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Impact of social media on Catholic social services

The Catholic Church has for some years encouraged its members to engage in the online digital space. This is where the people are and so we need to go out and meet them there, sharing the Good News, and drawing them to the person of Christ. In a recent forum hosted by Catholic Social Services Victoria, 20 representatives from member and affiliated organisations gathered to discuss more deeply the impact of social media and information technology, particularly within the context of their work in social justice.

How effective is the use of social media in advancing social justice issues? How can we use social media and information technology to enhance our work in serving vulnerable and marginalised people? How do we encourage and facilitate moments of encounter, understanding and solidarity? To paraphrase Pope Francis in his 2014 World Communications Day Message: How can our digital communications be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter? How can we truly draw close to one another? How can we be ‘neighbourly’ in our use of the communications media and in the new environment created by digital technology?

In addressing these questions, the group looked at the impact of social media and information technology, identifying the strengths and weaknesses, exploring the opportunities for what’s possible if used well, and shedding light on the potential threats. Given the broad nature of these questions, they were explored within the context of Catholic social services and the role of its members in being a living sign of the Gospel message – serving with love, the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our community locally, nationally and internationally.

Those gathered spoke of the way in which social media and the Internet had increased their ability to network and connect with like-minded organisations and groups of people across the world. In so doing, they could share information, resources, knowledge and expertise with each other (and the broader community), which could then be shared and applied within the local community context. Increased connectivity and coordination of information, and the speed within which information can be shared has improved some of the members’ ability for informed and effective advocacy. Social media and information technology has also increased the ability to give a voice to those who might otherwise remain silent and forgotten.

The nature of social media as  “a double-edged sword” was also discussed. Where social media can provide a platform for increased diversity of voices, for increased collaboration and knowledge, similarly it has provided a space for people to increasingly abuse, ‘troll’, and cause hatred and division. The ability for nuance and tone in conversation, the opportunity to engage in serious listening and calm dialogue, and the ability to discern what is true or false as opposed to opinion, seem to be fast-diminishing traits of social media usage.

Within the Catholic social services context, forum members spoke of examples of social media being used to dig up and expose past actions of people who had come out of jail and were attempting a fresh start, or of those who were recovering from drug, or other addictions. It is fast becoming apparent that forgiveness, which is one of the Gospel imperatives, is in short supply in the online realm.

It is clear that the Internet and social media platforms are not going away. And so it is important to delve deeper into the very nature of this space and to ask some questions: who is in control of the content placed and shared online? Who and how do we regulate this space? How can we ensure everybody has equal access to the positive aspects of digital technology? How effective is it in building up humanity and in meeting bringing people to Christ? How do we ensure the positive impact outweighs the negative?

In the concluding paragraphs of his World Communications Day message, Pope Francis said that, “while the drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media. Rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement.”  Fully equipped with the knowledge of the space we’re in, and understanding how to use it effectively, may “our communication be a balm, which relieves pain and a fine wine, which gladdens hearts.”

A full feature article based on this theme, written by Fiona Basile, will be published in the May edition of Melbourne Catholic magazine.

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