December 12, 2012. A message from Pope Benedict XVI: “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.” While not exactly an early adopter or a trendsetter, the Catholic Church can be surprisingly agile when it comes to using technology.
For the Church, technology is just a means, and when it comes to this subject, the nexus is still on human dignity. Early on, the Church was already cautiously cognizant of the far-ranging effects of social media. In his address to the Pontifical Council for Culture in February 2017, Pope Benedict said of social media: “…the new means of communication that encourage and at times give rise to continuous and rapid changes in mindset, morality and behaviour.”
World Communications Day is typically when the Church pays special attention media and this is highlighted by an address by the Pope. In 2013, during the 47th WCD address, the mood on social media was cautiously optimistic. Pope Benedict likened social networks to the “agora”, the Greek public space for discussion.
“These spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate which, if conducted respectfully and with concern for privacy, responsibility and truthfulness, can reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family. The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friendships, and connections facilitate communion.”
Note the contingent qualifier: “..when engaged in a wise and balanced way.” Still, the dark side was already becoming apparent. The following year, in the 48th WCD address, Pope Francis presaged the scourge that afflicts us today:
“The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression. The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests.”
Nevertheless, Pope Francis did not place any value judgment on the technology itself, instead remaining hopeful:
“While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement. What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding?”
Pope Francis essentially repeated this message the following year:
“It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups.”
Pope Francis was a little more sombre with this view a few months later, in Laudato Si:
“Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.”
Still, those warnings must have gone unheeded, because for this year, the 52nd World Communications Day message, Pope Francis felt compelled to address the problem of fake news, now made more virulent by way of social media, the kind that insulates in echo chambers instead of authentic dialogue:
“The difficulty of unmasking and eliminating fake news is due also to the fact that many people interact in homogeneous digital environments impervious to differing perspectives and opinions. Disinformation thus thrives on the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue; instead, it risks turning people into unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas. The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict. Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth.”