From time to time, the Catholic Church turns its spotlight on contemporary issues in order to offer some wisdom drawn from the richness of our religious tradition. On June 2, its reflection is on modern media.
Pope Francis’s annual message for what the Church marks as World Communications Day draws our attention to a digital media world that is increasingly in disarray. The great promise held out for social media in its infancy has been shown to be a mirage. Today’s social media — the world of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. — indeed can build community and help people be better informed. But increasingly, it is used to foment half-truths, lies and hatred.
Yes, there is community, but it is too often a community based on hatred against the “other,” demonizing those its members disagree with or fear. Instead of fostering intelligent dialogue, it promotes unthinking bigotry. We don’t need to look far for examples of that. And I won’t even mention a certain US president.
It is well worth considering the pope’s own description of what’s transforming the Internet from a force for good to a channel for evil: “Everyone can see how, in the present scenario, social network communities are not automatically synonymous with community. In the best cases, these virtual communities are able to demonstrate cohesion and solidarity, but often they remain simply groups of individuals who recognize one another through common interests or concerns characterized by weak bonds. Moreover, in the social web identity is too often based on opposition to the other, the person outside the group: we define ourselves starting with what divides us rather than with what unites us, giving rise to suspicion and to the venting of every kind of prejudice (ethnic, sexual, religious and other). This tendency encourages groups that exclude diversity, that even in the digital environment nourish unbridled individualism, which sometimes ends up fomenting spirals of hatred. In this way, what ought to be a window on the world becomes a showcase for exhibiting personal narcissism,” the Pope writes in his annual message.
Fortunately, the world is beginning to wake up to this danger. European governments have led the way, forcing the media giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter to be more accountable for what appears on their digital platforms. Canada, too, is exploring how it can battle online deception, promotion of hatred and cyberbullying and misuse of private data. Karina Gould, the federal minister for democratic institutions, recently announced that Facebook, Microsoft and Google have signed a declaration to intensify the fight against so-called “fake news” on the Internet. While non-binding, the declaration gives the public a way to hold these giant corporations more accountable. More can be done.
At the same time as this declaration was announced, Ottawa was hosting hearings by a nine-country committee to address digital privacy and similar issues.
Such drives to bring to heal these giant corporations are welcome. In this effort, our political representatives would do well to heed the Pope’s advice to work towards an Internet that fosters freedom to love and build dialogue rather than its opposite.
Joseph Sinasac, Publishing Director for Novalis English Books, Resources and Periodicals
For the complete text of the Pope’s Message for World Communications Day 2019, visit: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20190124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html