Some “fake news” from the earliest days of the cinema recounted that when the first motion pictures were shown of a train heading toward the camera, the viewers panicked and fled the theater, thinking it was a real train heading toward them.

This story has been debunked long ago. For one thing, those first moving images were pretty lousy and in black and white. That the story was found to be believable may have been because it made a lot of people feel like they were much more sophisticated than that apparently naïve audience.

Alas, to paraphrase Pogo, we have met the real naïfs, and they are us.

Social media is making us all look like turn-of-the-century rubes. We are still falling for moving pictures, but they are on social media now. We get suckered in by fake news sites. We fire off opinions thinking we know all the facts because we saw a video or read a news clip.

There are a million examples of this, maybe a whole election’s worth. But it’s not just Democrats in Georgia or Republicans in Florida who are falling for this stuff. A lot of Catholics got snookered a month ago and it has some lessons for us we would do well to pay attention to.

A video posted on Instagram and then tweeted by the @2020fight account appeared to show some Catholic kids behaving badly. 

The video, taken after the March for Life last Jan. 18, featured a group of white students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky that had attended the march in Washington, D.C. They were filmed wearing MAGA hats and apparently confronting a Native American beating a drum.

The outrage flowed like lava. Criticisms and disavowals, followed by hateful messages and death threats. 

Their school back in Kentucky canceled classes as demonstrators gathered outside. It also issued a statement condemning the students’ actions and apologizing to the drummer, Nathan Phillips. The president of the March for Life and some Church leaders criticized the students as well.

Twenty-four hours later, which is a lifetime in Twitter years, a different picture emerged. 

Different moving pictures, in fact. There was another group called the Black Hebrew Israelites, a cockamamie collection of folks claiming that African-Americans are the true Hebrew descendants. 

A few of these people had been yelling hateful and vile things at the kids. In a television interview, Phillips himself compared them to the Westboro Baptists, a disreputable group that protests at the funerals of military veterans and most recently outside Thousand Oaks High School, claiming that God hates gays and is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality.

In other words, pretty scary stuff for a bunch of kids from Kentucky.

How Phillips ended up in the middle of these two groups is debatable, but what is clear is that the situation was a lot more complicated than that first video suggested.

Within three days, Twitter suspended the original account that had posted the video for violating its policy against “fake and misleading accounts.” While no one is sure who was behind it, it apparently had a reputation for inflammatory and divisive posts.

There is much about the incident that may be further explained in the investigations that have been launched, as well as the possible lawsuits, but this much is clear: Once again we were duped. 

Like a primitive tribe in awe at the magic of a radio, we are entranced by what streams across our screens. And we respond as if everything we see and read is true and demands some immediate comment.

Jaron Lanier, in his provocative book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” argues that “social media is undermining truth.” He blames the very conscious and deliberate manipulation of human beings by tech companies, and the almost Pavlovian response they engender in us.

John Green, the renown young adult author and vlogger recently announced he is giving up social media for a year, explaining that in effect social media was controlling him rather than the other way around.  

His conclusion, however, is sobering: “The internet is not ultimately the problem. My internet is the problem. For my internet to change, I need to change.” In other words, the fault is not in the stars, but in ourselves.

Pope Francis has been warning Catholics about fake news and the abuse of social media. 

It might be time for the Church to respond to the pope by taking the subject of social media education more seriously and systematically. For what the Covington High School event showed is that there are people who seek to divide us, and it isn’t hard. Our own fragmentation and distrust of one another, in fact, makes it pretty easy.

The poisonous reflexes of social media are a new temptation that we have to confront, but the anger, envy, and hatred they inspire are very old sins indeed.


Greg Erlandson is the president and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.

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