A few weeks ago, a document bearing the logo of the Archdiocese was circulating widely on social media. It contained the lyrics of a song entitled ‘Hard Mass’ which was apparently to be sung to the melody created by popular Soca artiste Bunji Garlin. The communication was fake, but it achieved wide circulation because as it bore the official logo, it seemed to be authentic and also probably because the lyrics resonated with a people just emerging from the Calypso and Carnival season into Lent.
This is, of course, not the first time fake communications have touched the Church. Memes have been circulated in the past with the image of the Pope and bearing words purportedly uttered by him, which he never said.
A few years ago, we saw a ‘deepfake’ [type of artificial intelligence used to create convincing images, audio and video hoaxes] video purporting to be Barack Obama speaking words he never did.
That technology is impressive because it uses real video and voice of the speaker and stitches them together so that the unwary can be easily led into thinking it is real.
Now we have the recently released ChatGPT which is based on artificial intelligence technology, and which can generate highly plausible and credible responses to almost any question.
ChatGPT has disturbed the academic community since, potentially, it enables students to produce essays and responses to questions at will. While the content produced may itself not be inauthentic, the person who claims authorship is certainly being inauthentic.
These technologies, along with virtual and augmented reality applications, which are getting better and better, challenge us to discern what is true and authentic from what is not, and who is authentic from who is not.
We humans already have a predisposition to believe certain things as true when they seem to conform to our prior beliefs. Our prior beliefs are in turn formed partly through socialisation and are functional in that they allow us to navigate complex everyday reality more easily.
Those who want to deceive us often use the tactic of anchoring the message in ways consistent with our prior beliefs and then adding disinformation. So, the image of the Pope may dispose Catholics to accept uncritically what’s written. Then, when we circulate the message to others, we become unwitting purveyors of false information. Humans also have an ability to discern whether someone is authentic and trustworthy in face-to-face encounters.
From early childhood, we are attuned to body language, facial expressions as well as linguistic expressions to judge trustworthiness. Sometimes however, we can still be fooled by conmen.
So, in this digital world, what can we do to discern the authentic from the inauthentic? The first thing is to be aware that there are people out there deliberately creating and disseminating disinformation. For some, the motivation is hate; for some, it is just comic relief; and for others, it is an attempt to challenge the foundations of our beliefs and our worldview. Being aware should put us on guard. Second, we should approach all social media not with paranoia, but with moderate scepticism. There are websites which are dedicated to identifying fake memes and videos and we should use these whenever we are in doubt about the authenticity of what we receive.
Third, we should avoid disseminating stuff we receive unless we are quite sure that it is authentic; some posts which go ‘viral’ are in fact viruses which can harm our computers and destroy our data. If you are not sure, just delete it!
Fourth, traditional news sources are generally more trustworthy as their content is vetted. However, some disinformation may use the logos of the BBC, CNN, or other news media to disseminate fake news.
Finally, trust your instincts! The Samaritan woman trusted her instincts in her meeting at Jacob’s well with a Jew with whom she had ‘nothing in common’ and found the authentic Jesus in that encounter.
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash