The Pope has warned that the illusion of community online risks turning young people into ‘hermits’, and that narcissism and societal divisions fueled by social media are creating ‘spirals of hatred’.
In his World Day of Social Communications message released on Thursday, Pope Francis said that online discussion is ‘too often based on opposition to the other, the person outside the group: we define ourselves starting with what divides us rather than with what unites us’.
This ‘unbridled individualism’ found on social media ‘sometimes ends up fomenting spirals of hatred’, the Pope said, and giving rise to ‘every kind of prejudice’.
He also warned that while the internet provides an opportunity to connect with other people, young people might find themselves tricked into thinking that the web can completely satisfy all their relational needs.
‘There is the dangerous phenomenon of young people becoming ‘social hermits’ who risk alienating themselves completely from society,’ the 82-year-old said.
The Pope is currently on an official visit to Panama for the global World Youth Day gathering, and also took the opportunity to draw attention to the fact that one in four young people are involved in cyberbullying.
He said that people should no longer need an adversary to define themselves, because ‘as Christians, we all recognize ourselves as members of the one body whose head is Christ.
‘This helps us not to see people as potential competitors, but to consider even our enemies as persons.’
Releasing the message on the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists, the Pope also touched on the topics of fake news and misinformation propagated online.
The internet brings with it ‘risks that threaten the search for, and sharing of, authentic information on a global scale,’ he said.
‘If the Internet represents an extraordinary possibility of access to knowledge, it is also true that it has proven to be one of the areas most exposed to disinformation and to the conscious and targeted distortion of facts and interpersonal relationships’.
In a similar vein, the pope warned people about social networks profiting off people’s personal data and perhaps manipulating it for ‘political or economic advantages, without due respect for the person and his or her rights’.
The Pope did, however, explain that ultimately the Catholic Church believes the internet is a tool that can be harnessed for good, if only people would begin to use it for ‘dialogue, for encounter, for “smiles” and expressions of tenderness…’
Comparing the internet to the Church, the Pope concluded by saying that the former should become more like the latter – ‘a network woven together by Eucharistic communion, where unity is based not on “likes”, but on the truth, on the “Amen”, by which each one clings to the Body of Christ, and welcomes others.’