Internet memes, morality, and mortal sin

I am not a fan or a supporter of President Obama. My patience with people who create or propagate fictitious claims about him, however, had already run out before the latest meme did the rounds, and it was the final straw. So I’m going to nail my colors to the mast on this right here, and I’m going to be as blunt as the the situation deserves:

What you do online can be mortal sin.

If you hit “share” on Facebook or Twitter, with reckless indifference to the truth or falsity of the thing that you’re sharing, you are very likely committing the sin of calumny, and in many cases the sin may be mortal.

Generally-speaking, calumny is “the propagation of false accusations against our neighbor.” 1 More particularly, it consists primarily “in imputing to our neighbor defects which he has not, or accusing him of faults which he has not committed.” 2 The Catechism of the Catholic Church supplies us with a precise definition: “When it is made publicly, a statement contrary to the truth takes on a particular gravity. … Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. [Therefore, h]e becomes guilty … of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.” 3 Thus, the sin of calumny requires three elements: A claim (1) made in public, that (2) is false, and which (3) harms another person’s reputation and/or gives occaision for others to make false judgments about that person. 4

We may now look for these three elements in a specific example. Late last month, a meme began to ricochet around the rightosphere that played on conservatives’ anxiety about the supposedly grasping and power-hungry character of the Obama administration. The meme has several iterations, 5 but common to all versions of it is the claim that President Obama has issued somewhere in the vicinity of a thousand executive orders during his still-incomplete first term, while President Bush issued a number in the low sixties during his two terms, and that Obama’s number is exceptional as compared to any other President. The reader is supposed to infer that there is something rapacious about these numbers, although precisely why is unclear to anyone with a passing familiarity of law or Presidential history. The meme is, of course, false; Obama has issued far fewer executive orders than it claims, Bush issued far more, and neither of them have issued an unusual number. Because executive orders are a matter of public record, one may find the real numbers at any number of websites, such as this one.

The people responsible for creating and propagating this meme are all likely to be guilty of the sin of calumny. The meme is a claim (1) made in public, that (2) is false, and which (3) harms another person’s reputation and/or gives occaision for others to make false judgments about that person. A person who publicly propagates the meme, which includes every person who clicked the “share” button on facebook or “retweet” on Twitter—while Facebook is an unusual quasi-public forum, it counts for these purposes—thereby repeats the claim, and thereby reaps the same liability as the person(s) responsible for creating it.

So what happens next? May a person simply acknowledge their error, apologize, and move on? Or is more required? That depends upon whether the sin is mortal or venial. McVey is uncompromising: Calumny “is in its nature a mortal sin; it attacks at once truth, charity, and justice. It is merely venial when its matter is light, or when either reflection or consent is imperfect.” 6 I do not go quite so far; I maintain that calumny may be mortal. 7 And, for the reasons that follow, it is a mortal sin in the circumstances of this case. A person who has propagated the meme must now visit the confessional.

The Church teaches that mortal sin requires the presence of three aggravating factors—grave matter, scienter, and consent. 8 As to the first: Does calumny involve grave matter? Yes. The eighth commandment, which forbids false witness, does not just apply in the courtroom; it “forbids lies, rash judgment, detraction, [and] calumny.” 9 This point is unlikely to be disputed. Rather, a person who shares an internet meme is likely to rest their defense on the insistence that they didn’t actually know that the statement was false. 10 That is precisely why I have used the term “reckless indifference.” One need not have actual knowledge 11; if that was so, the lazy and the foolish would have free license to sin as they pleased, which is an unbelievable circumscription of the universal need for salvation through Christ. Ignorance would become a complete defense. A strict interpretation of the scienter and consent elements would almost completely marginalize the need for the sacrament of penance, and indeed, the need for the sacrifice of Calvary. It would transform virtually every sin into a venial sin, amply justifying the criticism of the reformers of the Church’s teaching on the two classes of sin. For that reason, a strict, crabbed, legalistic interpretation of the scienter and consent requirements cannot be accepted. Learning from these precepts, the common law rejected the notion that actual ignorance is always a defense: A defendant in tort, for example, is liable for judgment based on “conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” 12 If a defendant knew, she is liable; if any reasonable person should have known, she is also liable. When a statement attacks the reputation of a person, a fortiori a public figure, and when it involves a matter of public record that is extremely easy to confirm, it is recklessly indifferent to the truth to omit the few seconds needed to verify the claim.

In this case, the claim that is made is about commonly-available public records. Any person who has access to the internet for purposes of propagating an online meme also has access to the internet for purposes of simple research. And the very first search result on google for “executive orders” is the link given above. That is to say, the meme is clearly, direct, authoritatively, and immediately debunked with even the slightest research. 13 When a claim is so easily-debunked, when it crumbles in the face of even the scantest research, a person who nevertheless posts it is recklessly indifferent to its truth or falsity, and therefore commits not only the sin of calumny, and quite possibly the sin of scandal, but a mortal sin necessitating the sacrament of penance.

Notes:

  1. John Wenham, Manual of Instructions in Christian Doctrine 201 (1876) (+1871).
  2. John McVey, Manual of Christian Doctrine 308 (13th ed. 1910) (+1909); it is also calumnious “[t]o exaggerate the faults or defects of another; To misinterpret without reason his words or actions; to deny his good actions or qualities; To belittle them; Not to mention them when silence may be interpreted as a tacit rebuke; To praise so faintly as to give the impression that he is not deserving of praise.” Id., at 308-09 (internal numbering deleted).
  3. CCC ¶¶ 2476-77. It is not limited, as was suggested in another place, to “statements of hatred or destruction of character.”
  4. Cf. CCC ¶ ¶ 1868 and 2284 (scandal).
  5. Snopes has a couple of versions available here.
  6. McVey, supra, at 309.
  7. Cf. Henry Tuberville, The Douay Catechism 68 (1649) (++1649 and 1833) (“Q. Are lies, backbiting, flattery, afronts, detraction, and calumny, grievous sins? A. They are often very grievous sins”); The Catholic Encyclopædia: Calumny (“The sin thus committed is in a general sense mortal, just as is detraction. It is hardly necessary, however, to observe that as in other breaches of the law the sin may be venial”).
  8. CCC ¶ 1857; Baltimore Catechism, no. 69.
  9. Baltimore Catechism, no. 266; Catechism of Pius X, 8th Com., 1 (similar); cf. CCC ¶ 1858.
  10. Cf. CCC 1859.
  11. Cf., e.g., Freeman Utd. Coal Mining Co. v. Fed. Mine Safety & Health Rev. Comm’n, 108 F.3d 358 (D.C. Cir. 1997).
  12. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 908(2) (1977).
  13. For purposes of contrast, consider a meme claiming that Bush played a given number of games of Golf during his term: That is not a direct matter of primary public record. Although one might easily find contrary claims, and although one might arguably be able to construct an authoritative answer based on the secondary public record of the President’s public diary, one cannot obtain a clear, direct, authoritative, and immediate answer.