On the 20th February, CRGA gathered a small number of academics, researchers, religious leaders, and policy makers for a roundtable discussion at Prince Philip House, London. The purpose of the event was to provide a forum for reflection on how religious actors and institutions are using and adapting to social media, as well as the implications of this.
The proceedings began with brief comments from three scholars. Dr Tim Hutchings (Durham University) explained that from its inception the internet was a platform for experimental religious expressions that were independent of traditional religious institutions. Nevertheless, the advent of social media has turned the tables by providing religious institutions with the ability to connect with followers. Social media has thereby become a means by which these institutions can reassert their authority while side-lining the more independent online churches. The next speaker, Dr Mark Littler (University of Huddersfield) argued that there is nothing unique about the way in which religion’s radical groups use social media. However, social media has expanded the scope for recruitment, radicalisation and the organisation of offline activities. He emphasised the need for new legislation to tackle online radicalisation, but acknowledged the challenges of achieving this, not least because of the complex international collaboration it would require. Finally, Professor Jolyon Mitchell (University of Edinburgh) gave examples of how social media has been used by religious groups to escalate violence and tensions. He has reservations about its potentiality as a peace-building tool, although he is aware of such examples amongst faith groups. The very public nature of social media versus the often private and protracted process of peace-building means that it might not be a conducive tool for this work.
The ensuing open discussion was vibrant and constructive. Participants observed that despite its early promises of building communities and furthering grass-root democracy, social media today is often used to polarise and increase societal tensions. Nevertheless, the conversation concluded with a call for further discussion, research and education on how social media can be strategically used by religious institutions and leaders so that it can become the forum it once promised to be.
The event was part of the CRGA research project ‘Understanding Religious Expressions in the Digital Age.’ The report from the pilot case study, which focuses on religion and social media in Russia, will be launched in early April 2018.