The symposium’s collective input is being compiled into a “Manifesto on Communication for Social Justice in a Digital Age.”
There is a great deal at stake, World Council of Churches (WCC) moderator Dr Agnes Abuom noted in her message.
“This topic is recent, urgent, and multidimensional, so your input from a variety of disciplines, social contexts, and points of view enables us to bring the whole subject of social justice in the digital field into view,” said Abuom. “This symposium has brought together research, experiences from different regions and communities, expert input, and ethical and theological reflection, all in the interests of building a vision of a more just digital (and human) society and actions to make that happen.”
The symposium was co-organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the World Association for Christian Communication. Additional co-organisers included Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World), the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Evangelische Mission Weltweit (Association of Protestant Churches and Missions in Germany), and the World Student Christian Federation.
Churches have rapidly embraced digital technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, Abuom noted.
“Mentioning theology hints at the profound values at stake in our digital communication,” she said. “The longstanding concern in the ecumenical world about modern communication and technology has been sharpened by the pandemic and the need to ‘go virtual’ in our organizations, businesses, churches, and families.”
Youth have played a pivotal role assisting clergy and church workers to use technology in their ministry, reflected Abuom. “But of course, alongside its potential for building human community, we also see a more problematic side to these developments,” she said. “That is why I so appreciate your careful reflection on this whole range of practical and theoretical, ethical and theological issues.”
Marcelo D. Leites, general secretary of the World Christian Student Federation, reflected on a world that is suffering through a pandemic and at the climax of the technological revolution. In the last three days, we have seen inspiring and fascinating discussions and we have learned a lot,” he said. “And I dare to think that many of us have discovered a whole world of complex relationships between the technologies of the digital age, the digital platform economy, the media, social networks, algorithms and big data.”
The issue of digital justice will be incorporated into the WSCF’s strategic plan for the future, said Leites.
“In this age of information and digital platforms, we ourselves are the product,” he said. “People are the product now, and corporations are the customer.”
Algorithms constantly learn from our preferences, Leites pointed out. “They also have the ability to manipulate the information we receive based on interests that go far beyond the economic,” he said. “It is about shaping our ways of thinking, acting and feeling according to the preferences of the highest bidder.”
Speaking life in the digital space
Extremist movements have found in these technologies a powerful way to get themselves into more traditional narratives, Leites said. “Extremists are beginning to adopt and use terms and concepts that were once used by progressive and emancipation movements,” he said. “In that sense, digital tools are not neutral, because they respond to the people who pay for the clicks, or to the parties that pay to get the information of the users who have clicked.”
The digital age, based on the corresponding business model, has increased the inequality gap, said Leites. “The church and faith-based ecumenical organizations have a great role to fulfill in the post-pandemic world, building in-person community,” he said. “We have to avoid digital encapsulation.”
The work of the symposium will be solidly incorporated into the WCC’s 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe in 2022, Abuom said. “So we are very hopeful that your work here will help us understand this vast area, discern the values that can be nurtured there, and identify opportunities for action at the assembly and beyond,” she said. “May your work enlighten and inspire our work for social justice in our digital age.”
In closing the symposium, Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith, senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World (USA), prayed for speaking life and justice in the digital space.
“We pray and ask for God’s heart of promoting life and justice for and with all the people and leaders creating and using digital technology,” she said. “We pray for a digital space that is rooted and grounded in the sacred human identity of being made in the image of God.”
Above: Moderator of the WCC Central committee Dr Agnes Abuom delivers her message at the international symposium on Communication for Social Justice in a Digital Age. Photo by Albin Hillert/WCC