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Monday, 1 September 2014

Media and Responsibility - IARF World Congress

At the International Association for Religious Freedom 34th World Congress in Birmingham, England last week on the theme "Challenges for Religious Freedom in the Digital Era". I participated in a Panel on the "Media and Responsibility". This is my opening statement on social media.

"I come to this Panel as a user of media not a journalist, media commentator or academic. I suppose I am like many of you. I have seen the transition into the digital age and whilst not an innovator I am an early adopter (using the model of Everett M Rogers). I have an active twitter account with 1095 followers. Amongst active accounts the number if followers is only 61. I operate a facebook account and am in several groups; mainly Unitarian, as well as a Linkedin account. My Klout score, which is intended to measure digital influence,  varies around 50-54. The average is 40. With this degree of social exposure it is essential to maintain boundaries; easier for me perhaps but less so for those young people who grew up knowing nothing but the digital age.

Religious freedom is one of the topics I promote in social media. I monitor the use of the term. My conclusion is that religious freedom remains contested; believing in religious freedom is not necessarily a progressive stance. Yet like” peace, motherhood and apple pie”; we are all in favour of it.  But there are very different meanings ascribed to the term. We of course know this but social media gives this a very different spin which you will find when you begin to engage online. I found this in my own campaigning for same sex marriage rights in the UK; both sides of the debate claimed to champion religious freedom. Parliament on several occasions recognised the importance to albeit small religious groups of their wish to conduct same sex marriage on the basis of religious freedom. In the US religious freedom is however used to claim exemption from human rights standards.

One advantage of social media is that it may give a voice to the individual and the small group, however, such is the size of the internet is actually anyone listening or looking as we like to believe? I often talk about religious freedom issues on my chief officer’s blog; which has had more than 20,000 views, about 20 a day. I have a global audience; one third UK, one third US and the remainder from around the world most notably Russia, Germany, Ukraine and China. Very few from the African continent reflecting lack of access to the internet. Social media can give marginalised and excluded groups an opportunity to speak out.

Yet studies at the London School of Economics have shown that globalisation, of which the growth in the internet is a major driving force, is leading to declining levels of religious freedom. Visibility of minority religions results unfortunately in the fear of the “other” and the stereotyping which drives conflict and in my view seems to be magnified on social media. The concept of the “troll” – someone who delights in harassing others online - is truly shocking but not surprising given the anonymity of the internet. Some are sadists in personality type. Others are the fervent followers of religions. Some are likely to be both?

Of course the boundary issue affects those seeking religious freedom. Across the world individuals have been imprisoned for their online postings; in former days subversive writings would not so easily be seen and the author could preserve their anonymity.

The way forward must be, as in all our inter-faith work in IARF, to see the humanity in one another.  The internet space is not one in which this is easy; indeed it can facilitate dehumanization as shocking pictures online show."



 

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