On April 24th, Arkansas executed two men on the same night—the first step in the state’s efforts to carry out capital punishment sentences on a total of eight men before their supply of lethal drugs reach their expiration date.
That same day, just hours before the executions were to be carried out, Sister Helen Prejean—one of the country’s most vocal opponents of the death penalty—tweeted: “Capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment. You’ll never meet a person with money on death row.”
In reply, religion reporter David Gibson tweeted: “Sister Helen was made for Twitter. Thank God.”
Thank God, indeed. And not only should we thank God for Prejean, but we should be grateful for the numerous ways in which social media has served as an effective platform to help shift public opinion and engage hearts and minds.
In the lead-up to the Arkansas executions, Prejean was directly pleading with Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on Twitter—and encouraging others to do the same. Within the last week alone, Prejean’s Twitter posts reached over 300,000 people online.
Last November, both the states of California and Nebraska had ballot initiatives on the death penalty in their states. In California, voters rejected a measure that would abolish the practice in their state and in Nebraska, voters voted to overturn the state legislature’s recent bill that would do the same.
Both measures proved unsuccessful—but what they did do was provide fuel to the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which is using social media to launch a public conversation on human dignity and the death penalty in the United States.
Consider another recent example: Democratic Party chairman Thomas Perez set-off a social media frenzy last week when he suggested that his party would not support any candidate who opposed abortion. Not only was this a direct contradiction to previous statements expressed by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, but it was viewed as an affront to the one in three Democrats who oppose abortion.
Democrats for Life, led by executive director Kristen Day, seized the opportunity to call out Perez on social media and sparked an outpouring of responses that spilled over into the Sunday morning talk shows.
Both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer took steps to walk back Perez’s comments and make clear that there is no litmus test over abortion and most national papers have been forced to cover what the Washington Post has termed the “Democrats’ Self-Inflicted Abortion Problem.”
And perhaps the most significant recent reminder of the power of social media happened on April 25th when TED released a video of Pope Francis delivering a 17-minute pre-recorded address at their global conference. TED is a well-known media nonprofit featuring online video addresses by policymakers, thought leaders, and cultural gatekeepers.
Francis, the first pope to ever participate in the conference, used the occasion to urge for a practice of true solidarity and a “revolution of tenderness.”
“How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries,” he implored.
In just the first twenty-four hours the video had made waves around the globe, proving once more that Francis isn’t just interested in shaking things up inside the Church, but as the Gospel commands, to go to the ends of the earth—both actual and in virtual reality.
Pope Benedict XVI paved the way for this sort of missional work by joining Twitter in 2012, but Francis’s widespread popularity has resulted in over 30 million Twitter followers. As Michael J. O’Loughlin points out in his clever book, The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters, Francis is relying on “a modern medium for an ancient Church” to accomplish one of the most important goals of his papacy: Creating a culture of dialogue and encounter.
As the current occupant of the Oval Office has managed to demonstrate, Twitter and other forms of social media is not without its troubles or temptations. And too often Catholics are the first to fall prey to using it as a mean for uncivil infighting rather than as a means for effective evangelization.
Yet in the span of merely one week, we’ve also been reminded that there’s considerable good that can be accomplished using such technology for the purposes of truth-telling and a vehicle for spreading the Church’s message of mercy. And that’s something worth re-tweeting, liking, and sharing as often as possible.