Pope Francis doesn't preach only at St. Peter's Square. He uses the town square of Twitter and other modern media methods, including video appeals such as last Saturday's call for for peaceful measures in geopolitics and economic fairness.
"We must adapt our socio-economic models so they have a human face, because many models have lost it," the pope tweeted, using separate missives to implore reform of "big" pharmaceutical and food manufacturers, agricultural, mining and financial firms, as well as the arms industry.
Notably, he tripled the tweets regarding media and technology, including appeals on online educational access, "post-truth, disinformation, defamation, slander and that sick attraction for scandal and that they seek to contribute to human fraternity," and for "technology giants to stop preying on human weakness, people's vulnerability, in order to make a profit."
It's uncertain whether the tech giants will hear and heed the papal prayer. And it's not even certain how responsive they soon will be to governments. In fact, according to a compelling commentary from Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, "States have been the primary actors in global affairs for nearly 400 years. That is starting to change, as a handful of large technology companies rival them for geopolitical influence.
"The aftermath of the January 6 riot serves as the latest proof that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are no longer merely large companies; they have taken control of aspects of society, the economy, and national security that were long the exclusive preserve of the state. The same goes for Chinese technology companies, such as Alibaba, ByteDance, and Tencent. Nonstate actors are increasingly shaping geopolitics, with technology companies in the lead. And although Europe wants to play, its companies do not have the size or geopolitical influence to compete with their American and Chinese counterparts."
In a related conference call with reporters this week, Bremmer brought up some of the same multinationals invoked by the pope, saying they said "exist in and exert power in physical spaces" where they're regulated effectively or ineffectively or capture the regulatory process.
But with technology companies, Bremmer said, "the digital space that they operate in is a space that they actually have sovereignty over. Because they created the architecture from scratch, they create the rules and norms, they control the algorithms."
Bremmer brought up the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a MAGA mob as an example of tech independence. The response, he said, "was largely abdication and fragmented failure from the U.S. government, whether the judiciary, the executive, or Congress, but there was quite a bit of response, significant response, from technology companies in a few ways," citing Apple and Amazon's de-platforming of Parler, a social-media site that hosted a growing online congregation of extremists, as well as Facebook's and Twitter's de-platforming of then-President Donald Trump. And arrests, attested Bremmer, were largely a consequence of people posting their participation in the attack on social media.
In another example, Bremmer said that the most consequential computer hack last year was the Solar Winds attack on governmental and nongovernmental organizations that was detected not by U.S. or allied governments but by Microsoft.
"The impact of digital space on the balance of global power is increasing significantly over time in how we communicate information we receive, the way the global economy functions, and where most of our commerce is conducted, and even the physical realities of national security that all of us live within," Bremmer said. "Increasingly, the ability to defend borders, defend your wealth, defend your person is more in the hands of tech companies and not solely in the hands of governments. That's unique; that's completely new."
Bremmer believes that just as states align along an autocratic-to-democratic scale, tech companies will align among philosophical lines of globalism (Apple, Facebook and Google, for example), nationalism (more willing to align with government priorities, like Huawei in China and even Microsoft in the U.S.), and techno-utopianism (SpaceX, for one), often led by charismatic champions looking at tech as "a potentially revolutionary force in human affairs." Bremmer thinks that the degree to which each model emerges will significantly impact how the world works in coming decades.
How it's working now is that nation-states aren't static in their response, especially in Russia, China and other authoritarian nations. In just one recent retreat, the Yahoo! Finance app disappeared from the Apple store in China after government pressure (Beijing bans most other foreign sources of news and social media sites). Russia has had a heavy hand on online information, too, as the country contracts into Soviet-style repression.
"Being transnational companies doesn't free them from obligations to governments; instead, it means they're beholden to multiple governments," Craig Kafura, the assistant director of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said in an e-mail exchange.
The U.S. approach to technology, said Rose Jackson, the director of the Democracy and Tech Initiative at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, "has been laissez-faire, which was indicative of the early days of the internet, where the assumption was more people online is automatically better, and will inevitably lead to more democratic and open societies wherever people are online — which has not borne out as truth."
Jackson believes that "we are in an era where if open societies, as a collection, fail to articulate a viewpoint, have norms and rules and their own governance structures, which has to include regulation in their own countries, they you're essentially ceding the geopolitical-power conversation to the lowest common denominator. And in some ways, you're ceding it to those that do have a strong viewpoint, which at the moment is a pretty well-implemented version in China."
Bremmer titled his commentary "The Technopolar Moment: How Digital Powers Will Reshape the Global Order." There seems no doubt that they already are. The inverse question will be one of the key dynamics driving future geopolitics: How will the global order reshape digital powers?
As for Pope Francis, who in his own right represents a transnational entity, he extended the conversation beyond digital powers and global order in his address by noting the nature of technology — and more profoundly, human nature — when he said, "It is clear that technology can be a tool for good, and truly it is a tool for good, which permits dialogues such as this one, and many other things, but it can never replace contact between us, it can never substitute for a community in which we can be rooted and which ensures that our life may become fruitful."