There are many blessings brought to us by social media. There are, however, pitfalls — and given the nature of social media, the magnitude of these pitfalls are multiplied by our ability to connect with so many people, most of whom we do not know. Social media can be a great means of connecting with others and sharing good news. It is also a powerful way to share bad or critical news.
The morality of sharing negative information is something covered in the Eighth Commandment. Here is what the Catechism teaches on “Offenses Against Truth”:
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor
– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who do not need to know them
– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them (CCC 2477)
The Catechism makes it clear that it is wrong to share the faults of others with those who do not need to know about them, even if those faults are real and valid. Given the nature of social media, it is almost unthinkable that whatever negative information is shared would not eventually make its way to people who do not need to know it. Therefore, every instance of sharing of negative information on social media, even if it is true, may easily become a form of detraction, which is sinful.
When the negative information shared is untrue, it becomes calumny, which is a grave sin because you are wounding or killing a person’s or group’s reputation by sharing things that are not true. It is almost impossible to make reparation for this grave sin since you lose control of where it goes. This was true even before the invention of social media.
In the 16th century, St. Philip Neri heard the confession of someone who confessed gossip. The penance St. Philip prescribed was for the penitent to go to the top of a bell tower, cut open a pillow and watch the feathers as they floated away before coming back to him. The penitent did so and then returned to St. Philip, who then said, “Now go back and pick up all of the feathers.”
This illustration with St. Philip Neri demonstrates how gossip takes on a life of its own — and it is magnified greatly by the power of social media to spread negative information, true or not, to people who have no need or just reason to receive that information. The sin is often increased because of the inclination toward negativity and a lack of civility in social media. The person who starts the spread of negative talk is responsible for all the negativity that follows, just as those who add to the conversation bear responsibility not just for their comments but for any additional negative comments motivated by their own.
Jesus and His Church give us clear guidance on how to respond when the information we are communicating is negative. Jesus makes it clear that, when a correction is to be made, it should be taken directly to the offending party:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of the two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt 18:15 – 17).
The use of social media is rarely ever appropriate for making corrections, airing grievances or disclosing the faults of others. Before utilizing social media to share negative comments, all other reasonable means of communication and resolution should be explored. In certain grave circumstances, such as when the common good is at stake and other means have proven ineffective, it may be possible that social media could provide a suitable platform.
None of us are perfect; we will make mistakes and we will have misunderstandings. It is essential that we respond to these challenges in the way Jesus taught us. The Vital Unity which we strive for and which gives dynamism to our Church requires that we refrain from corrections, negative comments and criticisms made through social media. In fact, we ought to strive to find a favorable interpretation whenever possible:
“Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved” (St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, referenced in CCC 2478).
In our pursuit of holiness, let us follow this noble path.