Good, bad and ugly in the digital world

28 September 2019
Image: ACBC.


The advance of digital technology, the internet and social media has transformed our society. For those “of a certain age”, understanding and learning how to use contemporary digital platforms can be challenging, and the help of younger people can be indispensable.

Parishes, schools and other Catholic organisations have been quick to embrace the positive possibilities for communication, and Pope Francis himself encourages us to “boldly become citizens of the digital world”, but there are downsides.

In this year’s Social Justice Statement, Making it Real: Genuine human encounter in our digital world, the Australian Bishops issue an invitation 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, the Bishops’ Delegate for Social Justice, Bishop Terence J. Brady DD, 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.

We need to know what kind of “digital highway” we are on. “Just as we would not accept a highway built of rubble, that leads us nowhere we want to go, so too we cannot accept a digital world designed to exploit our weaknesses and bring out the worst in people.

“It is clear that digital platforms are built to make a profit. But where they operate to maximise profit by undermining human dignity and the common good, we must question their structure, ownership and goals.

“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 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.”

These include widespread sexual objectification, exploitation and trafficking of women and children and the production and dissemination of pornography, alarmingly among an increasing number of young people.

Cyber-bullying is another way in which digital technology is used without regard for human dignity, with more than 20 per cent of Australians aged under 18 having experienced online bullying, sometimes so extreme that it drives victims to suicide.

As digital technology has transformed the way we interact interpersonally, so too is it revolutionising the way we interact with the state and some essential services.

Digital or “e-government” services have become increasingly commonplace, making it simpler and more convenient for many of us to access government and community agencies. But 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.”

Access to the internet is particularly important when people are in crisis, when they are most vulnerable to hardship and their personal security is at risk. People experiencing homelessness or fleeing domestic violence need technology to access essential and emergency services.

“As essential services continue to shift online, digital inclusion becomes mandatory for basic participation in society. It should therefore be considered a human right.”

And because government online services are becoming more efficient, face-to-face services are shrinking. “This not only forces more interaction online, but reduces previously relational services. It is unlikely that interpersonal services for people with multiple and complex needs is best delivered digitally.”

The structures, processes and institutions of the online world also need to be carefully monitored and assessed.

While the digital landscape has the capability to transform the lives of billions of users around the world as a tool for democratisation and the common good, ideologies antithetical to these values are unfortunately able to use this space with the same efficiency.

Millions of Australians are handing over their most intimate details to advertising brokers with little understanding of how this information is used; where the technology has reduced people’s personal lives to data that is traded for profit or power.

“Most of us do not question the platforms we are on or why we are receiving the product for free. They are seen as essential services provided by regulated entities that are to be trusted to act ethically.

“Perhaps this is why as few as six per cent of Australians read all the privacy policies or terms of use of the online services they sign up to.

“There is a reason these products are free and reasons why they need to be questioned. Put simply, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.”

The Bishops remind us that with massive amounts of our data in the hands of advertisers or political campaigners, equipped with behavioural science modelling, we can be directly targeted and influenced in ways previously unthinkable.

“Our society is now asking questions about how we use the technology. Schools are implementing education programs, legislators are questioning what regulatory controls need to be placed on digital platforms and even the industry is questioning its own responsibility.

“This 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 will be celebrated on September 29. Order the Social Justice Statement and associated resources from the Office for Social Justice.

Republished with permission from the September 2019 (Issue No. 174) of the Justice Trends Magazine.


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