Beware of bots and bad actors as you engage online

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Slowing down and consciously, deliberately sifting through what you find on the internet can be a helpful practice. (Photo: 123rf)

USING THE INTERNET and social media to explore a vocation or learn about the Catholic faith can be an effective tool—but there are a few hazards. It pays to understand where things can go wrong and to become more mindful about our online lives, says Dominic Sanfilippo, who recently completed post-graduate research on the effects of conspiracism and polarization within Catholic social media spaces. VISION caught up with Sanfilippo to learn how Catholics can use the abundant resources of the internet in a positive way, while steering clear of the ways it can misinform and divide us.

Before we get into the hazards of online faith-related content, tell us what you see as positives.

The internet can be a salve for many people. Those living in isolated, remote places—or who feel disconnected for whatever reasons—might never know about the many religious communities that exist. By doing an online search, they might find the VISION website, or resources from the Augustinians, Marianists, or Franciscans, for example. These may be people who weren’t supported at home in their interest in religious life; online, they can find a website or an email and can reach out. The internet frees up many individuals to find real people and connect with them across distances and barriers—and that’s wonderful.

There is an enabling power in having plentiful information with just a few keystrokes. I won’t say all that information is enabling, however, because search engine algorithms and business pressures prioritize keeping you engaged at any cost. The priority is not to bring you a nuanced view of a given subject.

What goes wrong with relying on internet searches and social media for learning about faith and vocation discernment?

Let’s start with search bars, whether through search engines or on social media feeds. On an individual level, a person considering religious life and looking around online may not always remember their data and interests are being gathered and sold on a minute-by-minute basis. Let’s say you’re using Google to search “Catholic religious orders near me” or, “How do I join a monastery?” Whenever questions are put into Google, your search terms, location, preferences, and digital habits are swept up. That individualized snapshot is sold to data brokers and advertisers.

That is creepy, but it seems unavoidable in the modern world. Are there more immediate concerns about mixing up our faith life and our online life?

A more immediate hazard is that some of the top-line results of Catholic material on the internet have a decidedly polarizing, peculiar character. The research on this continues, but a good deal of data shows if you’re hopping between Facebook or X (formerly Twitter) or Instagram, the picture of the American Catholic experience that the top results reveal is often not representative of the lovely variety that actually exists.


SLOW DOWN the pace at which you take in social media and web browsing. This will help you be more conscious, help you scrutinize who is publishing information, and can help you reflect on why the site wants to attract your clicks.

PAY ATTENTION. Take note of the sources you find online. Who is sponsoring a social media site or a website? Is the person or group transparent about who they are? Are they using absolute, inflammatory language?

STAY CONNECTED. Catholicism and religious life purposely put heavy emphasis on community. Stay in touch with other Catholics (and non-Catholics). Bounce off the ideas you gather online with them.

There are rich resources out there. I can go to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and read all the social encyclicals of the past 100 years. I can go to Jesuit or Benedictine official websites and learn what programs and services these communities offer in my local area. A wide variety of professional Catholic media outlets are online. These varied resources speak to the vibrancy and difference within the mainstream American Catholic mosaic.

There is also robust Catholic engagement within spaces like X. However, nuance and thoughtfulness are often not what emerge when you type “Catholic” in your X search bar. Instead, you might see content from accounts that brand “Catholic” into their incorporated name and purport to be an objective Catholic resource on, say, doctrinal issues or pastoral advice. However, these accounts often polarize, stoke fear, and misinform. This sort of social media and digital content does not represent the broad mosaic of American Catholic life.

But shouldn’t we expect that there will be different ways people express their Catholic faith online?

Of course! And that’s a good thing. There will always be different nuances within our expressions of the faith. I don’t intend to warn about the healthy tensions and differences that have always existed in Catholicism. That’s part of being in communion with one another.

What I’m saying is that, as of late, the algorithmic tendrils of the web have trended conspiratorial and often push militant and misogynistic content. There are layers of anti-Semitism, racism, and virulent homophobia packaged into many aesthetically Catholic posts. For instance, you may find a popular account on #Catholic X commenting on a recent news event. About three clicks in, you might find accounts that espouse horrific ideas well outside the religious and civic mainstream.

Meanwhile, you have people just scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling. Research shows folks from multiple generations are consciously or subconsciously consuming the kind of content I just described. That helps push richness and relationality away from the center of the Catholic experience, replacing it with conspiracy chatter. These fringe individuals and groups have an outsized presence on social media because their content gets clicks—and attention sells.

How have these distortions been created?

Bots, or automated computer programs, can be created by real people to set up targeted, software-run accounts. Research about bot activity on Catholic life is ongoing, but it seems safe to say that certain actors seek to manipulate Catholic public opinion to harm unity, polarize relationships, and spread misinformation and distrust.

These types of opaque accounts might have names like “ChristSaveUs21589” or “ChristianKnight92497,” to name a fictional few. (Picture a religiously coded phrase, followed by five or six numbers.) They may contain Catholic imagery: Saint Michael, Mary weeping, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They will quickly comment on breaking news items or intense discussion spaces, inflaming discourse and speaking in apocalyptic terms. People can set up “bot farms” to spread this kind of inflammatory content en masse. Despite claims from corporate leadership about cracking down on bots on platforms like X, several recent scholarly analyses from the fall of 2023 suggest bot activity remains high.

The Vatican document Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media mentions the dangers of echo chambers, bot activity, and filter bubbles (getting only content that reinforces your existing beliefs). If we spend enough time in certain digital pockets, content that reinforces and inflames can get algorithmically wired around us like a cage.

Are influencers also responsible for distorting the content we find on social media?

Yes. In general terms, influencers are people with big followings on places like Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube who seek to monetize consumers’ attention by promoting products and brands. Under X’s new rules, accounts with enough engagement can make tens of thousands of dollars through shared advertising revenue. I am not saying these processes are wholly negative. However, it places a consumption-oriented spirit of attracting eyeballs at all costs at the center of how the platform functions.

Many Catholic influencers purport to share an idealized Catholic life, laden with artificial intelligence-generated images of idyllic family life or Christian conquest. Well-known accounts on X and Instagram promote messages such as, “This is what it means to be a true Catholic dad, mom, or seminarian,” or, “Here is the correct way to worship.”

It can seem harmless. But once you begin to click, the social media algorithm will feed you more and more of this content, to the point that you might start to think, “Oh, maybe that is the real way to be Catholic. I’m doing it all wrong.” These influencer accounts are inculcating massive amounts of shame, anxiety, and judgment. People tie their identities as Catholics to fake worlds of perfection and exclusion that seem so real. This de-centers journeying through the rich tapestry of the Catholic community—the messy multiplicity of it.

Do we create the problem ourselves from just clicking on provocative content?

I’m no data scientist, to be clear. However, I’ve sifted through reams of scholarly data that argues that programmers and advertisers know which algorithmic structural edits alter dopamine-release levels, further hooking users. They want to keep you on the app as long as possible, even if it means upsetting you and casting you against your neighbor. Remember, you’re the product apps want to sell to data brokers and advertisers.

At the same time, let me note that there are many thoughtful, earnest professionals working in tech spaces who are also worried about polarizing, addictive digital forces. I don’t want to paint a simplistic picture of these hundreds of thousands of individuals. But there is a lot to be concerned about.

How can we keep using online resources for our own faith development and vocation discernment but avoid the distortions?

We can cultivate an approach to internet and social media use as a conscious, deliberate practice—in contrast to a passive muscle reflex. In using search and social media reflectively and moderately, we can get the best out of it. Before going to X or TikTok, ask yourself: What’s missing? Who or what am I looking for? How can I use my time on the internet thoughtfully? How can I sift through the noise? Who in my life might help me make sense of what I’m finding online?

What can help us become more conscious and deliberate?

One way is practical: Try to stay rooted in a community. When something flares up in the news, I recommend processing it with some sort of community. Maybe it’s a parish group or an online book club—that community could take many forms. Give yourself a chance to converse—to have some back and forth of ideas with people who are different from you. You want to avoid just sitting in isolation with your own thoughts, scrolling and scrolling. If you don’t yet have a community to talk things over—or if you’re nervous to engage, to be vulnerable—that’s OK! That’s normal, and we’re all in this boat together.

It’s also important to take time to pay attention. This is tough for me sometimes. Someone whose work helps me is the late poet Mary Oliver. She wrote so beautifully about paying and cultivating attention. Check out her poetry describing hawks, rivers, or changing seasons. How often do we miss such moments amid frenetic, constant digital busyness? Another helpful voice is that of the late Catholic writer Brian Doyle, who beautifully centered life’s little things in his writing—noticing the people, creatures, and ideas in our midst.

We need to make sure we’re cultivating a practice of attention, because the internet moves a heck of a lot faster than our active minds. It hides things from us and can distort our perspective quicker than we can grasp. Slowing down and paying attention is sacramental; it can help us glimpse God amid the busyness and cacophony of modern life. 

Related article:, “Listen closely.”

Dominic Sanfilippo
Dominic Sanfilippo, currently an associate director at the University of Notre Dame’s Gender Relations Center, has a master’s in theological studies from the University of Dayton.




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