Social Justice Statement calls for genuine human encounter in digital world

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Australia’s Bishops have used their annual Social Justice Statement to invite people to reflect on how the internet has changed the way we communicate, work, learn, and do business – and how we can contribute towards a more just and loving digital world.

In his foreword to the Statement, entitled Making it Real: Genuine human encounter in our digital world, the Bishops’ Delegate for Social Justice, Bishop Terry Brady writes that while our digital world enables us to be more connected than ever before, sadly it can also be a place of manipulation, exploitation and violence.

“This calls us to active citizenship because, at their heart, these problems are not technological, but rather moral,” Bishop Brady writes.

“We can choose how we behave online, and we can collectively shape the online world, building a more just and loving online neighbourhood.

“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.”

In the Statement, the Bishops write that the internet and social networking platforms encompass so many aspects of our lives today that it is virtually impossible to imagine a world that is not online.

The Statement notes that Pope Francis has often spoken of the great potential for “genuine human encounter” in this space but he has also warned of elements of the digital world that are harmful: information overload; social isolation; marginalisation of the vulnerable; consumerism; and fake news.

“Every social media user, community, and political or corporate leader is called to do more to build online neighbourhoods ordered towards genuine human encounter,” the Statement says.

The Statement notes the immense benefits of the technology for humanity: staying connected with family and friends; meeting people from diverse cultures and geographies; educational and economic opportunities for previously excluded groups; greater participation in political life; and connecting people in the face of natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and human rights abuses.

However, the essential question is whether the current information system contributes to the betterment of the human person; that is, does it make people more spiritually mature, more aware of the dignity of their humanity, more responsible or more open to others, in particular to the neediest and the weakest?

“Far too often, the digital world has become a place of hatred. Digital technologies, especially social media, provide a perfect platform for a range of behaviours that are offensive to human dignity,” the Statement says.

The Bishops also warn that the gains in technology have not been shared equitably, resulting in a “digital divide” that compounds the real-world marginalisation of many people.

This divide means many people are not able to access, afford or effectively use digital technologies. While we are now more “connected” than ever, almost 1.8 million Australian households are still not online.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples face lower rates of digital inclusion. Older people face higher rates of exclusion than the young, largely driven by differences in digital abilities. Many low-income families and people who are long-term unemployed are without the technology that is now essential for accessing basic services and finding work.”

The Bishops conclude by saying the Internet is “our digital common home” and the principles we find in Catholic Social Teaching and the words of Pope Francis can help guide us to a more just digital space.”

Social Justice Sunday is celebrated in Australia on Sunday, September 29.

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