Why Pope Francis says fake news is a 'sin'

In an interview published Wednesday, Pope Francis takes on fake news, calling the spread of disinformation or 'communicating ugly things' a sin and referring to it as the biggest damage media can do.

Tony Gentile/Reuters
Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican on Dec. 4, 2016.

Spreading fake news is the greatest damage that media can do – and to engage in disinformation, instead of education, is a sin, Pope Francis said in an interview published on Wednesday.

"The communications media have a very great responsibility. Nowadays they have in their hands the possibility and the capacity to form opinion: they can form a good or a bad opinion," the pope said in an interview with Belgian Catholic weekly, Tertio. He later added, "Disinformation is probably the greatest damage that the media can do, as opinion is guided in one direction, neglecting the other part of the truth."

In what some observers say is one of the most blunt attacks he has directed toward the media, the pope’s comments draw attention to the proliferation of fake news that has contributed to political strife, polarized American voters, and, in once case, prompted a man to fire a gun in a Washington, D.C, pizzeria. It’s not the first time the pope has taken on the media, a platform that he has cautioned is capable of causing great harm if misused.

In stark language, pope warned that media have an obligation to resist the temptation to be "always wanting to communicate scandal, to communicate ugly things, even though they may be true."

The pope clarified that he didn’t just mean news organizations – this includes those who publish or republish harmful stories through social media. Slander, he notes, has become a damaging common feature in communications. Giving half-truths are also harmful, because the reader or listener will be unable to "make a serious judgement."

"And the communications media have their temptations. They can be tempted by calumny, and therefore used to slander, to sully people, especially in the world of politics," he said, attacking those who use media to slander political rivals. "They can be used as means of defamation.... There is no right to this. This is a sin and it is harmful."

During the 2016 US election, the pope was himself reported falsely to have endorsed President-elect Donald Trump for president, and which he later explained that popes do not endorse political candidates. 

Last month, President Obama described the proliferation of fake news as a threat to democratic freedoms, calling it a problem if "we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda," as reported by Time.

For Pope Francis, however, his warnings about the potential for media to spread disinformation predate recent events. In August, he  spoke to Italy’s national journalism guild about how the press has the power to act like "terrorists," particularly when covering humanitarian crises, if it relies on gossip and rumors.

In 2012, a year before assuming his papal position, he strongly rebuked journalists who have a "tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive aspects," he said then in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa, according to the Guardian.

Through encyclicals, speeches, and even a meeting with Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, the pope has talked of the power the internet and social media can have in not only serving as a powerful tool of communication, but also as a source of "mental pollution," a tool that can unite as easily and it divides and isolates.

During Wednesday's interview, the pope utilized another medical term to describe current times.

"Today there is a need for a revolution of tenderness in this world that suffers from 'cardiosclerosis,' " he said at the end of the Tertio interview, meaning a hardening of the heart.

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