Pope Francis on the Problem with Social Media

Background image by Gerd Altmann, via Pixabay

Every time I sit down to break open another section of Fratelli Tutti, I’m blown away all over again. I know the amount of Stuff we have to wade through in modern life is punishing, even within the writings and teachings available to Catholics by Catholics. There is value in reading the words of past popes.

But we also need to listen to THIS Pope. Reading Fratelli Tutti makes it crystal clear why the Holy Spirit chose him to lead the Church at this point in human history. He doesn’t get fancy, he doesn’t spend time being brainy. He’s right in the thick of it, speaking words we understand, pointing out all the things we already know, and drawing the connection between “the way we do things” and “how we got where we are.”

The section from #42-50 deals with the way we use social media. Being friends online has its uses, but he’s pointing out truths. You can make true friends on social media, and I have. But most of our contacts there are shallow and social, not full of depth. Social media is all about the next big thing, so building the “consensus that matures over time” is not its strength. Of course online disagreements fall to toxicity. Our goal in social media is to get likes, to spark a reaction, so really, Pope Francis points out, the fundamental purpose is to feed individuality, not community.

As someone who is trying to build a following for Intentional Catholic and for my secular fiction, this strikes very true. I got on social media specifically to network with Catholic musicians and fiction authors, and it serves its purpose well. I greatly value the relationships I’ve built here. Social media is great for helping us forge connections. And I can say honestly that there are people I consider friends now whom I’ve never met in person.

But in this year when conventions, conferences, and retreats are canceled, we’re all deeply mourning the loss of the in-person gatherings, because those are where we most often make the lasting connections.

Anyway, I’m getting pretty far afield in my stream-of consciousness reflection. Pope Francis’ point is that social media is structured to encourage us to try to stand out (an individualistic endeavor), and the algorithms are built to show us more of what we already like (or hate), as measured by what we like or comment on. So we end up getting shoved into those echo chambers, or into toxic environments—and very often both at the same time.

And because we’re a step removed from a lot of the people we’re interacting with, it’s easy to get ramped up into “remarkable hostility, insults, abuse, defamation and verbal violence destructive of others, and this with a lack of restraint that could not exist in physical contact without tearing us all apart.”

That last phrase is important. We all say things on social media we would NEVER say to another person’s face. And unfortunately we’ve started calling it “telling the truth in love,” and justifying it by saying that sometimes love hurts.

Which is true, but we’re ramping ourselves up and then deciding that our own “wisdom” is sufficient to discern what is the “truth.”

So when he says, “This has now given free rein to ideologies,” I think, YES. That’s exactly right!

And when he says, “Halfway through, we interrupt him and want to contradict what he has not even finished saying,” I think of all the careful, thoughtful attempts I’ve made to engage with people, and how they react to one phrase they think they can attack, and ignore all the rest.

And then I try to check my own conscience, because the ability to recognize it in others does not mean I am immune myself.

I know I say this every time, but please read this document. God gave us Pope Francis right now for a reason.

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