News Column

Pope Francis Is a Social Media Sensation

March 19, 2013
Pope Francis

Pope Francis' inaugural Mass today may be a social media sensation, tweeted at the level of the Oscars and Super Bowl.

Hundreds of delegations, including a U.S. contingent led by Vice President Biden, will be in St. Peter's Basilica for the Mass in which the symbols of the papacy are bestowed. And millions watching on television will hear the former cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, give a homily that signals his vision for the papacy.

All the while, many of the pope's nearly 4 million Twitter followers will be blasting 140-character snippets. The new pontiff at @pontifex is already a Twitter star in nine languages.

New followers of the Argentine-born pope are piling in at 200,000 a day -- half of them following on @pontifex_es, the Spanish language version of his handle. By Monday afternoon in the USA, Francis had more than 2 million followers in English and 978,213 in Spanish.

"It's a global church, and the Twitter followers are starting to reflect that. Clearly we expect to see a bit of a jump with Pope Francis, and not only in Spanish," Vatican communications strategist Greg Burke said Monday.

Even so, Burke said, "I can't wait until @pontifex in Spanish passes up the English. Latin America is where we have to get the message out, and Pope Francis can do that."

Spain's Cervantes Institute finds Spanish is already the second-most-used language on Twitter, after English, although more than 60% of Latin Americans are still not on the Web, according to a January report by Fox News Latino.

The @pontifex sites on Twitter, launched in mid-December, were cleared of Pope Benedict XVI's tweets the hour he retired on Feb. 28. But it roared back to life last week with the posting of "Habemus Papam Franciscum" with the election of Francis. Tweets about the new pope reached the rate of 130 tweets per minute.

By Sunday, @pontifex reset again. The announcement post vanished and up came the low-key Francis' first official tweet: "Dear friends, I thank you from my heart and I ask you to continue to pray for me. Pope Francis." It has been retweeted nearly 100,000 times, with about a third of the RTs in Spanish and a third in English.

A smartphone displays Pope Francis' first tweet as pontiff on Sunday.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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