Why Francis wants to be the first social media-friendly Pope

He believes social media is a “gift” from God.

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On Pope Francis's Instagram account, inaugurated on Saturday, there is so far only one video. In it, Francis faces the camera, and says in Italian: “I want to walk with you along the way of God’s Mercy and tenderness.”

Then, he leans down and presses something on a tablet on the table in front of him, perhaps publishing this tweet announcing his new Instagram account: 

The message from the video, and the tweet, and the accounts across both platforms, is clear: Pope Francis may be pushing 80, but he – or rather the social media department at the Secretariat for Communications, which does most of his posts for him – is all over social media.

He doesn't just want to walk with Catholics through their spiritual lives – he wants to walk with them on Instagram

On a basic level, this is interesting because Pope Francis is the first pope to make a real, concerted effort on social media, with a clear direction and brand.

But it also shows us something about Francis's approach to everything from his religious views to his public image. So: why tweet?

1. He wants to break with the past 

The @Pontifex Twitter account was actually set up by Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. He asked for queries via the #AskBenedict hashtag, but much of the response was negative and focussed on the Church's child abuse scandals. 

So when Francis came to power, he did something quite striking: he (meaning, again, the social media department) deleted every tweet sent under Benedict. The account's first tweet is now from March 2013, and was sent by Francis.

This is not necessarily an obvious thing to do: the @Number10gov account used by UK prime ministers still goes all the way back to 2008. It shows Francis marking a clear line between himself and Benedict's difficult, scandal-riddled reign and resignation. 

2. He wants direct access to his fans

Francis presumably uses Twitter for much the same reasons Rihanna or Justin Bieber do: because you can speak to your fans unmediated by the press or any other body. 

The Pope may not be able to rely on positive coverage from the media, or weekly attendance in church from all Catholics, but he can rely on thousands of retweets for gems like this:

3. Viral news can spread the good news, too 

Pretty much anything can go viral. The Pope hasn't managed it on his own accounts yet, but a song posted online about how the Pope is both "pop" and "popular" was used to hold pro-Pope flashmobs around the world. Every little helps.

4. You can reach non-Catholics 

A figure of Francis's stature and age posting on social media is interesting to the average person, even if they have no interest on the Church. The new Instagram account was reported everywhere, and so Francis got a huge amount of uncritical exposure over the weekend in both the religious and secular press. This kind of thing raises awareness around Francis and the church in a low-impact, no-scandal way.

5. It’s on brand

Francis’s image as a progressive, populist, cuddly Pope is, of course, no accident. His decision to appear on social media is as carefully calculated as his rejection of fancy papal dwellings in favour of a more modest home.

His Instagram account is @Franciscus, the Latin spelling of his papal name, and is very focussed on the pope himself. Social media fits well into the cult of personality that has allowed Francis to overcome recent criticisms of the church. It promotes a vision of the church as less judgemental and more open and approachable than it has been seen in the past, and Francis as its personable, friendly figurehead.

8. He genuinely seems to think social media is good 

It's become quite in vogue to blast social media as an unsafe, out of control medium that's wrecking our minds, but interestingly, Francis doesn't seem to agree.

In January, he met with the heads of various internet companies to celebrate the World Day of Social Communications, and afterwards, gave a speech which broadly celebrated social media in all its forms. It's worth reading the speech in full for his surprisingly positive take on the digital age, but its headline message is that social media is a "gift" from God because it allows us to communicate with one another. 

Also telling is Francis' argument that "it is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal". So for Francis, it doesn't matter whether he communicates over Snapchat, Instagram or via papal encyclical: it's the message, not the medium, that counts. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.