How to be engaging on social media. How to build relationships beyond our own virtual world. How to rebuild trust through an authentic online presence. Those questions were at the heart of a seminar on Wednesday at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross university, focused on the theme ‘Communicating in the Digital Culture’.
Organised by the British embassy to the Holy See, the encounter featured presentations by two well-known speakers, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Civiltà Cattolica journal, and the former British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, now a professor of international relations at New York University.
Love them or hate them, social media sites are an important part of daily life for a large part of the global population. So much so, that Fr Spadaro insists it’s no longer possible to talk about pastoral work without understanding what goes on in the digital world.
Pope Francis’s social media accounts are currently among the most influential of all world leaders, with over 33 million followers on Twitter and over four million on his more recent Instagram profile.
Communicating the Gospel of Mercy
This clearly offers huge opportunities to communicate “the Gospel of Mercy to all peoples and cultures”, as the pope himself puts it. Yet Fr Spadaro notes it also raises new challenges about how we engage people effectively in this new digital environment.
Asking the right questions
We live in world of search engines, he says, where “everything has an answer” yet we are losing sight of the important questions in life. The best way forward, he goes on, is not to “consider the Gospel itself as a book of answers, but as a book of questions”.
Sometimes, he says, “the Church is answering questions that no one is interested in” so we have to recover the ability to discern which are the important questions for our life today.
Breaking out of the filter bubble
Secondly, he notes how digital technology filters the results of our searches, so that “in the end, our world is shrinking so we are caged in a kind of filter bubble” in which “we’re always in touch with people who think like us”. We have to break out of this bubble, he says, by being curious and posing the right questions.
Thirdly, Fr Spadaro says, we have to realise that communicating no longer means broadcasting, but rather it means sharing in a way that “each one of us is involved”. If we post on Facebook, he explains, we don’t just share a content, but we communicate ourselves, becoming witnesses and creating relationships – if we don’t create relationships, he says, “we can’t spread the Gospel”.
For the diplomatic world too, Professor Tom Fletcher believes that social media sites are the best tool for building trust to promote coexistence and cooperation.
The “big dividing line of the 21st century”, he says, “is between people who believe in coexistence” across different faiths, communities and nationalities, and “people who don’t, the people who believe that the answer to the 21st century is just a bigger wall”.
Rules of engagement
Fletcher spells out his three basic rules of engagement in the digital world: firstly, he says, “it’s really important to be authentic”, secondly, “always try to be engaging” by creating “new interesting content”, and thirdly, “be purposeful”, which, for him, means both promoting national interests, but also promoting partnership and collaboration between people.
Don’t leave space to extremists
Fletcher urges everyone to “take the plunge” into social media because “if we leave this space to extremists, but also to those who are basically apathetic or cynical”, there is “a real risk of the next generation only hearing their voices”. The “silent majority tend to be outshouted”, he concludes, “so we need to hear more from the coexisters”.