Twitter for pontiffs

Posted: December 05, 2012

By Joshua E. Keating

The Vatican announced this week that Pope Benedict XVI will begin tweeting under the handle @Pontifex. Though his first Tweet is not expected until Dec. 12, the English-language papal account already has more than 112,000 followers.

"We are going to get a spiritual message," said Greg Burke, senior media adviser to the Vatican. "The pope is not going to be walking around with a BlackBerry or an iPad, and no one is going to be putting words into the pope's mouth."

Burke added, "He will tweet what he wants to tweet," though the leader of the world's 1.2 billion or so Roman Catholics is expected to sign off on, rather than write, each individual tweet himself.

I applaud St. Peter's successor for embracing social media, but navigating Twitter can be tough for even the holiest of newbies. Here's a bit of unsolicited advice for His Holiness:

Learn from your peers.

As Nick Kristof suggests, Benedict could do worse than study the Dalai Lama's extremely popular account as a model for how religious leaders can use Twitter. @DalaiLama offers mostly nuggets of Buddhist teaching, with occasional commentary on current events and some non-obnoxious self-promotion.

The pope may also want to get a translation of Salman al-Odah's feed to see how the Saudi cleric has built up nearly two million followers, or look at Twitter-loving American evangelist Joyce Meyer, who has more than 1.5 million.

Follow some people.

Too many celebrities and leaders make the mistake of using Twitter only as a transmission system, not following any other users. Benedict could start with other religious leaders, or political figures like President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Nobody's expecting Benedict to follow biologist and avowed atheist Richard Dawkins just to prove he's open-minded, but perhaps following a few slightly critical feeds, such as the National Catholic Reporter - which advocates ordaining female priests, for instance - could broaden his information diet a bit without angering the man upstairs.

Interact, but don't flame.

Responding or retweeting followers can help give them the sense that there's a real person behind the handle. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the master of using Twitter to communicate directly with constituents on issues as small as stray pit bulls. That level of engagement probably isn't possible for a global figure like Benedict, but it wouldn't hurt to periodically engage directly with the flock.

What he should be careful to avoid is getting into the kind of angry flame wars carried out in recent months by the presidents of Rwanda, Estonia, and Azerbaijan. It wouldn't be very becoming of the Holy See to start arguments over politics or points of doctrine with obnoxious journalists.

Don't sweat the parodies.

The pope is a major world figure. He's going to be mocked on Twitter. He should handle it as Mayor Michael Bloomberg did (with a sense of humor), not as the New York Times did (with a complaint).

Proofread.

Trusting others to do one's tweeting, as Benedict appears to be doing, can be risky. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon likely wasn't too thrilled when the United Nations' official feed tweeted his support for a "1-state solution" last week. God's emissary on Earth should probably double-check to make sure his staff is getting the wording right in all eight languages.


Joshua E. Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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