The Vatican has released a dense 20-page document on how Christians should approach social media. Rev Peter Crumpler distils the highlights
Social media used to be a fun place to be, with holiday memories and family photos filling up most people’s online feeds.
Now the darker side of social media is being revealed, with algorithms, trolls, bots and AI-generated content dominating the landscape.
Users are becoming increasingly aware that their data is being bought and sold, and that they have become a commodity for the ‘big tech’ companies.
Against this gloomy background, the Vatican has issued advice to the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics on how to behave online.
Its ‘Pastoral reflection on engagement with social media,’ published this week, aims to “take a creative and constructive approach that can foster a culture of neighbourliness.” It also took aim at some bishops for posting “divisive communication”.
Being a good neighbour online is a key feature of the advice, compiled after consultation with experts, teachers, young professionals, lay people and clergy. It’s a thoughtful, well-researched and developed document – although, at 20 dense pages, it’s unlikely to go viral any time soon.
But the Vatican’s more detailed approach asks profound questions about social media, including highlighting the digital divide between those with access to the web, and those not online, the role of artificial intelligence in dictating the posts we see in our timelines, and algorithms that promote controversy and conflict.
“Attention,” says the report, “has become the most valuable asset and commodity” in the online world.
The Vatican draws parallels between the digital highway and the risky road from Jerusalem to Jericho where a traveller was attacked by robbers and later helped by the Good Samaritan. How, the Vatican asks, can we be good neighbours in the online world?
Here’s a brief summary of the advice offered by the Vatican:
1. Be Christlike in your posts, comments and likes. How you communicate “should align with the style that we learn from Christ, who transmitted his message in the whole manner of his life.”
2. Make sure what you’re posting is true. “We must make sure that we are a trusted source. To communicate goodness, we need quality content, a message that is oriented to help, not to harm.”
3. Communicate to build community. “We are called to bear witness to a style of communication that is not just based on the individual, but on a way of community-building and belonging.”
4. Tell stories. “Good stories capture the attention and engage the imagination. They reveal and extend hospitality to the truth. They give us a framework to understand the world and to answer our deepest questions.”
5. Respond graciously to people who ask questions about your posts. “Creating a counter-narrative can be more effective in replying to a hateful comment than answering with an argument.”
6. Share your own faith experiences. “Telling the story of the profound experience that Jesus’ followers had in his presence attracted others to Christian discipleship – the Acts of the Apostles are full of such examples.”
7. Take your influence seriously. “Every Christian is a micro-influencer. Every Christian should be aware of his or her potential to influence, no matter how many followers he or she has.” Our responsibility to communicate well increases with the number of followers. “The responsibility to minister to one’s community – especially for those in public leadership roles – cannot become secondary to promoting one’s personal opinions.”
8. Be reflective, not reactive. Avoid falling into the ‘digital traps’ designed “to sow conflict among users by causing outrage or emotional reactions.” Instead, “often the best course of action is not to react. Christians are called to show another way.”
9. Take time away from your screens. “With the overload of stimuli and data that we receive, silence is a precious commodity. It ensures space for focus and discernment. Silence can be compared to a digital detox which is not simply a withdrawal but rather a way to engage more deeply with God and with others.”
10. Keep close to God. “Following in the footsteps of Jesus, we should make it a priority to allot enough space for personal conversation with the Father and to remain in tune with the Holy Spirit. There were no ‘likes’ at all and almost no ‘followers’ at the moment of the biggest manifestation of the glory of God.” Christ’s death and resurrection puts every “human measurement of success” into sharp focus.