VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis warned Thursday against the increasing narcissism and “spirals of hatred” found on today’s social media networks, encouraging people to cultivate community through their internet interactions instead.
In his World Day of Social Communications message, Pope Francis said that online discussion is “too often based on opposition to the other.”
“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),” Francis wrote in the letter published January 24.
This creates a digital environment that nourishes “unbridled individualism which sometimes ends up fomenting spirals of hatred,” he explained.
“As Christians, we all recognize ourselves as members of the one body whose head is Christ. This helps us not to see people as potential competitors, but to consider even our enemies as persons,” he said.
“We no longer need an adversary in order to define ourselves” because in “the all-encompassing gaze we learn from Christ” our identity and our relationship in communion with others, he explained.
The pope also commented on data privacy and the risk posed by social networks that profit off using people’s personal information for their own benefit.
Social networks “lend themselves to the manipulation of personal data, aimed at obtaining political or economic advantages, without due respect for the person and his or her rights,” he said.
Pope Francis clarified that the Catholic Church sees the internet as a tool that can be used for the betterment of humanity.
“Ever since the internet first became available, the Church has always sought to promote its use in the service of the encounter between persons, and of solidarity among all,” he said.
The internet provides the “opportunity to share stories and experiences of beauty or suffering that are physically distant from us, in order to pray together and together seek out the good to rediscover what unites us,” he explained.
“The Church herself is a network woven together by Eucharistic communion, where unity is based not on ‘likes,’ but on the truth, on the ‘Amen,’ by which each one clings to the Body of Christ, and welcomes others,” he said.
Pope Francis emphasized that social media does not replace the need in the human heart for authentic human community.
“By virtue of our being created in the image and likeness of God who is communion and communication-of-Self, we carry forever in our hearts the longing for living in communion, for belonging to a community,” he said.
“Social network communities are not automatically synonymous with community,” Pope Francis said.
Among the challenges in the current communications context is increasing isolation, the pope explained.
The internet provides “an opportunity to promote encounter with others, but it can also increase our self-isolation, like a web that can entrap us,” he said.
Young people are particularly prone to the “illusion” that social media will “completely satisfy them on a relational level,” the pope warned.
Pope Francis called on Catholics to “invest in relationships” and cultivate community, utilizing online social networks as a resource.
Social media needs to remain “a resource for communion,” he said. “If a Church community coordinates its activity through the network, and then celebrates the Eucharist together, then it is a resource.”
The pope’s message was released on the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists. Pope Francis again warned this year against the dangers of “disinformation” in internet communication, which coexists with “an extraordinary possibility of access to knowledge” found online.
This year the 53rd World Day of Social Communications will take place on the feast of the Ascension of the Lord on June 2. It is the only worldwide celebration called for by the Second Vatican Council, in the 1963 document Inter Mirifica.
The responsibility of using social media with charity falls on each individual, Pope Francis said.
“While governments seek legal ways to regulate the web and to protect the original vision of a free, open and secure network, we all have the possibility and the responsibility to promote its positive use,” he said.