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Ralph Reiland

Ralph R. Reiland: The pope, the serpent & fake news

| Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican. (AP Photo | Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican. (AP Photo | Alessandra Tarantino)

As happens every time I write that trickle-down economics works — that tax cuts by Kennedy and Reagan delivered more jobs, more growth, less inflation, higher wages — my liberal and/or unionized friends' predictable reply is that “Reagan undermined the middle class.”

Adding to the political stew, Pope Francis — perhaps test-driving a Trump slogan that seems to work well with cheering “deplorables” — warned his constituents in the pews to keep an eye out for “fake news.” The fall of man, the tragedy of human sin, said the pope in his World Communications Day message, dates back to the “fake news” uttered in Genesis by the devil, disguised as a serpent, to Eve in the Garden of Eden. The devil persuaded Eve, by peddling fake information, to eat fruit from the forbidden tree to make her and Adam as all-knowing as God.

“We need to unmask what could be called the ‘snake-tactics,'” said Francis, “used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place.”

For those in the Never Trump movement, assorted socialists and pro-tax progressives, the “snake-tactics” warning could be heard as a call to muzzle Sean Hannity.

Conversely, for those who understand that President Reagan's tax cuts produced economic growth that cut U.S. unemployment almost in half, from 9.7 percent in 1982 to 5.3 percent in 1989, the pope's directive about unmasking fake news might be interpreted as a call for warning labels on TVs about MSNBC talk shows' political bias.

Soft-pedaling things a bit, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told Reuters Television: “The pope is not saying that all journalists are snakes but he is certainly acknowledging that they can be.”

The power of fake news is “primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible,” the pope maintained. “Secondly, this false but believable news is ‘captious,' inasmuch as it grasps people's attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.”

Compared to the one-on-one delivery of fake news from what the pope called a “crafty serpent” to a woman in Eden, today's high-tech, wide-ranging, far-reaching and rapid communication provides increased abilities to deceive and manipulate a population. “The ability to spread such fake news often relies on a manipulative use of the social networks,” stressed Francis. “Untrue stories can spread so quickly that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage.”

Society's political polarization, along with media increasingly playing to ideologically segregated and homogeneous audiences, creates a more closed-minded, distrustful, misinformed and separated populace. Or, as Francis put it regarding the difficulty of unmasking fake news to people not listening to differing opinions: “ Disinformation thus thrives on the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue.”

Ralph R. Reiland is associate professor of economics emeritus at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur (

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