Anonymity, Disinformation, and Trust: The Fra Cristoforo Effect

Editor’s note: please see the bottom of this post for an update.

I have a growing sense that we’ve entered a new phase in the war for the soul of Catholicism. I have the distinct impression that the enemies of truth and goodness within the Church have been displeased with the effectiveness of a handful of feisty publications in exposing their anti-Catholic agenda at nearly every turn. I think of something Bishop Athanasius Schneider said concerning the first Synod on Marriage and Family in 2014:

That in the very bosom of the Church, there are people who undermine the teaching of Our Lord became an obvious fact and one for the whole world to see thanks to the internet and the work of some Catholic journalists who were not indifferent to what was happening to the Catholic faith which they consider to be the treasure of Christ. I was pleased to see that some Catholic journalists and internet bloggers behaved as good soldiers of Christ and drew attention to this clerical agenda of undermining the perennial teaching of Our Lord.

But it is not time to celebrate. The enemy is clever. The enemy adapts. As St. Paul warned us in Ephesians 6:12, “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”

There have been, of late, a growing number of credible-sounding rumors making the rounds, chumming the waters of Catholic discourse with intrigue and speculation but very little verifiable fact. Rumors that claim, as I’ve mentioned before, to be well-sourced from deep within the Vatican — but this always anonymously, and often reported by writers who are, themselves, anonymous.

The most popular of these writers at the present moment is an alleged priest who burst onto the scene in January of this year, but has gained rapid and widespread notoriety. In just three months, he has racked up over two-thirds of a million page views, and his posts are shared all over the Internet, even though he writes only in Italian. Blogging under the name, “Fra Cristoforo”, this unknown cleric claims to have people within the very machinery of the pope’s inner sanctum. He proffers an almost-daily buffet of tantalizing information, rumors, and reports, usually exclusive to his website and not corroborated by any other source. These rumors and reports believable in the very stomach-churning awfulness of their content at a time when we have become habituated to the near-constant train wreck of Church news.

The kind of stories the Internet eats up with all the restraint of a habitual glutton.

Perhaps I’m just a perennial cynic, but I believe the old adage: if a thing sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. These stories aren’t good, in the conventional sense of the word, but they are damning, and for the Catholic faithful who are trying to find something, anything, that will finally shake the papal cabal to its foundations, the temptation to believe and share them is real.

And it is for this precise reason that I smell a trap.

We have previously reported on the recent appearance of certain tactics and methods, reminiscent of those of the Soviet Union, now at work in the Vatican. In his 2013 book, Disinformation, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, “the highest-ranking Soviet bloc intelligence official ever to defect to the West”, described that proven Soviet information warfare tactic from which the title of his book was derived:

[D]isinformation is as different from misinformation as night is from day. Misinformation is an official government tool and recognizable as such. Disinformation (i.e., dezinformatsiya) is a secret intelligence tool, intended to bestow a Western, nongovernment cachet on government lies. Let us assume that the FSB (the new KGB) fabricated some documents supposedly proving that American military forces were under specific orders to target Islamic houses of worship in their bombing raids over Libya in 2011. If a report on those documents were published in an official Russian news outlet, that would be misinformation, and people in the West might rightly take it with a grain of salt and simply shrug it off as routine Moscow propaganda. If, on the other hand, that same material were made public in the Western media and attributed to some Western organization, that would be disinformation, and the story’s credibility would be substantially greater.

[…]

It is a typically Russian tactic not to attack a threat head-on, and disinformation proved a deliciously indirect way of confounding the Kremlin’s enemies.

[…]

There was a major condition for disinformation to succeed, and that was that a story should always be built around a “kernel of truth” that would lend credibility. Over my twenty-seven years in the Soviet bloc intelligence community, I was privy to many Cold War disinformation operations that eventually lost steam but were never entirely compromised, because of that kernel of truth.

What better way to sow error among and diminish the credibility of papal critics than by feeding them carefully-constructed fictions packaged by the sympathetic character of a morally outraged priest who has had enough, but publishes in fear of revealing his identity lest he face some retribution?

This tactic obviously dovetails nicely with the 2016 phenomenon that led to the now-overused label of “Fake News.” The premise is simple: create irresistible, click-worthy content and get as many people to share it as possible. The more outrageous the better, as long as it remains within the realm of believability.

This is why the “kernel of truth” is the key. It’s far easier to spot an outright fabrication than a half-truth.

Our Blessed Lord, of course, took pains to warn us about the “false teachers” and “false prophets” who would arise. These are not merely the silver-tongued heretics who seduce the unwary into error and sin, but also those who, sounding as though they are speaking the truth and are on the side of righteousness, more subtly lead believers astray.

As a publication, we feel compelled to be more cautious than ever. Just this morning, we passed on a story already in the news in Europe because the credibility of the claims it made — and the person making them — was more dubious than I felt comfortable with, and would likely have only generated more confusion. We are not short of news tips or sources unwilling to go on the record. But through it all, my suspicion has grown that cockle is now being sown among the wheat, as it were, false information intentionally mixed with true, because if we (and other publications) would only take the bait and report it, the truth can then be unveiled and we can be dismissed as “fake news.”

I’ve chosen for now, for the sake of space and to avoid starting needless tangential debates, not to address any specific claims made by Fra Cristoforo. Suffice to say, I’ve watched his writing with both a growing interest and suspicion over the past months. It is important to note that I do not claim to know for certain that he is actively engaged in disinformation, but I’d be very wary of putting too much stock in his reports until, at the very least, he comes forward and puts his real name behind his work. This is a battle that must be fought in the open, not behind smoke and mirrors. It is my purpose here to caution you to exercise the same skepticism toward him, even — and perhaps especially — when he gets a couple of predictions right. If he proves himself to be authentic, all well and good. But do not think for a moment that this is a tactic the cabal would not resort to. Whether Fra Cristoforo turns out to be truthful or false, there will almost certainly be other sources of information who cannot be trusted. Let us not be credulous simply because things are bad.

My advice is simple: tread carefully. Pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance when you are reading these kinds of things. It’s not getting any easier to pierce the darkness, and as we grow fatigued from the constant assault, we must not make the mistake of letting down our guard.

UPDATE: A response has been posted on the blog of Fra Cristoforo. Since I’m advocating caution and doing your own homework, I recommend you read it and consider their rebuttal. Eventually, the truth will out.

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