Speaking from the Vatican to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, which according to Reuters is “a grouping of grassroots organizations and social movements which bring attention to inequality in labour, land ownership, health care and other social issues in the developing world,” Pope Francis called on tech firms and the media to make reforms in the name of human rights.
Remarking that the “pandemic has laid bare the social inequalities that afflict our peoples,” the Pope said “it is clear that technology can be a tool for good, and truly it is a tool for good, which permits dialogues such as this one, and many other things, but it can never replace contact between us, it can never substitute for a community in which we can be rooted and which ensures that our life may become fruitful.”
Calling on corporations- from “extractive industries” to “arms manufacturers” and pharmaceutical companies to reform their business practices, the Pope directly addressed tech and media firms:
In the name of God, I ask the technology giants to stop exploiting human weakness, people’s vulnerability, for the sake of profits without caring about the spread of hate speech, grooming, fake news, conspiracy theories, and political manipulation.
In the name of God, I ask the telecommunications giants to ease access to educational material and connectivity for teachers via the internet so that poor children can be educated even under quarantine.
In the name of God, I ask the media to stop the logic of post-truth, disinformation, defamation, slander and the unhealthy attraction to dirt and scandal, and to contribute to human fraternity and empathy with those who are most deeply damaged.
The Pope has made similar statements in past, in particular focused on the effects of technology on children. Acknowledging the Catholic Church’s own role in the sexual abuse of minors, in 2019 the Pope addressed the “realm of unlimited freedom of expression and communication” and identified a “need for responsible use of technologies and consequently a recognition of their limits.” He said:
The potential of digital technology is enormous, yet the possible negative impact of its abuse in the area of human trafficking, the planning of terrorist activities, the spread of hatred and extremism, the manipulation of information and – we must emphasize – in the area of child abuse, is equally significant. Public opinion and lawmakers are finally coming to realize this. How can we help them take suitable measures to prevent abuse? Allow me to emphasize two things.
First. Freedom and the protection of privacy are valuable goods that need to be balanced with the common good of society. Authorities must be able to act effectively, using appropriate legislative and executive measures that fully respect the rule of law and due process, in order to counter criminal activities that harm the life and dignity of minors.
Second. Large companies are key players in the astonishing development of the digital world; they easily cut across national borders, are at the cutting edge of technological advances, and have accumulated enormous profits. It is now clear that they cannot consider themselves completely unaccountable vis-à-vis the services they provide for their customers. So I make an urgent appeal to them to assume their responsibility towards minors, their integrity and their future. It will not be possible to guarantee the safety of minors in the digital world without the full involvement of companies in this sector and without a full awareness of the moral and social repercussions of their management and functioning. Such companies are bound not only to respect the law, but also to be concerned with the direction taken by the technological and social developments which they produce and promote, since such developments are far ahead of the laws that would seek to regulate them.
Lawmakers around the world have expressed heightened concern about the effects of social media use on children and teens in the wake of revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
In a message on the World Day of Social Communications in 2019, the Pope said that social media has created a “dramatic situation” that “reveals a serious rupture in the relational fabric of society, one we cannot ignore.”
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.