Lessons from a Twitter hoax that claimed Pope Benedict was dead
No, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is not dead. No, Pope Francis is not resigning. And no, the Vatican is not hiding a secret time machine. You may have heard all of these stories repeated as breaking news – some of them over the past week – but if you scratched the surface you soon found they had no more credibility than the fantasies of The “Da Vinci Code” or other old chestnuts, like the claim that the Jesuits sank the Titanic, shot down Abraham Lincoln, or created the Roswell space aliens. Fake news!
Last night, many Catholic journalists were startled (or woken) by a buzzing phone or an exploding inbox because of “news” reported on Twitter: “Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has died.” The account making the announcement (since deleted) was run by a notorious Twitter prank that wasn’t even so subtle that the account was fake; in fact it is not even the first time he faked a story about Benedict’s death.
So why do we fall into the trap? (And we do — those quietly deleting their hoax retweets included more than a few journalists.) Our need for speed has in many cases exceeded our commitment to truthfulness — and so we check next to nothing. It only takes a few minutes to create a Twitter account, and no time at all to start tweeting misinformation, but these days there’s not even much delay before someone who should better know do the retweete for the clicks.
No, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is not dead. No, Pope Francis is not resigning. And no, the Vatican is not hiding a secret time machine.
It’s easy to blame this flippant disregard for fact-checking on Donald J. Trump and his factotums like Kellyanne Conway (she of the “alternative facts” approach to the truth), but the problem long precedes them. A famous example: artist Bob Hope was at home having breakfast one day in 1998 when he discovered he was dead. Representative Bob Stump of Arizona had announced the death of Mr. Hope on the floor of the House of Representatives in a speech broadcast live on C-Span.
It made for great headlines. “Grave error: Word Of Hope’s death is greatly exaggerated,” said The Washington Post. “A comedy of errors,” the Chicago Tribune called it. “Oops. Bob Hope is not dead,” reported the New York Times. But the Los Angeles Times went one better: “Yes, America, there is still hope.”
You can see the temptation for Mr. Stump. A senior Republican official had seen a partially written Associated Press obituary for Mr. Hope that was accidentally posted online and quickly deleted (yes, reporters write obituaries in advance) and delivered it to Mr. Stump without verification. Mr. Hope was of course very old (he died in 2003 aged 100) and much loved, a national figure. Why not be the first out the door to mourn his passing? Well, other than that it wasn’t true.
If our great-grandparents waited three months to hear that the pope was dead, maybe we can wait half a day.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is 95 and clearly in poor health, and nine years have passed since he announced he was too frail to remain in office; it makes sense that he would die soon. And Pope Francis is 85 and visibly struggling with his mobility; it makes sense that he is retiring soon. And both men are loved by many and despised by a number. Either event would be quite the news story.
Other than the fact that, upon reflection, neither story is true.
Many years ago I had a very wise professor for a class on the papacy in the 19th and 20th centuries who pointed out that when Pius X was elected pope in 1903, most American Catholics didn’t know it. When they found out there was a new pope, perhaps several months later, they wouldn’t necessarily have learned his name or much of his biography. Rome was far away and communication was neither easy nor regular.
It may come as a shock to a student of history to think that such an important figure in the modern church was more or less unknown to the whole world, but it teaches a valuable lesson: quick and easy communication is mostly neutral in terms of value, and the church and the world went on living when it was impossible. We believe that rapid communication is a sure sign of progress, a great improvement over the information deficits of past generations, but it only becomes a tool for good when handled with humility and responsibility.
I don’t want to go back to 1903; that’s not possible either. But if our great-grandparents waited three months to hear that the pope was dead, maybe we can wait half a day.