Pope Francis has taken a stand against many things since becoming Bishop of Rome, firing clerics who spend too much money on themselves, blasting corrupt Catholic officials, and shaming people who turn away Syrian refugees.
But now the Holy Father is bringing his moral authority to bear against one of his toughest enemies yet: Internet trolls.
On Friday, the pontiff posted a new address to the Vatican website to mark World Communications Day. In it, he praised the potential benefits of technology to help people communicate, but also warned against the tendency for digital discourse to morph into anger-fueled flame wars.
“Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups,” Francis writes. “The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks…Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbor whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected.”
The famously “tweetable pope” is well-known for his embrace of technology, and the message follows back-to-back meetings this month between the Holy Father and two giants of Silicon Valley — Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google parent company Alphabet, and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Yet Francis is one of the first — and one of the most influential — religious leaders to offer a theological lens for grappling with the growing issue of online harassment, a problem with an ever-increasing scope. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, 40 percent of internet users have personally experienced online harassment, with women and minorities disproportionately affected.
The tech industry has struggled to create systems to grapple with the issue. Organizers of the South by Southwest conference canceled two online harassment panels last October after news of the panels resulted in violent threats, only to reschedule a day-long summit on the issue after big-name digital media companies Vox and Buzzfeed threatened to pull out of the convening. Meanwhile, Twitter updated its anti-harassment polices in December 2015 to target online abuse, but critics say the changes simply repackage existing policies that many argue are ineffective.
Many blame the ubiquity of online harassment on the ability to remain anonymous while attacking someone else on the internet. But the pontiff noted that, from a moral perspective, such arguments ignore the fundamental truth of digital communication: the screen name you yell at online isn’t a robot — it’s a person.
“Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication,” he writes. “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.”
“In a broken, fragmented and polarized world, to communicate with mercy means to help create a healthy, free and fraternal closeness between the children of God and all our brothers and sisters in the one human family.”