CBCP Pastoral Guidelines on the Use of Social Media

I.     Introduction

Social Media is very volatile. It has been continuously morphing as frequently as the changes in technology. During the last ten years, the progress in technology that carries social media has been as aggressive as the venture capitalists that fund them.   Human behavior or natural human impulses upon which social media have greatly impacted has been unpredictable and recently, alarming.

The pastoral guidelines made by Church instrumentalities especially in the U.S., in the early 2000s may not be applicable to today’s situation anymore because of the fast changing online landscape. Facebook and Twitter, for instance, keep changing their algorithms several times a year to keep abreast with changing user demands. The popular social media platforms some fifteen years ago (the likes of Friendster, MySpace, Multiply and SixDegrees, among others) have become obsolete in no time and eventually discarded.

With a big majority of Filipinos using social media every day (57 Million on Facebook in 2016) there is no mistaking that the internet needs evangelizing. Thus, these pastoral guidelines which are intended primarily for bishops, priests and religious.

II.     The changing Social Media landscape

When recent wave of social media started, it was mostly harnessed for social networking. Then it became a very potent tool for advertizing, so that traditional media became threatened with the migration of multimedia ads to online platforms. Soon it became a political tool that guaranteed the winability of a political candidate as in the case of the two runs of Barack Obama or more recently, Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte who, arguably, have been tagged as social media presidents.

It became very powerful in organizing mass political revolutions and activism as in the case of Oscar Morales of Colombia who in 2008 rallied a million people around the world using Facebook for the release of 700 hundred hostages being held by FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). Or the case of Wael Ghonim who helped sparked the Arab Spring in 2011 with one Facebook Page that toppled dictators—but, on the other hand, ended up tearing several countries apart.

Today, the dark side of social media has become a very powerful tool for destroying people. It has become a quick arena for cyber bullying, black ops, propaganda, and the derailment of objectivity and truth. It is heavily populated by bots, trolls, manufacturers of lies and rumors, news fakers and bullies.

The recent stories on social media are very telling:

  • How Trolls are ruining the internet (Time, Aug 18, 2016)
  • Propaganda War: Weaponizing the Internet (Rappler, Oct 3, 2016)
  • Unmasking the trolls: Spin masters behind fake accounts, news sits (ABS-CBN, Jan 20, 2017)
  • Rodrigo Duterte’s army of online trolls (New Republic, Jan 4, 2017)

One social media expert said of late, “Five years ago, I said if you want to liberate society all you need is the internet. Today I believe if we want to liberate society we first have to liberate the internet.”

III. Guiding principles 

Pope Francis

  • “Communication is a means of expressing the missionary vocation of the entire Church; today the social networks are one way to experience this call to discover the beauty of faith, the beauty of encountering Christ. In the area of communications too, we need a Church capable of bringing warmth and of stirring hearts”(WCD, 2014).
  • “Social media is fundamentally changing how people communicate. Our Church cannot ignore it; in fact, it is our responsibility as Catholics to bring the Church’s teachings into what Pope Benedict XVI called the ‘digital continent.’”(WCD, 2014)
  • “The revolution taking place in communications media and in information technologies represents a great and thrilling challenge; may we respond to that challenge with fresh energy and imagination as we seek to share with others the beauty of God.”(WCD, 2014)

Pope Benedict XVI

  • “Social networks, as well as being a means of evangelization, can also be a factor in human development. As an example, in some geographical and cultural contexts where Christians feel isolated, social networks can reinforce their sense of real unity with the worldwide community of believers.” (WCD, 2013)
  • “It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this “digital continent”. Be sure to announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm.” (WCD, 2009)  

Pope John Paul II

  • “For the Church the new world of cyberspace is a summons to the great adventure of using its potential to proclaim the Gospel message. This challenge is at the heart of what it means at the beginning of the millennium to follow the Lord’s command to “put out into the deep”:Duc in altum! (Lk 5:4).” (WDC, 2002)
IV.     Social Media Platforms

            Although there are a good number of social media platforms, only the following are most commonly used by Filipinos here and abroad:

  1. Facebook

Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the Philippines. According to statistics, there are 47 million active Facebook accounts in the country today.  Founded sometime in 2003 as a school networking site, it has evolved into the most populated social media network in the world with 1.79 billion accounts as of the 3rd quarter of 2016. It has proven to be most useful in information dissemination, building online communities, advertizing, and even in faith-based content promotion.

Presently, all other social media platforms pale in comparison with Facebook. Its algorithm is constantly redesigned to adapt to the developing needs and versatility of its users. It has, for instance, perfected its algorithm on audience targeting, clustering or eco-chambering. On the other hand, this platform has also been used for destructive purposes.

It is in this platform that the trolls and bots are most common. Trolls are fake accounts that are mostly used to advance particular agenda of users. Bots (short for robots) are electronic programs that act and respond like live persons. In the last elections, enterprising groups or PR companies have earned millions of pesos by making use of trolls and bots to either promote or destroy political candidates or personalities.

Best practices

  1. Create a personal Facebook account. If you don’t, somebody else will make one for you—and it will be to your disadvantage. From your personal account, you can create your own Facebook Page. Indicate or let people know that it is your “official” account and page so as to discourage any third party from creating a fake account with your name.
  2. Make sure that you do not forget your username and password by choosing one that you will easily remember or by writing it in a paper easily located.
  3. From your root personal account, you may create as many Facebook pages as you wish especially for a good cause such as for evangelization or human development. Make them as your new pulpit
  4. Study the settings of your account or page. The configuration of your settings may actually make your page either safe or susceptible to the influx of bad contents coming from your “friends.” Also, the proper privacy setting will keep your files exclusively to yourself.
  5. Be selective in inviting accepting friends on your personal account and in inviting friends to like your page. Whatever is posted in your friend’s timeline will also be seen in your personal Facebook
  6. Post good content as often as you have time. For personal accounts, once a day is good or thrice a week at the least. When an account or page is stagnant for a long time, it may be deleted by the Facebook admin.
  7. If you intend to use Facebook more often for evangelization purposes, it is an advantage to be connected. Like or follow other Facebook Pages and Groups that supports similar advocacies you uphold, this may strengthen your network and broaden your connections for the cause.
  8. But, be very careful in liking or sharing contents from your friend’s timeline or you could unknowingly become instrumental in disseminating destructive or unverified and false Whatever you like or share will create a trend in Facebook’s algorithm for it to feed you with content that it thinks you are most interested in.   Or it may isolate you into what is called an “eco-chamber” that will keep you out of behavioral groups.
  9. See to it that you don’t “like” or befriend trolls or fake accounts that enter into your homepage. They will find a way to make comments on your posts. When you see them, do not comment back or they will make your comment viral. Better to delete them right away.   (See Appendix II for the List of Fake Websites circulating in the Philippines.)
  10. In any case a curious and legitimate Facebook user genuinely asks important questions (usual misconceptions about Catholic Faith, significant concerns, catechism, etc.) find time to engage, this may strengthen the mission of the Church to be inclusive.
  11. Study how to make use of the messenger section of Facebook. This can be the best and fastest way to send your “private messages” (PM) to individuals or groups.
  12. Make this your tool for evangelization by posting or sharing your homilies, reflections, prayers and catechetical materials. Do not post or share contents that are copyrighted.
  13. The use of photo messages or photo quotes are especially effective in communicating Church teaching, doctrine, or catechism or other specially complex or wordy passages.
  14. Keep posts as concise as possible. Statistics show the most shared posts have images with minimal text.
  15. In your spare time, read up on online lingo to be in the know (e.g. lol, tbh, smh, etc)

Twitter

Twitter is an online news and social networking service where users post and interact with short messages.   Often referred to as micro-blog, “tweets” are restricted to only 140 characters. Users access Twitter through its website interface, SMS or a mobile device app. Globally, Twitter has about 310 million users as of 2016.

In the Philippines, there are about 8 million users. Many prefer twitter when looking for news because it is immediate. Twitter is best for aggregating trending topics through the use of what is called a “hashtag.” Through this hashtag, one’s post can spread fast and wide even if your followers are just a handful. But like other social media platforms, Twitter has also been used in spreading fake news and lies. Twitter is a very powerful tool of spreading the Good News, when used properly. Pope Francis makes use of Twitter where he has 10.2 million followers.

Best practices

  1. Create a Twitter account for the nobler purpose of sending catechetical or faith-based messages across. The best way to defeat the proliferation of false or bad messages is to circulate good ones.
  2. Configure the settings well for better design and functionalities.
  3. Make sure to keep and protect your username and password.
  4. Make use of a hashtag (#) whenever you post in order to have a wider circulation of your messages; one that is used by many people at a given time.
  5. Retweet messages only from known sources, such as those from established news agencies or personalities.
  6. Tweet messages that are calling for immediate response such as during calamities or emergencies.

Instagram

Instagram is an online mobile photo-sharing site that enables users to share pictures and videos either publicly or privately on the app as well as through a variety of other social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr.

This is very popular especially among younger netizens. As of the last quarter of 2016, Instagram has about 600 million users throughout the globe; about 4 million of that are in the Philippines. This platform has not been used much by Church groups or individuals except by those who file their religious icons and photos for posting in Facebook and/or Twitter.

Best practices

  1. In the event that you wish to make use of this facility, make sure to make your privacy settings very secure.
  2. Post only photos or videos with catechetical or faith values.
  3. Append catechetical texts when posting photos or videos.
  4. Never post or use copyrighted photos or videos.
  5. Use hashtags(#) when posting for easy categorization and search across social networks.
  6. For your network to grow, learn to mention Instagram accounts that belong to the same category, group or style as yours.
  7. Be encouraged to post engaging and relatable, moving photos because graphic illustrations catch more attention than mere texts.
V.   General guidelines on use of social media and the internet
  1. All usage of social media is public and permanent and thus requires discretion and prudence – what you post online will always be online;
  2. Every social media platform has a different audience, thus a different way of posting.
  3. Information that is confidential in nature should NOT be communicated through social media;
  4. Pictures, videos and all personal information should not be shared or posted without prior consent of the individual and, in the case of a minor or vulnerable adult, consent of the parent of the minor or vulnerable adult;
  5. Views expressed through social media should always be made in a respectful manner with civility and Christian charity;
  6. Be selective and cautious about visiting and participating in online sites, forums and groups;
  7. Be aware that posted words, comments, images and videos can be easily misinterpreted;
  8. A bishop, priest or religious must avoid inappropriate personal interaction, especially in social networking sites;
  9. Appoint a trusted person (or, a confidential system in the Chancery) who can keep the username and password of your social media accounts in order to delete it in the event of your demise.
  10. It is best that an individual/group commissioned to do online evangelization in a diocese/parish/Catholic organization have a strong prayer life with ongoing formation. Social media evangelization is no replacement for the sacramental and prayer life.
VI.   Conclusion

By way of a conclusion, it is good to heed the words of Pope Francis taken from the Message of the 50th World Communications Day in 2016.

“Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups. The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks.”

“The internet can help us to be better citizens. Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbor whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected. The internet can be used wisely to build a society which is healthy and open to sharing.”

For the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines

(SGD)+ABP. SOCRATES B. VILLEGAS, D.D.
Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan
President, CBCP
January 30, 2017

Appendix I; Definition of Terms

Appendix II. Partial List of Web News Blog Sites in the Philippines with Fake or Unverified Content  

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