ROME — I woke up at two in the morning on Thursday, worried about a headline on a story we’d be carrying that day. My anxiety wasn’t because the headline was invalid, since the person had said what was in it and it represented accurately what he believed.
My problem with the headline, which was “Myanmar cardinal decries ‘ecological holocaust’,” was based instead on the kind of knee-jerk reaction I could easily foresee on social media, where people tend to fixate not on the content of an article, nor the validity of someone’s argument, but pretty much entirely on the headline.
Cardinal Charles Bo is the top church official in a country which, as he pointed out, is bottom-tier in most global rankings but occupies second place in terms of nations most vulnerable to global warming, and he was speaking to religious women about the dangers his country faces because of the misuse of resources in rich countries.
“Cyclones, earthquakes, floods, name it,” Bo said. “Rich countries throw carbon into [the] atmosphere. We suffer and bury thousands after every natural disaster.”
Over the last 10 years, Myanmar has been impacted by two major earthquakes, three severe cyclones, floods and other smaller-scale hazards.
Some may question the man-made element [though Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, clearly states that human activity has had an important role in climate change], but it’s widely acknowledged that hostile climatic conditions affect the poor the most, and, as Bo said, that doesn’t bode well for Myanmar.
It was a dramatic headline for a dramatic speech, but it would have been too easily undermined, dismissed and exploited on Twitter, where most people today seem to think that reading 116 characters (140 minus the link) equals knowing enough to start taking swings.
In the end, we decided to go with “Myanmar cardinal decries economic, ecological ‘terrorism’.”
We saw a clear example of people taking a tweet as the whole story on Feb. 23, when the pope said that it’s scandalous for Catholics to live a double life, going to Mass but not paying fair wages. He went so far as to say that these people lead others to say: “To be a Catholic like him, better to be an atheist!”
Headlines on the story, both here at Crux and pretty much everywhere else, turned around this section of Francis’s homily.
That not-so-small and definitely loud Twitter-verse of people following Catholic affairs exploded, with users going after news organizations for their headlines, after the pope for telling people to leave their faith instead of struggling to become better Catholics, and after those supporting the pope because they believed he was defending atheism.
Needless to say, very few people read the articles before jumping into the fire. The pope had indeed spoken about Catholics living a double life and atheism, but headlines, like tweets, have a limited word count. The much-needed context was, more often than not, provided only in the articles themselves.
Studies speak of increasing verbal violence, trolling and even harassment on social media, which is even more common on Twitter because it’s often more anonymous than other platforms.
Racist, sexist and religious-based discrimination fueled by internet “trolls” has thrived. According to Wired, harassment has become such a big problem for Twitter that it was reportedly one of the main reasons business software company Salesforce decided not try to acquire the company. Bloomberg reported a similar situation with Disney.
Politicians are fueling these trends on a daily basis, but they’re far from being the only ones.
For instance, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago sent out a tweet on Feb. 28 asking for prayers for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the four-year anniversary of the last day of his papacy, saying he had taught “us all to trust in God as he handed over the papacy to Divine Providence.”
Hiding behind accounts with no real names, Twitter users went after Francis, saying that Benedict had “handed [the papacy] to the worst pope in Church history. Now we need to rely on divine providence to save us.”
Another user said that he had handed the papacy to a socialist, and that the “why” question hasn’t been answered yet because “clearly he was not ill as was proffered.” Someone had a an answer to the “why,” which was “the Vatican gay and homosexual mob. You should be ashamed of yourself [Cupich].”
And, of course, there were those who went after Benedict, saying that resigning was “The very best thing he ever did for the Church.”
A similar exercise could be done with many accounts, including Pope Francis’s (@Pontifex), but in between the “amen” and “thank you’s” he gets, the responses are usually too violent to be repeated. Most often than not, they have nothing to do with what was shared to the 32 million users who follow him in 9 different languages.
For Catholics, and other Christian denominations, the pre-Easter period known as Lent began on Ash Wednesday. As is common, many probably offered to give something up: from alcohol to chocolate, from Netflix to Amazon, you name it.
Pope Francis – as every modern pope before him – has spoken about fasting many times, warning against the risk of it turning Catholics into hypocrites, giving something up for the sake of giving it up, when true fasting is helping others.
On Feb. 13, 2013, days before becoming pope, he used a quote from St. John Chrysostom in his Ash Wednesday homily which says: “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”
In this spirit, I would like to suggest to social media users a Lenten penance: give up sending out tweets about articles, the people featured in them or the journalists who wrote them, before you’ve read anything beyond the headline.
Vow that you will read the entire text of an article and think about it for 30 seconds before you tweet.
Holding the snarkiness in check for a while could become a modern-day virtue in Chrysostom’s fashion, since it would mean fasting while doing a lot of good for a world that is too divided, where violent actions and comments are always the order of the day.
May I suggest you call a friend, share a drink [if you didn’t give up booze], and have a constructive conversation instead?