ROME – Using a bit of cyber-jargon to get a point across, a senior Vatican communications official Monday had a piece of advice for how to respond to the rise of online “trolls,” meaning users looking to stir up trouble.
“Don’t feed them, and don’t nurture them on Twitter,” said Italian layman Paolo Ruffini, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications. This attitude, he said, ought to be assumed both by “those who are part of the church and those who aren’t.”
Ruffini ducked, however, on the question of what happens when those trolls are actually Catholic prelates who use social media to criticize Pope Francis, saying that’s a problem for the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops.
The question was sparked in part by a recent controversy centering on Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who used his Twitter account May 12 to announce that while he regards Francis as the legitimate pope, he believes the pontiff is “undermining the Deposit of Faith.”
Ruffini was introducing a lengthy new Vatican document on the risks and benefits of social media and the attitude of Christians who use them, which insists the platforms must be used to promote truth and community.
Discussing everything from cyberbullying to AI, misinformation to information overload and the growth of tribalism online, the document, published May 29, is titled, “Towards a Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media.”
According to an executive summary of the document, its aim consists of an in-depth reflection on Christian interaction with and on social media given the increasingly important role it plays in many people’s lives.
Similarly, Sister Nathalie Bequart, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops and a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, stressed the need for better formation in the digital world.
Given the rapid growth and expansion of social networks and the digital universe, Bequart said “formation in a just presence in the digital world is needed today, not only in education in schools, but all pastoral centers, for pastors, sisters in communities.”
Formation in proper online conduct must be integrated into communities so they learn “a correct way of being on social media” and of interacting with and in the digital world, learning “when we should speak and when we shouldn’t speak.”
The only way for the church to move forward in this sphere, she said, “is to reflect on the path taken and what changes are needed for a better way.”
According to the executive summary of the document, the idea behind publishing it is to “foster a culture of being loving neighbors also in the digital sphere,” the summary said, noting that in the digital sphere, individuals “are often both consumers and commodities.”
In this context, a “faith-filled” response is needed, the Vatican said, saying this response “begins with being discerning regarding the stimuli we receive and being intentional listeners.”
“Attentiveness, together with a sense of belonging, reciprocity, and solidarity are the pillars for building a sense of community that should ultimately strengthen local communities, capable of becoming drivers of change,” the Vatican said.
The Vatican urged believers to be “weavers of communion” online, building new models of digital interaction based on trust, transparency and inclusion.
Among other things, the document warns Christians to watch out for various “pitfalls” along the “digital highways,” noting that while the internet and social media platforms provide many opportunities for interconnectedness, they also present various challenges that must be addressed.
Users are frequently reduced to “consumers and commodities,” while tribalist instincts are not only fostered, but often encouraged, the Vatican said, noting in the executive summary of the document that “many have been marginalized and wounded” through the online environment.
In the past, the Vatican has repeatedly spoken out against cyberbullying, launching an international observatory on the issue in 2018.
Pope Francis weighed in on the issue himself in 2019 during a meeting with young people belonging to Scholas Occurentes, an educational project he began while still archbishop of Argentina, telling youth that when someone chooses to bully online, “the emptiness of the aggressor’s own identity is apparent. There is a need for them to attack in order to feel like a person.”
For Christians, then, the question that must be asked is how they can help the online environment become “a place of sharing, collaborating, and belonging, based on mutual trust.”
In order for this to happen, social media users must have “a listening disposition” and must interact “in the realization that the others we are encountering online are real people.”
“Even in an environment replete with ‘information overload,’ this attitude of intentional listening and openness of the heart makes it possible for us to move from mere awareness of the other to a genuine encounter,” the executive summary said, saying the aim should be to invest in those met online and allow those digital connections to become “real relationships” that strengthen communities.
Oftentimes, people meet and interact with each other online in a spirit of indifference, the attitude of an ambivalent bystander, or in a spirit of “support and companionship,” the summary said.
When the latter attitude of care and support is chosen, the Vatican said, Christians, whether they are doing the support or are in need of it, can help heal “the wounds created by a toxic digital environment.”
“We need to rebuild digital spaces so that they become more human and healthier environments,” the summary said, saying Christians must also help shape the digital sphere so that it is capable of fostering “real communities based on that embodied encounter which is indispensable for those who believe in the Word become flesh.”
Christians, the Vatican said, must bring a “distinctive style” to social media that is based on the words and love of Jesus Christ, who taught believers that “truth is revealed in communion, and that communication also comes from communion – that is, from love.”
The digital footprint of a Christian must reflect an attitude that shares truthful information creatively and that builds friendship and community, using whatever online influence they have “responsibly.”
“It will be reflective, not reactive; it will be active in promoting activities and projects that promote human dignity; and it will be synodal, helping us to open our hearts and embrace our brothers and sisters,” they summary said.
Christian influence on social media must also “bear the mark of witness,” the summary said, saying Christians are not on social platforms to sell anything or to proselytize, but to share the message of Christ.
This means they are online “to vouch, with their words and with their lives, for what someone else – God – has done, forging a communion that unites us in Christ,” the summary said.
Drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the summary said Christians will at times be the wounded one, and other times the one who helps, or they might be both together.
Either way, their presence online and the digital interactions they have must “become an encounter with a neighbor whose life concerns them, and ultimately, with the Lord. In this way, communication grants a taste of the communion that has its roots in the Holy Trinity, and that is our true ‘promised land,’” the summary said.
In addition to his past remarks on cyberbullying, Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken about the benefits of social media, as well as the dangers they present.
When Francis published his encyclical on social friendship Fratelli Tutti in October 2020, he condemned today’s hyper-polarized and trigger-happy social media culture, saying social aggression “has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices.”
The pontiff lamented that unthinkable things could be said “in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures,” and said the “feverish” exchanges on social platforms are often based on misinformation.
He blamed social media for normalizing aggression and making polarization and ideological and political disputes more acute, saying a spirit of charity, friendship, respect, and community-building is the remedy.
During Monday’s presentation of the document, Ruffini also fielded questions regarding Artificial Intelligence and AI technologies that create fake images, videos and audios, calling for the development of a global control system to monitor content circulating online and distinguish what is real from what is fake.
Misinformation, the manipulation of content and “deep fakes” such as AI generated images of Pope Francis wearing a giant white puffer jacket or playing basketball that have recently circulated must be targeted “together,” Ruffini said.
The challenge for Christians, he said, is to “be sources of truth, be capable of building an ecosystem of the truth” online.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen