More curbs on hate speech online needed

by Ellen Teague

Columban priest and Justice and Peace campaigner Fr. Seán McDonah called for better regulation of advanced technology during The Tablet’s 27th January webinar titled: 'Robots, drones and smart churches - Catholic Social Teaching and the Artificial Intelligence Revolution' writes Ellen Teague.

In a session chaired by Natalie K Watson, Publishing Editor of the Pastoral Review, Fr. Seán McDonagh was introduced as an “eco-activist”, who has been a “trailblazer” with his books on environment and faith and whose most recent book is Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs. His interest in this topic started six years ago when he felt that although new technologies are influencing every part of our lives there is little scrutiny. He felt the churches have a role to help ensure a “human-centred future”, looking at the issue from religious and ethical perspectives. “We mustn’t let corporations alone drive the future,” he added. “We need changes that benefit everyone, not just the few.”

Fr. McDonagh acknowledged the benefits of huge advances in technology, singling out diagnostics in medicine, such as the prediction of heart attacks, and new technologies for eye surgery. And of course, coping with the Covid-19 pandemic has been helped by widespread remote communication, helping people to stay connected and work during lockdown. Terms such as “zooming” and “webinars” have become commonplace.

However, he echoed the concerns of Pope Francis about the “technocratic paradigm” and felt new technologies should be an issue in the synodality process when discussing the future of the Church and worship. Fr. McDonagh took the view that worship is about community and virtual services, “are not what community and Eucharist have meant to people.” Streaming services have been a lifeline during the pandemic, but the ideal is people coming together in participatory liturgies. He called for dialogue: Can relationships through our computer be more real than our local and parish communities? How far should churches become “smart churches” – reaching out through web, mobile, video, social media and email marketing?

Fr. Seán’s concerns were broader and he warned about the negative impacts on privacy and about implications for work due to the rise of automation and the use of robots as well as there being too few curbs on hate speech online.

The webinar was an alert to pay more attention to where we are going with advanced technology, that the same tools that we use to connect, protect and support us can also be put to use in ways that have a huge negative impact on our privacy, our freedom and our life choices. Our digital future is fast approaching with little regulation and few institutional policies and protections. Respect for human rights must be at the heart of these new technologies.

Read Ellen Teague’s full article written for The Tablet by visiting their website. You can also listen to the podcast of the webinar if full there too.

Ellen Teague

Ellen Teague is a freelance Catholic journalist who, besides running the media desk of the JPIC team for the Columbans in Britain, writes for Independent Catholic News and The Tablet.

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