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A space for encounter and solidarity

In the June edition of The Pope Video, Pope Francis remarks that “The Internet is a gift of God, but it is also a great responsibility.” Francis says that ”Communication technology, its places, its instruments have brought with it a lengthening of horizons, a widening, for so many people”. He adds “It can offer immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity,” but explains it must be used in a way that respects the dignity of other people. “May the digital network not be a place of alienation” he says.

The internet can help us to be better citizens, according to the Pope. “May it be a concrete place, a place rich in humanity”, he proposes. Concluding his message the Holy Father says “Let us pray together that social networks may work towards that inclusiveness which respects others for their differences,” calling to mind his monthly prayer intention for June.

Fr Frédéric Fornos SJ, international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, noted that, we live with social networks “almost without realising it”. Currently, there are 3,196 billion active users on social networks worldwide, which constitutes 42% of the world’s population. Among the regions with the highest penetration, the most notable are North America, where 70% of the population are active users; northern Europe, with 66%; eastern Asia, with 64%; and South America, with 63%.

Fr Fornos outlined that rather than acting as an instrument for true communication and communion, social networks “become a medium for discord and misinformation”. He proposes that we make social networks places “of openness to others and to their culture, their religious and spiritual tradition, and their differences; places of dialogue at the service of responsible citizenship”.

In his message for World Communications Day on 24 January 2018, Pope Francis remarked that “Cyberspace is a reality and it’s not virtual”. For many people, particularly for younger people, “it’s thoroughly real”, the Pope said. Francis stated that the onus on users of the Internet to have respect for their fellow users and to use social networks in a responsible way. “With freedom always comes responsibility”, he said, outlining how “hateful posting, online bullying and ‘fake news’ diminishes us and taints that freedom.

Fake news “often goes viral, spreading so fast that it is hard to stop, not because of the sense of sharing that inspires the social media, but because it appeals to the insatiable greed so easily aroused in human beings” according to the Pope. Such selfish desires rooted are rooted in a thirst for power, possession and enjoyment he said. This ultimately makes us victims of “the deceptive power of evil”. To counteract this we need to teach people “how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations”, explained Francis.

The Pope would like to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace which promote deeper understanding and contribute to the resolution of conflicts by setting in place “virtuous processes”. He articulated that a heavy weight of responsibility rests on journalists, whom he described as “the protectors of news”. Explaining that their job is “a mission”, he outlined how amid “the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons”. Informing others means forming others, the Pope said, explaining that when journalist guarantee the accuracy of their sources and protect communication, it is a tangible way “of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace”.

Writing on the Pope’s Intention in the June issue of Sacred Heart Messenger, the publication of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (Apostleship of Prayer) in Ireland, Fr David Stewart SJ notes that the careful wording of this month’s intention is subtle. He says “put plainly it’s a reminder that social networks are neither working towards inclusiveness nor respecting others for their differences”. Since the Internet became generally available along with the more recent spread of social media “dismay has grown about the possibility of its misuse”, he explains. He says “better communication that leads to more dialogue would be a wonderful ideal, but, sadly, we have come to see the opposite happen all too often”.

According to Fr Stewart, “many of us have used the easy connectivity of the internet and the widespread availability of a variety of social media platforms, to do harm to others, attacking those who think differently from us or who simply are different”. Online, a person can be anonymous, they can create “an entirely fake persona”, spending all their time online in their own “silo” possibly never hearing different viewpoints or having their opinions challenged, he articulates. When this happens “our opinions may solidify and turn into prejudices; we will have become prejudiced” he argues, adding that “A prejudiced person is someone who refuses to respect others for their differences – exactly the opposite of what we pray for, with the Pope, this month”.

When we pray for the Pope’s intention this month it will lead us to reflect on our personal use of social networks, Fr Stewart reflects. “Do we use them to build up others, for dialogue, for the greater common good?” he asks. In conclusion he states that “Our God-given human freedom is delicate and tender”, and proposes that “we can prayerfully commit ourselves to its protection, especially online, this month.”

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