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Rizal, Pope Francis – and the logic of the snake

/ 05:08 AM October 23, 2018

In Chapter 36 of Rizal’s second, subversive novel, “El Filibusterismo,” we meet the ridiculous figure of Ben Zayb again, the Spanish journalist. He has just written a long article “reporting” the commotion at the wedding; when he is told by the Spanish censor that the article cannot be published, he says: “If only another crime is committed tomorrow or the day after!”

Soon after, he gets news of a robbery at a retreat for priests in a villa on the Pasig. [When he finds out what really happened, that it was a small-scale crime, not a dramatic skirmish with rebels, Rizal quotes him thus: “‘This can not be!’ Ben Zayb was saying; ‘be quiet… you don’t know what you are talking about!’”]

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Here is a man, whose real job is to spread propaganda for the Spanish colonial authorities, telling the victim of a small felony: “You don’t know what you are talking about!” Because truth does not accord or align or ally itself with his version of reality.

I chose to use this example, rather than to show many instances of Photoshop-enhanced images, overdubbed audio, manipulated graphics, misleading URLs and so on, because it gets us much faster to the heart of Pope Francis’ teaching on “fake news” and what he calls the journalism of peace.

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The Ben Zayb scene shows us the inner structure, the psychology, of disinformation. For a faker, a fabricator, three factors are at work:

1. Facts serve ideology.

2. Story serves power.

3. Truth is irrelevant.

In proposing a cure to the disease, Pope Francis returns us to Genesis. He says disinformation is based on “snake-tactics,” defined as “the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis…”

I much prefer the Pope’s original Spanish, though. He uses the phrase “logica de la serpiente” — the logic of the snake. As I’ve argued before:

“I find this idea more useful than ‘snake-tactics,’ for two reasons. First, because ‘the logic of the snake’ is better at suggesting the deliberateness, the rationality, the sheer evil, at the center of ‘fake news’ and other forms of disinformation. And second, because ‘the logic of the snake’ corresponds or is parallel to the phrase Pope Francis uses in the original Spanish (and which is reflected in the Italian and French versions) when he describes the problem: ‘esta lógica de la desinformación’—this logic of disinformation.”

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“The point? ‘Fake news’ and other forms of disinformation are not accidents of information technology; they are human decisions, and follow a certain if cruel logic. Again, the 3Ds: Deliberateness. Disguise. Deception.”

How do we fight the logic of the snake?

Pope Francis’ answer is — forgive me, Father, for what I am about to say — not sexy.

“The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language.”

What does he mean? He means, and I will extrapolate here, that people who share disinformation without regard for facts or the truth, who see stories as justified if they serve the needs of power, lack character. The answer, then, lies not in strategies, or the latest technological gadgets, but in the human heart:

First, journalists must accept that their duty is “not just a job; it is a mission.” In Spanish, he says: “Informar es formar.” To inform is to form.

Then he speaks of building the character of the news-needing community.

“I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace.”

As I’ve written before: “It isn’t only the responsibility of journalists and media workers to produce the journalism we need. ‘Everyone’ has a role, and the prayer which ends the Message, borrowed from Francis of Assisi, reinforces this idea. For instance, the line ‘Help us to remove the venom from our judgments’ cannot apply to journalists alone; it applies to every descendant of Adam and Eve vulnerable to the serpent’s poison. Another line, ‘Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters,’ may be understood as an appeal to all those with ‘unguarded tongues’ who are ‘caught up in networks of verbal violence,’ the so-called dark side. A third and final example: ‘Where there is shouting, let us practice listening’—This applies as much to the practicing journalist with his practiced cynicism as to every ‘contemporary man’ who ‘has not been trained to use power well,’ and therefore insists, greedily, on his own views.”

These people the Pope describes — he is referring not only to journalists but also to the subjects of their stories, and the sources they look for and talk to, and the audience they write and produce for. But I believe he also means the ones who are not only voiceless but also news-less, who, because of circumstance, do not or cannot belong to any news audience.

(Excerpts from the keynote at the 2018 Cardinal Sin Catholic Book Awards)

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand. E-mail: jnery@inquirer.com.ph

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TAGS: fake news, john Nery, Jose Rizal, journalism of peace, logic of the snake, Newsstand, Pope Francis, snake tactics
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