatism. Pierce’s conception of truth in terms of the final opinion that is reached in the long run by a community of inquirers marks a significant departure from classic conceptions of truth, not only because it introduces a temporal dimension, but also because it explicitly connects it to groups of people and what those people do. To understand the rapid spread in recent times of pragmatism, it is proper to consider the relation between truth and persuasion.

The desire for consensus, which is a source of power, is rampant. Consequently, the desire for power is rampant. Social media has become a politically effective weapon in this regard. It represents the so-called digital grey power. Nevertheless, it must be noted that social media is only a means of multiplying easy consensus, but that the real engine of consensus is to be found elsewhere, in the eclipse of truth as the first icon to be honored. The eclipse of truth, in turn, is linked to the triumph of its ‘disguise’: persuasion. It is precisely this confusing overlap between truth and persuasion that leads us to conclude that ‘believing to be right is the same as being right’! Indeed, those who think they are right are convinced they are right, but that is not always necessarily the case. The prerequisite of this assumption is that being right or not only depends on the ego’s decision. But the ego can persuade itself of the truth of something because willing is the ego’s power. The ego, however, cannot decide on the truth of something because the truth is not within the ego’s power. In fact, the opposite is true.

The political arena has always consisted in persuasions to be cultivated or incited. Nowadays, cultivating and inciting persuasions is infinitely easier than in the past, because the web is today’s agora, reaching millions of people simultaneously. But the point is that, at the same time, the abyss that separates truth from persuasion has been lost. I call it an abyss because persuasion can also contain falsehood and illusion, not only truth. But persuasion doesn’t know and cannot know it. Only truth knows it. Only truth, in fact, knows of itself and of the falsity of illusion, but falsity and illusion know nothing of the truth, otherwise they would be truths. Someone who is only persuaded is like a blind person who walks in the dark. Common experience confirms this even recently.

According to Greek philosophy, A-lètheia (veritas in Latin) is what is not hidden. The truth is that which is no longer obscure, because we have learned to see it. Post-truth, then, is the renunciation of searching for what is worthy of being believed. Post-truth settles for appearances, for likelihoods. If a shared world is only the result of either the imposition of one perspective on the others, or of a continuous exercise in tolerance, then it is not surprising that fake news is considered unpleasant but inevitable. In democracy, the notion of truth plays a politically crucial role, so much so that it can be affirmed that democracy is truth in power.

If we want to overcome the present situation, it is not enough to prove that a true discourse is still possible, and therefore it is not sufficient to define the modalities or procedures that enable such a discourse to be verified. Nor is it enough to attempt to regain human control over increasingly autonomous and self-referential technological processes capable of manipulating information. First of all, we must regain the taste for the truth and recover the idea that it is possible, despite everything, to say something true and regain the motivation to do so.

3.               The considerations above help us to grasp a potential risk for democracy due to the turbulent spread of social media: the risk of ochlocracy (mob rule). By its very nature, political representation is based on debate and on the exchange of opinions and interests. The parliamentary system is historically considered a “government by discussion”. During the last century, political parties, as opinion generators, were the essential hub of this system. Ever since its creation, this mechanism has always been imperfect and democracy has almost always found an antidote. Today’s situation marks a turning point: social media’s lightning-fast short messages are all the more effective the more disconnected they are from any kind of reflection and are all the more incisive the more radical they are. Algorithms favor the most simplistic – and most drastic – views, highlighting the disparity between “us” and “them”. They do not generate opinions but capture and forge identities instead, exasperating an inclination which is well known to psychologists, whereby we pay more and more attention to what is already familiar. Not only that, but we recognize and adhere to the ideas we already have, which means we live in an “echo chamber”.

In this context, the debate resists factual data. Imagine, for example, the positions of the “flat Earthers” who fight those who believe the Earth is round. As the well-known US jurist Cass S. Sustein shows (On rumors. How falsehoods spread, why we believe them and what can be done, 2020), fake news always prevails over its refutation or over true (i.e. verified) news.

The fact is that there is a discrepancy today between message and meaning, between demagogy and factual data. Devised to sell merchandise and generate profits, algorithms, the various social networks such as Facebook, Twitter or Google, by offering their services and products for free, are turning the users themselves into a profit-generating product.

Destructive populisms have always existed. Societies both suffer and overcome them. How? By clinging to the truth. Today, this old defense mechanism is failing. Post-truth threatens the antibodies that democracy generates to heal from the disease of populism and resist continuism (See S. Giusti and E. Piran, eds., Democracy and Fake News, London, Routledge, 2021). In such situations, the system slides down a slippery slope towards a “tainted” democracy, or rather towards a degenerated form of democracy that goes by the name of ochlocracy, i.e. mob rule, at the mercy of the multitudes and of their impulses and instincts.

The manipulation of public opinion through fake news is a real threat to the stability and cohesion of our societies. If so, it is not enough to remove fake news – which in any case must be done – but it is crucial to allow citizens to become responsible for what is circulated. On the other hand, it is increasingly necessary to train the same communication operators to use weighted sources on the net and have a responsible approach to social media. In this regard, I deem it proper to activate an institutional moment of confrontation between the operators in the production chain, from publishers to journalists, and from search engines to social networks. To reward the quality of information it is necessary to move using and applying rigorous certification mechanisms, which can be applied not only in traditional areas, but also on the internet. (The analogy with what has already been occurring for some years in the area of social impact investing applies to the present case). This way, in addition to strengthening democracy, the principle of truth of the facts and the same deontological principles would be safeguarded.