ROME—For a man who lashes out against misinformation, defamation, calumny and spreading scandal, even once comparing the last offense to eating feces, Pope Francis has been a victim of several fake news cycles of his own, with one claiming he wanted to change the 10 Commandments being the latest to go viral.
Too absurd to be believed, the story claimed the pope allegedly wanted to reword the fourth Commandment so that it included children raised by same-sex parents and to remove the seventh, allowing adultery and same-sex relationships.
According to the fake story, published in Real News Right Now by a “journalist” named R. Hobbus J.D., the pope was also planning on adding two new commandments, one which forbids genetic engineering and the consumption of genetically modified food.
The other new commandment used the Kardashian clan as an example, and had Francis allegedly calling selfies “an abomination in the eyes of our Lord” and banning personal idolization.
Yet the story, from 2015, gained enough traction in the past few days that The Associated Press dedicated a “fact check” piece to it.
Earlier this year, another fake story that claimed Francis had called for merging Islam and Christianity also went viral, with one alleged papal quote saying that “Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Jehovah, Allah. These are all names employed to describe an entity that is distinctly the same across the world. For centuries, blood has been needlessly shed because of the desire to segregate our faiths.”
Further down in the “news report,” the pontiff is quoted as saying: “We can accomplish miraculous things in the world by merging our faiths, and the time for such a movement is now.”
It’s harder to pin down where this story originated, since there are versions of it going back at least to 2015, recycling alleged quotes that have been denied by the Vatican more than once.
Though better suited for satirical sites such as The Onion or Eye of the Tiber, these stories found their way into mainstream media, either because there are those who actually believe the pope would do something along those lines, or because a story is seen as too good for traffic to bother with pesky matters such as accuracy and verification.
Pope Francis has been a victim of these hoax stories since the beginning of his pontificate, when countless phrases and even poems were attributed to him on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
A few weeks back, a Twitter account called Ecuador Mundial claimed the pontiff had spoken about recently held national elections, saying that, “When you choose a rich president, he will want to continue being so at the cost of your poverty, [so] never allow it.”
The phrase was retweeted 214 times, and seen by several thousands of the account’s more than 90,000 followers. Never mind that the pope didn’t say it.
Then there’s the recurring WhatsApp message that claims Pope Francis is in the hospital – which never happened – and one in which he allegedly asks for a day of prayer and fasting for the war in Syria, something the pope did do, but back in 2013.
My family and friends have forwarded such items to me several times, seeming to forget that I follow the pope for a living, and if any of these were true I’d be the one passing on the information. And these messages never get to me with a “Is this true?” but as facts: “The pope is in the hospital, pray for him.”
We’re inclined to believe that because we got something from someone we trust, it must be true. Never mind that they got it from someone who they believed to be on top of the news, and who never bothered to confirm it.
Another crowd-pleaser is the mostly Facebook-oriented poem called “We need saints,” which has also been attributed to two of Francis’s predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It’s actually credited to the Polish pope in a heavily mistranslated Wikipedia entry (beginning with the fact that it says “traducted” instead of translated). This entry claims John Paul wrote the original in Portuguese.
The text, which calls for saints who wear jeans and sneakers, “without veil or cassock,” who go to the movies, are Internet-savvy, drink Coke, eat hot dogs and listen to their iPod, has been circulating for over a decade with slight changes here and there: Instead of an iPod, it once spoke about a Walkman.
Despite it going viral every so often, it wasn’t written by a pope and its author remains unknown.
From a flat-out falsehood — the pope wants to change the God-given ten Commandments — to seemingly harmless poems, all these things would have had no legs had people deemed them too unrealistic to share.
Journalists, though fallible, have the responsibility of doing our best to get the story right. Mistakes are sometimes made, and they are the origin of many false news reports. For instance, a pro-life site recently had a piece claiming Pope Francis had called for Catholics to have fewer children, which never happened.
The original story has been corrected, but its spin-offs haven’t, and some of them still pop up in internet searches and social media.
However, journalists aren’t the only ones at fault. It’s up to all of us, news consumers as well as producers, to be responsible about what we share and allow to go viral.