JESUS commanded everyone to love their neighbours – an immutable moral truth – but how do people respond to this truth when they encounter their neighbours in a digital space?
More than 4.3 billion people are using the Internet worldwide and everything from banking to seeing family can be done in front of a screen.
Like all social landscapes, we are called to it as creatures made for community but, unlike any other social landscape, alienation was built into its design.
Making a genuine encounter
The 2019 Australian Catholic Bishops Conference social justice statement explored just how to make a genuine human encounter in a digital world.
Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Terry Brady, who is the ACBC social justice delegate, said at their heart, the problems of the Internet were moral not technological.
“Our digital world enables us to be more connected than ever before, but sadly it can also be a place of manipulation, exploitation and violence,” he said.
“We can choose how we behave online, and we can collectively shape the online world, building a more just and loving online neighbourhood.”
The statement called us to be like the Good Samaritan to a robbed and beaten world, keeping in mind the context of the modern world and how love can help shape the structures of the Internet.
This was easier said than done.
The Internet was rife with content offensive to human dignity.
Pornography poses serious risks
At the top of the list were sexual objectification, exploitation and trafficking of women and children, and the related production and distribution of pornography.
“Recent studies have shown that three-quarters of young Australian women have experienced online harassment,” the social justice statement read.
“For over 40 per cent, the abuse was misogynistic, and for 20 per cent it included threats of sexual and physical violence.”
The proliferation of pornography online was cited as a serious concern by the bishops’ conference, especially with how easily children could access it.
“The use of pornography has a host of serious consequences, such as poor mental health, and earlier, riskier and aggressive sexual behaviour,” the statement read.
“It impedes the maturation of the individual’s sexual identity and damages relationships, marriages and families.”
The statement reported that, at the recent Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, young people raised concerns about cyberbullying.
Their concern was particularly about how young people tended to separate their behaviour into online and offline environments.
About 20 per cent of Australians under 18 have experienced cyberbullying, sometimes driving them to suicide.
The statement reported on a range of other topics like the great digital divide between those who were online and those who weren’t, psychological issues like addiction, how to behave online, and the many good things the Internet had brought like democratisation.
Social justice statement discusses how to join the digital landscape in a moral and dignified way
DOPAMINE is an organic chemical that sends signals whizzing around the brain, telling us, among other things, what is desirable and what is not.
In many ways, this chemical rules the digital landscape.
Every time someone gets a “like” on a photo, hits purchase on a new item or receives a text message – dopamine floods in to reinforce that behaviour.
Former Facebook vice president Chamath Palihapitiya said these “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we (Facebook) have created are destroying how society works”.
Millions, maybe billions, addicted
Five billion people use mobile phones and 4.3 billion people use the Internet with virtually no guidance.
This has created a situation where millions, possibly billions, are addicted to their devices.
This year’s Australian Catholic Bishops Conference social justice statement discussed how to navigate the digital landscape in a moral and dignified way, and encounter people authentically in this space.
“There are immense benefits for humanity: staying connected with family and friends – sometimes over vast distances; meeting people from diverse cultures and geographies; educational and economic opportunities for previously excluded groups; and greater participation in political life,” the statement read.
“Digital platforms have a role to call communities to action in the face of natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and human rights abuses.”
But these positive uses are countered by negative, often addictive, uses.
This was especially dangerous coupled with the proliferation of advertising and private data usage.
Last year 2.8 billion people used consumer goods online with a total sales revenue of about $1.8 trillion.
The incentive for advertisers to dupe our dopamine centres was profitable because the more hooked we are, the longer we are on the platforms. And the longer we are engaged on a platform, clicking on things and commenting on others, the more information corporate entities like Facebook or Google could collect.
A good rule of thumb is – if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.
This information is sold on to advertisers or political campaigners to tailor and target their products and political propaganda.
Not only were consumers subjected to deception, transparent democratic values were at risk.
At the heart of Catholic social teaching is human dignity and it was the standard by which online activity ought to be measured, the statement read.
Connected Vs. Unconnected
The great digital divide was a looming concern.
While governments, banks and industries have jumped on-board the Internet – certainly making many services exponentially more efficient – it has come at the cost of interpersonal relations and created a gulf between the connected and the unconnected.
Age, income, geography, cultural background and disabilities are all factors behind this divide.
More worryingly, the statement read, essential services continued to shift online with digital inclusion becoming mandatory for basic participation in society.
The statement said digital access should therefore be a human right.
But the problem didn’t have only technical solutions, it had moral and social solutions too.
Moral solutions to technical issues
“It requires us to ask how much we value the poor and marginalised and whether we want a community built for the common good in which we recognise and love each other as neighbours,” the statement read.
“Any technical solutions will only ever be as good as the culture and values we decide they are going to serve.”
A grave concern was also the rise of hate and broadcasting murders or other criminal activities.
This was most egregiously done in the Christchurch massacre earlier this year, where a man killed 50 people while broadcasting online.
Even with all these problems, there was still hope, the statement read.
“We are called not just to be inhabitants of this new digital world, but active citizens shaping it,” the statement read.
“We all have a role to play in rejecting hatred, divisions and falsehoods.
“More than this, we have a duty to foster a neighbourhood that promotes all of the human attributes and social values that lend themselves to genuine human encounter – love, understanding, beauty, goodness, truth and trustworthiness, joy and hope.”
The statement called every user to make their presence online one of dignity, to be present with others in the real and virtual worlds and to take care of themselves and others online.
To communities, the call was to promote digital literacy, equitably share the digital landscape with those who weren’t connected and use social media to make real world changes.
For political and industry leaders, the statement called them to protect personal data, to be transparent and accountable, and to guarantee truth and trustworthiness online.
The statement also made a call to the Church.
“Our Church has an important role to play in building the city of God in reality and online,” the statement read.
It was a call to evangelise and to witness.
“God’s encounter with creation is incarnational; primarily in the person of Jesus,” the statement read.
“Jesus, the God who became man gathered children in his arms, touched and healed the leper, the blind, the sick and the broken.”
The call goes out to reach for those who are vulnerable, bullied or harmed online and to respond with love and dignity.
“Now more than ever we have the opportunity to be Samaritans to a robbed and beaten world,” the statement read.
“We have the ability to connect with others in ways never dreamed of and to use that ability to bandage the wounded, lift them up and lead them to a safe place in both the online and real world.”