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The new papacy and new media

Cardinals at the conclave to choose a new pope were told to surrender their cell phones, but smartphones, tablets, and social media proved key to yesterday's big papal announcement.

A man uses his mobile phone to photograph portraits of resigned Pope Benedict XVI (left) and Philippine's Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle displayed at a Manila chapel as members of a Catholic youth group start their vigil to coincide with the conclave to choose a new pope.
Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images

When the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church were sequestered in the conclave to choose a new pope, they were instructed to give up their cell phones. No texting! Revealing the secrets behind the election of the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, they and their attendants were told, would lead to excommunication.

Jammers were also installed in the Sistine Chapel to prevent electronic communication.

For an institution that has suffered its share of leaks, the Vatican maintained its storied traditions as it voted for a pope for the second time in the 21st century.

But while the announcement that a new pope had been chosen was made via a cloud of white smoke -- a tradition that has continued since the election of Pope Benedict XV in 1914, and a symbol of the cardinals' cloistered proceedings -- the introduction to the world of Argentinean Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis was made on live TV and Internet, via Twitter and Facebook, and by the countless smartphone and tablet photos snapped in St. Peter's Square.

In a statement, Twitter said there were more than 7 million Tweets about the papacy yesterday, with more than 130,000 Tweets per minute once the announcement "We have a pope" was made. Instagram photos from Vatican City poured onto the Internet.

Even the Vatican chimney (from which white smoke was anticipated) was captured on streaming live video via the "Smoke Cam," to be viewed by the expectant faithful.

The Vatican's new-media efforts include a Pope app. The Vatican also resumed Pontifax, the Twitter account for the pope (suspended when Benedict resigned) with a new tweet to its 1.8 million followers: "HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM." ("We have a new pope -- Francis.") Latin is no dead language if it becomes a hashtag (#habemuspapam).

Bergoglio himself is no stranger to social media. As Cardinal of Buenos Aires he has had a Facebook page since 2008.

But with new technology comes new hazards. As a sign of Bergoglio's new position -- and of the prevalence of trolls lurking among the Internet tubes -- he also begat a fake Twitter account, which quickly racked up more than 100,000 followers before it was suspended.

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