Pope Francis in the World of Social Media

Posted on May 3, 2016 by

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God’s Gift of Social Media

“On a basic level, this is interesting because Pope Francis is the first pope to make a real, concerted effort on social media, with a clear direction and brand” (Barbara Speed, NewStatesman).

It is no surprise, given this modern day and age, that religious figures have taken up promoting their faith on social media. While there is some discomfort adjusting to the idea of the Pope casually sending out a tweet rather than traditionally addressing the people, the media and the masses have excitedly taken up this newly formed relationship with the iconic religious figurehead with open arms. While trailblazing a new path that is not considered traditional in the religious world can be difficult, but it also provides for new fortunes and opportunities. Pope Francis has taken his position in society and made it a point to better communicate on a more relatable level. Like many, Barbara Speed beleives “it promotes a vision of the church as less judgemental and more open and approachable than it has been seen in the past, and Francis as its personable, friendly figurehead” (NewStatesman).

Pope Francis’s account is separate of that of the Vatican’s official social media accounts so his own individual voice can speak out and be expressed in his own social media. With this he is not strictly tied down to the Vatican’s posts, rather he can promote his own personal vision in accordance with the Catholic Church. While having his own social media account is fantastic, it does have a few critics and skeptics. There are people who are afraid that with all this pomp and praise of the Pope through social media, the true mission of the Pope is being corrupted. Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post writes about some of the tricky conflicts regarding the Pope as a famous religious figure and a popular social media star, specifically she addresses the issue to “Promote Jesus, not Francis — trickier than it looks when smartphone photos of him hugging people and tales of him cold-calling ordinary Catholics go bananas on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook”.  In opposition to this fear many people have faith in the Pope and his good works through social media. Media across the world portrays the Pope as using Twitter for reasons much like famous celebrities, to speak directly to the fans and avoid the conflicts and corruption that can be caused through the press.

Pope Francis addressed the world in a message directed at talking about modern communication and social media called  Communication and Mercy – A Fruitful Encounter. In it he plainly expresses  his support of modern forms of communication and how it is our responsibility to use it correctly. He makes it very clear that while technology is a blessing, it is not the point because to him it’s the message, not the medium, that society should focus on. It doesn’t matter what form of technology that is being used as long as the message is getting through correctly. The Pope explains, “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,” he then continues on by stating, “Communication, wherever and however it takes place, has opened up broader horizons for many people. This is a gift of God which involves a great responsibility.” (Catholic Herald, Pope Francis: ‘Text messages and social media are a gift from God’). As many people know, to say something is one thing, but to live by it is another thing entirely and Pope Francis has been actively leading by example in the social media world to prove just what his message is about.

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The Pope’s Twitter Account

Pope Francis joined the Twitter world under the account of @Pontifex and currently has 9.22 million followers and 816 tweets. This account was originally set up by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, but  when Francis obtained the powerful title he deleted every tweet sent under Benedict. By this act Pope Francis’s account is truly and entirely his own account that can be utilized to reach out to the world. And he did just that in a very creative way when he released the first papal encyclical aimed at protecting creation on Twitter. Rather than relying on his fellow Catholics reading his 200 paragraphs, Pope Francis “lobbed what his spokesman dubbed a “Twitter bomb.” For 24 hours straight, the pope tweeted key lines and phrases from his encyclical, reaching tens of millions of people — a feat that would have been impossible just a few years ago” (Michael J. O’Loughlin, Washington Post). This example is one of many that shows just how well the Pope is utilizing social media to appeal to the masses and how the media is showering him with gratitude.

While it is evident that the Pope’s Twitter account is very popular, how does it stack up against other famous accounts? The media is obsessed with statistically looking at social media accounts of different celebrities and influential people around the world to calculate their popularity. It is assumed that popularity is directly connected to how influential and big of an impact that individual is on society. According to an article titled, Pope Francis Is Still The Most Influential World Leader On Twitter, “A new study shows U.S. President Barack Obama is still by far the most followed world leader on Twitter, but Pope Francis is considered the most influential by the number of his messages retweeted”. In fact, “Pope Francis’ words were spread widest, with an average of 9,929 retweets per tweet, compared to Obama in fourth place with 1,210”. It is apparent that Pope Francis definitely has a notable influence worldwide through Twitter and with the help of how positively the media is advertising his account, his messages are spreading even greater distances.

With such activity, one must wonder what the Pope does other than tweet out words of wisdom and grace. Who does he follow? For most people, to get a follower such as the Pope would be something extraordinary. However, this is not the case because @Pontifex follows only himself which includes the official papal accounts in nine languages. While this may be perceived as an act of entitlement, the average person and media critics around the world must look to other similar examples in society to possibly explain why this is the case. The media portrays the Pope as that of a celebrity and as is the norm for most celebrity social media accounts they obtain mountains of followers but they themselves only follow a select few number of people. So this brings the outside world to wonder who should a Holy Father follow, if anyone? As a huge religious figure it wouldn’t seem right to only selectively pick specific people to follow. A lot of controversial outcomes could stem from this petty aspect of social media, so to avoid possible drama the Pope’s Twitter account only follows the accounts that translate his very words.

 

The Pope’s Instagram Account

The account’s first post was on March 19, 2016 and already has a total of 53 posts. As of May 2nd, Pope Francis has 2.3 million followers and in return follows no other accounts. According to Michael J. O’Loughlin from the Washington Post, Pope Francis earned “more than 1,000 followers per minute in the first few hours after launching his account, he became the fastest person to accumulate more than one million Instagram followers in a single day”. As people around the world scroll through this very active account one finds many pictures of the Pope praying, hugging, and blessing people from all around the world. All things people of the Catholic faith and those outside of the faith are accustom to seeing the Pope do.

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But Pope Francis isn’t afraid to visually show the world that he is proud of getting his hands dirty in order to advocate for what he believes in. The Pope’s Instagram account, named franciscus, posted a picture showing Pope Francis shoveling soil onto the base of a tree in Kenya for Earth day with the following  inspirational words of wisdom, “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation”. 12940296_268573423479411_1560215128_n

Also featured in is a throw back Thursday (#tbt) of the Pope showing his support towards workers and laborers as he wears a yellow hard hat and captions the photo by stating, “I address a strong appeal from my heart that the dignity and safety of the worker always be protected”. 13099016_583299571829622_1951747766_n

Pope Francis also addresses his standpoint on a some what touchy subject regarding merging religion and science together as allies rather than opponents on two totally different sides of the spectrum through a picture of him  looking through a telescope and advocating that, “Scientific research should safeguard human life and the dignity of the person!”. 13109066_269560010054035_1998765304_n

It is obvious for the media to understand why the Pope has progressed to the next level and has began using visuals to communicate. A picture is worth a thousand words! This motto holds true because while his Twitter account is so popular, his new Instagram account has taken the world by storm. With this new social media medium the Pope is able to reach the world on a whole new level by appealing through visuals rather than just a few quick words posted on Twitter.“According to Vatican Radio, the Instagram account is meant to allow users to get to know the Pope better, as well as to serve as an outlet for the pontificate to share his messages of “tenderness and mercy” (CBS). In most, if not all cases, the media has responded very positively and people around the world are showing their support through floods of follows and likes. But honestly how could they not? The Pope is specifically appealing to today’s society. This account is giving the media something to work off of  in a positive light while keeping this modern society entertained and feeling closer than ever with the Pope.

 

Who Actually Runs the Accounts?

Most of the population around the world may have mixed ideas of how exactly a social media account under the name of a religious figure is run.  Since the media treats the Pope as a world wide celebrity, we can look towards other famous people’s social media accounts for guidance. Unfortunately this doesn’t give us a clear answer. Some famous people have official social media accounts that they actively take part in managing while others have someone to do it for them. Who is actually typing up those influential tweets? Is the Pope really flipping through filters and cropping pictures to post to his Instagram?

Spoiler alert- the Pope doesn’t technically tweet or upload a picture to Instagram himself. As much as we would like to think that the Pope can do it all, including keeping up with the latest trends in the world of social media, it’s just not realistic. But does this mean the accounts are frauds or not even closely connected to the actual Pope? Michael J. O’Loughlin from the Washington Post explains that in the past a “small team of advisers who run the @Pontifex account get a papal sign-off for every tweet published from the pope’s account. And the contents usually come from Francis’s speeches and homilies.” Basically what happens is Pope Francis picks themes and ideas that he wants to be advertised on his accounts, and these topics normally “reinforce his sermons and major addresses” as stated by Michelle Boorstein in the Washington Post. After reading and approving the tweets his team of advisers created based off his own previously stated words, thoughts, and ideas , he signs off on the tweet and approves the action of posting it for the world to see, like, and share. While this routine pertains specifically to Twitter it has also been utilized in the Pope’s newer Instagram account. Collectively media seems to have little to no problem with the fact that the Pope isn’t totally in control of managing his social media accounts.  It’s safe to say that the majority of the world would rather have their Pope focusing on other things rather than obsessing over what to post next.

 

 What to Expect next

Progress. A word to accurately define Pope Francis. And progress is what people around the world are looking forward to seeing in the Pope’s social media. He has demonstrated to the world his ability to progress role into the realm of social media from Twitter to his most recent success, Instagram. Pope Francis has opened up a new frontier for religious figureheads and quiet frankly he is rocking it. While some may not love him, the media loves to follow him.

So that leads to yet another question… What is next on the social media agenda? While he is fairly new to Instagram, people are starting to wonder about the possibility of him exploring the Facebook world. A Washington Post author, Michelle Boorstein, interviewd Melissa Connolly, an intern at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and asked about the possibility of an official Pope Francis Facebook page. Here is what Connolly had to say, “‘Facebook is too two-way, too social of a social medium for the leader of the world’s largest church. Vatican communication strategists aren’t sure they want a Francis page where the pope could be friended, and what would happen if the who-am-I-to-judge pope didn’t respond to his friends? The thumbs-downs could be devastating… The type of “connection” you have on Facebook with someone isn’t authentic enough.If you’re going to connect with [Francis], it should be more in a spiritual sense, and it’s hard to create that online.'” 

The way media presents individuals to the public can make or break a person and in the case of a powerful religious figure, it holds the risk of making or breaking a dominant world religion. Pope Francis has taken into his own hands how exactly he would like to have his message portrayed through different media sources by supplying them with modern, entertaining, powerful, intimate, and influential acts through social media mediums. In the years to come I think it’s safe to say that the world will continue to look forward to re-tweeting words of grace and liking pictures of Pope Francis.

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Instagram CEO, Kevin Systrom -“Your messages of humility, compassion and mercy will leave a lasting mark.” 

 

~Morgan Parriott

Sources:

  1. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/03/why-francis-wants-be-first-social-media-friendly-pope “Why Francis wants to be the first social media-friendly Pope” NewStatesman
  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/03/21/new-social-media-strategy-for-pope-francis-pics-or-it-didnt-happen/ “New social media strategy for Pope Francis: Pics or it didn’t happen” The Washington Post
  1. http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/03/19/pope-francis-instagram/ “Pope Francis Ups Social Media-Savvy With First Instagram Post” CBS
  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/19/world/europe/pope-francis-instagram-franciscus.html?_r=0 “Get Ready, Internet. The Pope has joined Instagram.” The New York Times
  1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/28/pope-francis-twitter_n_7163368.html “Pope Francis Is Stil The Most Influrencial World Leader On Twitter” Huffington Post
  1. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/01/25/pope-francis-text-messages-and-social-media-are-a-gift-from-god/ Catholic Herald Pope Francis: ‘Text messages and social media are a gift from God’
  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/03/19/welcome-to-instagram-pope-francis/?tid=a_inl Washington Post Welcome to Instagram, Pope Francis!
  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/09/21/pope-francis-became-a-social-media-star-before-the-vatican-was-ready-for-it/?tid=a_inl The Washington Post Pope Francis became a social media star before the Vatican was ready for it
  1. Pope’s Instagram account https://www.instagram.com/franciscus/?hl=en
  1. Pope’s Twitter account https://twitter.com/Pontifex?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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