Only two things matter: the salvation of the soul, and truth. That is why it is an offense to see so many posts running the rounds of social media that are full of blatant untruths that one might discover by a small amount of fact-checking. The headline, or the meme, screams at us. “Pope Francis says yada yada yada!” it says, though in fact, the pope said nothing like yada yada yada. “Obama’s outrageous words!” another post screams; when, in fact, Obama didn’t say it and what he did say was a big yawning bore of a cliché.
Very often, what the pope, or the president, or whoever, did say is right there in the article; the headline is a lie. But who reads the article? Who has time? You read the headline, you hit the share button, you write: “Horrible! Egregious! Preposterous! Who does he think he is?” and you move on to the next piece of manufactured outrage in your news feed.
It matters very much:
These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.
Truth matters so much—for God is truth, so an offense against truth is an offense against God himself—that Solomon warns us two times not to lie. Lying is such an abomination to God that it counts as two of seven abominations. These six things doth the Lord hate—well, in fact, he hates seven when you count lying twice.
There is another reason why this is such an important point, and it has to do with the very first item on my list: the salvation of souls. To lie—to spread false report—puts your soul in peril, as the Catechism tells us:
False witness and perjury. When it is made publicly, a statement contrary to the truth takes on a particular gravity. In court it becomes false witness. When it is under oath, it is perjury. Acts such as these contribute to condemnation of the innocent, exoneration of the guilty, or the increased punishment of the accused. They gravely compromise the exercise of justice and the fairness of judicial decisions.
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty
of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way. …
Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity. (CCC 2476-2479)
Yes, it matters. It matters because detraction and judgment and calumny—against the pope, against Obama, against whoever—is a mortal sin.
To give an example of this. A story has been making the rounds on Facebook lately (here is one incarnation of it, at Tea Party Crusaders, written under a pseudonym), which claims that Michelle Obama said, “America is unfair to me.” Watch the video! says the headline. When Mrs. Obama says these words, the crowd’s response is “EPIC”!
Now, a headline like that makes you think that Mrs. Obama said, “America is unfair to me,” and that the crowd responded with tremendous disfavor and well-deserved booing. The only problem is—watch the video and see—the crowd gave no “epic” response of any kind, positive or negative. Not only that, but Mrs. Obama did not say “America is unfair to me.”
The context was a commencement address at Tuskegee; and in the CNN clip provided by TPC, Mrs. Obama did note some stereotypical words and cartoons aimed in her direction during the 2008 campaign—such as this one in the New Yorker. But for Mrs. Obama to note such things hardly amounts to “America is unfair to me,” even if those words were intended to be a paraphrase of what she said. (Incidentally, if it’s a paraphrase, you’re not supposed to put it in quotation marks.) It wasn’t “America” who published that cartoon, it was the New Yorker—a liberal magazine.
Moreover, the whole context of Mrs. Obama’s remarks had nothing to do with unfairness, but with “pressure to meet the expectations of others.” She used her own experience during the 2008 campaign to illustrate, and then gave this important footnote: “Those same questions would have been asked of any candidate’s spouse; that’s just the way the process works.” So neither was she claiming some special “pressure” unique to herself as a black woman. She was talking about the kind of thing that is common to all people.
In other words, the headline is a lie. And by spreading it on social media, without bothering to check it out, people become complicit in a lie even if it is not what they intend.
Here is a second example. A meme about Joe Biden has also been making the rounds of Facebook in recent days. As near as I can tell, the origin of the meme was this post at Breitbart, which attributes to Joe Biden the belief that “No ordinary American cares about their [sic] Constitutional rights.” The meme quotes those words as though they came direct from the mouth of Biden himself. It adds a caption: “Yes, America, our Vice President said that.”
But no. He did not. Watch the video at Breitbart. Here is what Mr. Biden actually said: “No law-abiding American citizen has any fear that their Constitutional rights are going to be infringed in any way.” It might be a questionable claim, but it is nothing at all like saying that Americans don’t even care about their Constitutional rights and so we can take them away any time we like.
In other words, the headline, and the meme, are a lie. And by spreading it on social media, without bothering to check it out—merely trusting it because it popped up in the news feed and it suits their negative opinion of Mr. Biden—people become unwittingly, and lazily, complicit in a lie even if it is not what they intend.
There are scores and scores of things that Mr. Biden and Mrs. Obama say that can and should be criticized. But they should be criticized for what they did say and did mean—not for made-up outrage that is no more than red meat for a political base. Let’s be clear: What we are talking about here is calumny.
So here is what you can do to put a stop to all of it.
- Read the story before you share it.
The post often contains the truth about which the headline has lied. The reason, I suspect, that Web sites do this is twofold: (1) to provide clickbait or sharebait; (2) to spread a false narrative to a public, or base, that by and large, reads only the headline before going on to the next item. If the headline is a lie, don’t share the story. Or if you must share it, point out that it is a lie and correct the record.
- Google it.
Every now and then, I see a meme pop up in my news feed which attributes the following syntax-challenged words to Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett: “I am a[n] Iranian by birth and of my Islamic faith. I am also an American [c]itizen and I seek to help America become a more Islamic country. My faith guides me and I feel like it is going well in the transition of using freedom of religion in America against itself.” Ms. Jarrett, the meme claims, wrote that illiterate trash in 1977 when she was at Stanford.
One problem: I can’t find any evidence that Ms. Jarrett ever said anything of the kind. The only source I can find for the quotation is the very meme that’s in question in the first place, and those blogs that repeat it without any sourcing of any kind.
If you can’t verify that Ms. Jarrett said it, don’t share it.
- Check the date.
You might be surprised how often old news stories pop up on Facebook. In some cases there might be a reason to share an old post, particularly if it’s not time-specific. But frequently the post in question will be a news item, and yet it’s shared as though it’s some new thing that just now happened. Sometimes I even see a post wishing “RIP” to a celebrity who died several years ago.
“OMG, did you know that Ernest Borgnine died?”
“Sure. That was in 2012.”
In other cases, later developments change the original story. A week or so ago, I saw a post about mandatory sterilizations that were taking place in California prisons. The article was published on June 19, 2014. Several months later, according to this story at the Washington Post, Gov. Brown signed legislation banning forced sterilizations, but permitting voluntary ones.
Always check the date.
- Check whether it’s a satire or fake news site.
Some satire sites I like very much, such as Eye of the Tiber. But I share those articles with the understanding that it’s satire. Too many times fake stories—particularly those that invite outrage—get passed around as though they were genuine. Such was the case with a story that claimed that, under Common Core, an elementary school teacher in Jacksonville demonstrated to her class how to use a strap-on dildo. The lesson actually did happen, but the students were enrolled at Brock University in Ontario, and they were voluntarily participating in a Gay Pride event, and it had nothing to do with Common Core.
If the story sounds too outrageous to be true, it probably is. Don’t be a dupe of fake news sites.
- Never trust the words “Pope Francis says”.
Never, never, never. Always check it out.
- Keep tabs on offending Web sites.
I have my own list of sites that I know are always to be approached with a skeptic’s eye, whatever the topic. I don’t share stories from those sites except for good reason; and in the few cases I do, I always write an introductory remark of my own.
- Read the Catechism on sins against the sixth commandment.
Read it again and again and again. Read it as often as it takes for the point to sink in. The sins against the sixth commandment, on blogs whose purpose is to defame the pope or Catholic prelates, are rampant and shameful. The sacrament of Confession exists for a reason.
- If you make a mistake and a false story slips through your radar.
Well, it happens. We’re all human. I’ve done it too. But make a correction, or take the post down, as soon as you find out.
The most likely negative response to all of the above will be to say: But I don’t have time for all this homework and fact checking. I have a busy life.
Well, my only response to that is this: Don’t share the story at all. Instead, spend your time on Facebook sharing pictures of cats.
I wish it could be said that the media was always trustworthy and we could believe their every story. But if there were ever a time when that was true, it is true no more. And with mainstream outlets no longer willing, as it seems, to get even so much as the headline right—and with an ever-growing proliferation of blogs and Web sites that are not fact-checked or supervised by an editor of any kind—it is important for us to be our own fact-checkers and hold the media, and ourselves, accountable to the truth.
If you have a Facebook page, or Twitter account, or any social media platform, then you are a publisher. You are responsible for the truth of what goes on your profile. It is your moral obligation to verify the facts. To say, “I don’t have time for that,” is no different than to say, “I don’t have time for the truth.” If you just post the meme, or the story, without any checking of the facts, and it happens to be false, then you are allowing yourself to be complicit in calumny.
There is a final point to all of this, which is to call out and reform the media—or, at least, to try. That will not happen overnight. But the less often we share these stories (or the more often we do so with the express purpose of calling out the lies), the more the media will realize that their clickbait, sharebait, outrage-bait strategies are having a negative effect and they will stop. But first we need to stop being pawns in someone else’s agenda. Truth matters, and therefore we must make it matter.