ROME – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week marks the first major military confrontation in the digital era, where images and videos shared in real time offer the world a whole new insight into the reality of war, and the spread of misinformation.
One thing that has stood out since fighting in Ukraine began Feb. 24, has not only been the sheer quantity of visual and written content amplified on social media platforms, but how this content is being used.
So far, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been one of the main protagonists in what has been dubbed a parallel, “social media war” unfolding online as Russian troops attempt to push further into Ukraine on the ground.
His frequent posts have gone far in swaying public opinion in Ukraine’s favor, in securing much-needed military support and harsher sanctions against Russia, and they have also served as a source of inspiration for Ukrainian citizens fighting back on the frontlines.
Pope Francis has also joined the chorus of contributors on social media, launching a series of daily tweets in both Ukrainian and Russian containing messages of peace and urging all sides to lay down their arms.
In his first tweet about the conflict Feb. 25, the pope sent a quote from his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, saying, “every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil.”
He has continued to send daily tweets condemning the “diabolical senselessness of violence” and insisting that “God is with peacemakers, not with those who use violence.”
Francis’s March 2 Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace in Ukraine, which coincided with Ash Wednesday, was widely publicized on the Vatican’s and the pope’s social media accounts.
It is this kind of advocacy and the broad reach that social media has that Irish Bishop Paul Tighe said can make social networks an effective tool in promoting the cause for peace.
Secretary of the Vatican’s Council for Culture and a leading figure in the pope’s communications reform instituted shortly after taking office, Tighe said the modern digital culture is changing the way war and its opposition is waged.
“What social media has done, is it’s brought in very close to all of us, the horrors of war,” he said, speaking to Crux. “It also serves in a very real way to take away from the very euphemistic way we’ve talked about war in the past.”
With social media, the horrors that people face in the midst of violent conflict are suddenly more real, and “the wrongness of violence becomes very clear.”
Tighe said digital culture and social media have also allowed individuals to have a level of power of expression that was not possible in the past. Suddenly, “they can comment, they can report, they can state what’s going on in ways that are not so easily censored.”
“That gives people an extraordinary power of communication,” he said, insisting that this also requires higher levels of personal and individual responsibility for what’s being said or shared.
Referring to the infamous reputation social media platforms have gained as super-spreaders of misinformation, Tighe said that especially in times of war, when facts are at times difficult to ascertain, there is a need to verify information before passing it on.
“We need to be very attentive to exercising our own intelligence in terms of what we’re sharing and how we’re engaging,” he said, quoting the adage, “the first casualty of war is the truth.”
Tighe stressed the importance of making a genuine effort to be as truthful as possible on social media, focusing on what’s been verified, and “not just sharing what’s convenient, not just sharing what supports my argument, but stepping back and trying to ask, would this be helpful.”
“If it’s bringing out the horrors of war, great, but is it perhaps demonizing one side or another more than what’s necessary? We have to be careful about that,” even in war, he said.
Pointing to the polarizing effect social media can often have on public discourse, Tighe said it’s natural in times of war and conflict, that this polarization is exacerbated.
This, he said, is where he believes the pope’s social media accounts, and specifically his @Pontifex Twitter account, has an important role to play.
Through his posts, “the pope is very much bringing home the objective wrongness of war, that violence is always a failure, violence cannot be the basis of making peace,” Tighe said, saying the pope is also calling his followers and those who view his posts “back to a higher value, the value of peace and resistance to the idea of war and weaponization and violence.”
“I think he’s also trying to create something of a bridge by calling people to prayer, calling people to pray together for those who are suffering, to pray for peace,” Tighe said, voicing his belief that the pope is trying to “spark almost a collective imagination of a better way of resolving conflict.”
Pope Francis, he said, is “reminding us that those involved in this conflict share basically the same Christian faith – not all, but many share the same basic Christian faith, and trying to make that a point of union and of strength, calling people to prayer for peace.”
“Peace is so important as a notion in Judeo-Christian tradition,” he said, insisting that social media can play a pivotal role in helping the pope carry forward his desire to be “a bridge-builder, and trying to build a bridge to peace.”
While some have criticized the pope for his failure to publicly mention Russia or Vladimir Putin since the war began, Tighe said neutrality, especially on social media, can be a useful tool.
“Not being aligned, keeping a strong, independent voice which is consistently calling for peace and calling people to prayer and fasting, and to be engaged and open up a horizon of the kingdom of peace,” is an essential role the pope is trying to fill, and he’s using social media to do it, Tighe said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen