Former Vatican communications chief gives talk on fake news

By Elise Harris

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Monsignor Dario Viganò. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Six weeks after resigning as head of the Vatican communications office over a fake news controversy, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Vigano gave a talk on the subject of fake news at a high-profile conference in Rome.

In the April 28 panel, titled “Fake News and the Ethical Responsibilities of Media,” Msgr. Vigano stressed the importance of transparency in the media and said journalists who publish false or inaccurate information risk “poisoning” their readers.

He spoke for a Q&A panel discussion alongside Max Gomez, PhD after a keynote speech was given by Mehmet C. Öz, MD. The session was part of a wider, April 14-20 “Unite to Cure” conference gathering doctors, scientists and celebrities such as Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom to talk about new developments in medicine.

The conference, held inside the Vatican, was co-organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the CURA Foundation.

In his comments during the panel, Vigano said the push for transparency on the web, especially when it comes to large organizations, “is absolutely urgent.”

He suggested reading a book on the “job of the reporter,” which outlines the “paradigm” between a doctor and a journalist, arguing that while the doctor impacts the physical well-being of their patients, a journalist impacts the mental well-being of their readers.

“The journalist, like the doctor, has the ability to poison their readers [but] with one difference, which is that the journalist can poison more readers than a doctor can patients,” he said.

Vigano said this fact means that for journalists, a “great ethical responsibility” is required, and that this responsibility grows as the danger of fake news increases.

Pointing to the conversation between Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Vigano said the serpent's comment - “Is it true that God told you that you will die if you eat of the fruit of the tree of life?” - is a classic example of fake news in the form of misinformation.

“Fake news has a mimetic dynamic,” he said, explaining that it does not seem false right away, since there are likely some elements of truth. This, he said, is why “it's very important right now to remember the great ethical responsibility.”

With the rapid change in media, which is increasingly based on digital platforms rather than traditional outlets such as newspapers, knowledge is no longer communicated through a specific “pedagogical path,” but is shared through far-reaching, unspecific networks.

“With this knowledge, or this presumed knowledge, everyone is drinking through the interface,” and this creates a complex situation, Vigano said, because users browsing the internet likely do not have an “attention to falsification” or an “asceticism of questioning,” meaning they are more vulnerable to fake news.

Many media outlets, such as blogs, quickly become their own small corporations, publishing news they think will resonate with people belonging to a certain determined group, making it easier to produce and share false information for the sake of getting clicks, he said.

And while medical communication is more targeted and personal, digital media and social networks are global, meaning the risk factor is higher, he added.

Vigano's talk fell just six weeks after his March 21 resignation as prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communications following what has come to be known as the “Lettergate” scandal.

It began after the Monday, March 12, launch of the 11-book series “The Theology of Pope Francis,” published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the Vatican publishing house overseen by the Vatican's Secretariat for Communications.

A letter from Benedict XVI praising Francis' theological and philosophical formation was read aloud at the event, however, the secretariat later admitted to tampering with an image of the letter that was sent to media, blurring out lines in which Benedict said that he had not read the full series, and did not plan to do so, and therefore was not able to offer an in-depth analysis of the text.

Days later, it was revealed that further paragraphs had been left out in which Benedict questioned the inclusion in the series of a theologian known for his “anti-papal initiatives.”

After receiving pressure from the media, the secretariat published the full letter March 17, which they said was confidential and never intended to be published in its entirety.

Following Vigano’s resignation, Pope Francis named Msgr. Lucio Ruiz, former secretary of the department, as an interim prefect, but asked Vigano to stay on in an advisory role, which he continues to hold.

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