Has social media made us less human?

by Russell Pollitt SJ

A few days ago, I was reminded of a talk given last year by Fr Thomas Rosica CSB. Fr Rosica is the English-speaking Media Attaché of the Holy See. He warned that the internet has become a “cesspool of hatred, venom and vitriol”. He went on to say that the internet “can be an international weapon of mass destruction, crossing time zones, borders and space”.

If you monitor or engage on Twitter and Facebook you know how helpful it can be. News is literally at your fingertips. You can connect with anyone anywhere in the world who has access. You can share what you see and think. In fact, social media has made every person with access, not just a consumer but, quite literally, an editor or publisher. This opens many real opportunities to spotlight issues and experiences. It can be a platform for doing good; there is no doubt that social media has helped uncover and reveal many instances of injustice. We only need to look at the experience of our own faith community and the role that media – in all forms – played in bringing to light the painful scourge of child sex abuse by clergy and church workers.

However, there is also a dark, sinful and evil side to the networks that surround us. Fr Roscia captures this in his talk: “The character assassination on the internet by those claiming to be Catholic and Christian has turned it into a graveyard of corpses strewn all around”.

In the recent past, we have seen the damaging effect (and sometimes the destruction) that the irresponsible use of social media has had on individuals, groups, societies and nations. It is very hard sometimes to believe that people can stoop so low. Not only do we compromise our integrity, but our very humanity is left in tatters.

It seems as if, despite the many other issues we need to square up to, the way we use social media and the internet needs serious attention. Access to the internet is not a license to be offensive or share your own deep seated bigotry – whatever that may be. Attacking someone you disagree with in the most hateful and vitriolic way is morally reprehensible. That’s dumping, not engaging. Real engagement, as Fr Rosica says, is to “uphold the truth in love”. I have concluded that the internet – and social media – is an ineffective means of true communication. It is a space to find information but, by its very nature, is not a suitable way of actively engaging with people.

Some of the most offensive keyboard warriors consider themselves religious people. They have never made a connection between their spiritual life and hateful engagement on Twitter. If you cannot say it to someone’s face, why say it on Twitter or Facebook?

Fr Rosica says that “Christians ought to be a constant encouragement to communion and, even in those cases where they must firmly condemn evil, they should never try to rupture relationships and communication.”

If we just took these words to heart the way we engaged would be different, and, ultimately, more human.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

director@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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