Facebook is getting into the business of religion and some people are concerned that the social media giant will try to take the place of God, choosing what the faithful may and may not say.
Faith partnerships: monetizing religion
In what CEO Mark Zuckerberg termed “faith partnerships,” Facebook is working towards monetizing religion on its social media platform. As part of this initiative, Facebook broadcast last month its first virtual faith summit with various religious leaders. At the event, Facebook’s Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg suggested that social media and religion were a marriage made in heaven (pun intended).
“As a person of faith myself, I know how important it is for my family to be able to stay connected with our Jewish community remotely. We’ve been able to celebrate high holy days … from our home thanks to technology,” Sandberg said.
It should be emphasized that Torah observant Jews are prohibited from using computers or electronic devices during the Sabbath and holidays.
“I sometimes reflect on how much harder the experience for the last year might have been if the pandemic had taken place just a few years earlier because it used to be you needed a TV studio to do what you can now do with your smartphone. Nothing has made me prouder than seeing the role Facebook apps have played in keeping people connected at a time when we all had to be apart,” she added.
“I know that faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally, both are about connection. This was true long before the pandemic. Back in 2017, we changed our mission to give people the power to build community around the world closer together. We envisioned a world where our platform could help people build community by connecting with others who shared their interests. And we built a team within Facebook to help us better serve people of faith and houses of worship globally,” she said.
“Four years later, we are gathering on Facebook to again affirm [sic] the value of connecting people to faith, hope, inspiration, and love. Facebook can be a place where members of large denominations find common ground or where people from older or smaller religious traditions find each other no matter where they are in the world,” she continued. “Our hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well, or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith.”
Facebook has been pondering the field of religion for years and contacted faith organizations as early as 2018 but the pandemic put it into high gear, emphasizing the possibilities.
“One of the biggest communities using Facebook products to connect are people of faith,” said outgoing Facebook app head Fidji Simo in a report by Reuters. “When I looked at the data of what was taking off during the pandemic, we were seeing massive growth in the spiritual category.”
Early in the pandemic, Facebook sent ‘starter kits” of equipment like small tripods and phone holders to faith groups for live-streaming since places of worship closed down. It then launched a faith resource website with e-learning courses sharing that houses of worship are reachable on the Facebook platform. This year, it has started up an Interfaith Advisory Council to hold regular meetings with faith leaders and educators.
FB Prayer page
Nona Jones, a pastor at Open Door Ministries in Gainesville, Florida serves as Facebook’s director for global faith partnerships. “Facebook is so much more than just a place to make people aware of your programs and events. It’s a place where you can build [sic] authentic faith community.” She told Reuters that the new prayer feature, launched in May, was developed after the company saw a spike in the number of people asking for prayers during the Covid pandemic. Offered on the Facebook for Faith page, the feature must be turned on by the head of a Facebook group.
“Our mission at Facebook is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” the page states. “With more than 80% of the world identifying as people of faith, we recognize the important role faith plays in building community.”
“Facebook for Faith exists to make Facebook the place where people of faith connect and grow together. This page and its connected group will allow people of faith and the institutions that serve them to come together to share ideas, explore new ones, and collaborate.”
The feature allows people to request prayer and allows others to respond that they have prayed. They can reportedly opt to receive a notification to offer more prayers the next day.
Like other Facebook features, the prayer posts generate data harvested by Facebook and used by the algorithms to create personalized ads.
The New York Times reported on Facebook’s burgeoning interest in religion. Sam Collier, the pastor of Hillsong Atlanta, worked with Facebook on features like exclusive service streaming rights and financial giving opportunities.
Several churches are already partnered with Facebook. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) signed on to become a “faith partner” last year, contractually agreeing that they would have no ownership of any tools they helped develop. Meanwhile, the Leaders of the Church of God are utilizing two Facebook tools to set up a $9.99 per month subscription service whereby community members could pay a monthly fee and receive exclusive content like messages from the bishop and another for live streaming services and sending donations in real-time. Leaders decided against a third feature which would post advertisements during video streams.
Some faithful are unhappy with religion going high-tech
Bob Pritchett, the founder of the online Christian ministry platform Faithlife, told NYT he believes it’s dangerous to have your religious community “on a tech platform that is susceptible to all the whims and politics and culture and congressional hearings.”
This point was underscored by tech magazine Gizmodo:
“One might also point out that rather than bringing people together, Facebook often radicalizes and divides everything it touches, with its track record on politics not exactly a good omen for its forays into religion.”
One such instance took place last year when Google Play Store suspended an app from Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho for “insensitive content”.
“We presume they’re talking about Pastor @douglaswils‘ short lessons on responding faithfully to the COVID-19 crisis,” the church tweeted. “Or maybe Pastor @TJSumpter‘s sermon calling God’s people to humble repentance.”
When asked by the Washington Examiner if the app was targeted for its theological content, Ben Zornes, an executive minister at Christ Church, answered that this was indeed a disturbing possibility.
We just don’t know,” but added, “I think the thing that’s of concern for us is what other topics could they suppress? Positions that the Church has held for years, and for millennia, derived from Scripture? If they just have a switch to kill our platform and to take away our microphone, it doesn’t seem like they’re very favorable for free speech.”