By Robin Gomes
Australia’s Catholic bishops on Tuesday launched a major statement on digital communications, calling on all levels of society to overcome the hatred, division and exploitation that occurs online. The statement was released in view of Australia’s Catholic Church’s Social Justice Sunday that will be observed on 29 September.
Entitled, “Making it Real: Genuine human encounter in our digital world”, the Social Justice Statement was launched in Sydney by Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv, chairman of the Bishops Commission for Social Justice – Mission and Service.
Defending human dignity online
In the document, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ACBC) says that governments, businesses and the broader community need to be more proactive in defending the dignity of people. It says everyone must work together to make the digital world a place of genuine human encounter.
The document invites people to reflect on how the internet has changed communication, work, education and business – and how people can contribute towards a more harmonious digital world.
In the foreward to the 20-page statement, the Bishop Delegate for Social Justice, Auxiliary Bishop Terence Brady of Sydney writes that, while the digital world has enabled people to be more connected than ever before, it could also be a place of manipulation, exploitation and violence.
Just and loving online neighbourhood
“This,” he says, “calls us to active citizenship because, at their heart, these problems are not technological, but rather moral.” “We can choose how we behave online, and we can collectively shape the online world, building a more just and loving online neighbourhood.”
The Australian bishops point out that it is becoming increasingly clear that digital platforms require wise governance and that international cooperation is required to achieve this. “The common good requires intervention, rather than leaving digital platforms to govern themselves.”
The bishops recall Pope Francis who not only points to the great potential for “genuine human encounter” in the digital space but also warns against elements of the online world that are harmful, such as information overload, social isolation, marginalisation of the vulnerable, consumerism and “fake news”.
“Digital technologies, especially social media,” the bishops note, “provide a perfect platform for a range of behaviours that are offensive to human dignity.” One such offensive behaviour includes the widespread sexual objectification, exploitation and trafficking of women and children - and the related production and dissemination of pornography.
Half the world online
The Social Justice Sunday statement also notes the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web this year. The internet and social media such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and others have revolutionised the way people communicate, work and learn, do business, seek entertainment and socialise.
Half of the world’s population is now online. Over 4.3 billion people are using the internet and 3.5 billion are social media users. In Australia, connectivity has also grown rapidly, with over 20 million people on the internet and 18 million using social media.
Digital divide, leaving no one behind
While acknowledging the many benefits of technology, they also lament a growing digital divide. Almost 1.8 million Australian households are not connected to the internet, leading to significant disadvantages.
As more and more essential services, such as banking, move online, the bishops say, “digital inclusion becomes mandatory for basic participation in society” and “our neighbours are not left by the side of the digital highway.”