© Reuters. Video of Facebook’s virtual faith meeting with religious leaders on June 29, 2021, can be seen in this screenshot taken in New York City, USA, July 21, 2021. Handout via REUTERS
By Elizabeth Culliford
(Reuters) – Facebook (NASDAQ:) has long commanded your attention. In recent weeks, it has also started asking for your prayers in a new tool now available to US Facebook groups.
The prayer feature is part of Facebook’s recent and collaborative outreach to the religious community, which Facebook is discussing in detail with the media for the first time. Facebook sees worshipers as a vital community to drive engagement on the world’s largest social media platform. Back in 2017, CEO Mark Zuckerberg cited churches as an example in a lengthy manifesto on connecting the world, and the company created a team focused on “faith partnerships.”
COVID gave new urgency to the effort, Facebook’s head of faith partnerships Nona Jones told Reuters in an interview. The new prayer product was launched after the company saw an increase in people asking each other for prayer during the pandemic, said Jones, who is also a pastor in Florida.
The outreach culminated in the company holding its first virtual faith summit with religious leaders last month. During the live event that aired on Facebook Live, where the company played videos with heart emojis floating across the screen as religious leaders served their congregations, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg discussed a future where leaders engage worshipers with virtual reality tools and augmented reality.
In late May, Facebook made its prayer tool, which it had tested with some faith communities, open to all US Facebook groups to engage. In a private group seen by Reuters, a woman used the tool to ask for prayers for an aunt who was sick with the coronavirus. People responded by clicking a button to say, “I prayed,” and their names were counted below. Users can choose to be notified with a reminder to pray again tomorrow. Others asked for prayers for a daughter’s broken heart, a son’s driving test, and problems with an insurance company.
Jones has confirmed that prayer posts are used to personalize ads on Facebook, just like other content. A spokesperson said the data could help shape the way Facebook’s machine learning systems decide which ads to show to users. Advertisers cannot directly target ads based on the content of the prayer or use of the feature, the person said. The spokesperson also said the use of prayer aids would not be included in the categories that ad buyers already use to split Facebook audiences based on a demonstrated interest in topics such as “faith” or “Catholic church.”
“One of the largest communities that use Facebook products to connect with one another is people of faith,” Fidji Simo, head of the outgoing Facebook app, said in a conversation by the fireside at the summit, attending panels with religious leaders and a session for spiritual breathwork, a breathing and meditation practice.
“When I looked at the data of what was taking off during the pandemic, we saw tremendous growth in the spiritual category.”
Early in the pandemic, Facebook sent “starter packs” of equipment such as small tripods and phone holders to faith groups for live streaming and recording of content as places of worship closed. It launched a creed website with e-learning courses and quizzes on best practices, claiming that “the people your house of worship wants to reach are already on Facebook platforms.”
This year she started an Interfaith Advisory Council to hold regular meetings with faith leaders and educators. In addition to consulting religious leaders — who told Reuters that their wish list for the site includes church planning tools and emojis that depict more diverse forms of worship — Facebook has plucked the brains of organizations that already run major online faith platforms, such as the evangelical megachurch Life.Church, said Reverend Kyle Kutter.
While many religious leaders who spoke to Reuters welcomed Facebook’s attention in a year when their communities were forced to stay at home, some group users expressed concerns about the privacy of prayer posts, wondered how their spiritual activities could be exploited online, or said that they are clinical.
Simcha Fisher, a member of a Catholic women’s Facebook group, said she’d only seen the prayer post used by friends who noticed it felt “icky.” Her boyfriend had likened Facebook to an overbearing parent who got involved in interactions that naturally happen on the platform: “Every time Facebook rolls out something new, you know it’s because they’re hoping to make money from it…to eventually get you to do something new.” somehow to sell something’, says Visser.
Some religious leaders and group members said they wanted to see the same level of commitment Facebook had shown in launching prayers to address abuse targeting their communities on the site. Khizer Subhani, who runs a Facebook group for Muslims in the Bay Area that got early access to the prayer feature, said he welcomed the company’s focus but weighed in on his frustrations with Facebook’s handling of hate speech around religious groups. on the platform.
For Facebook, which faces attacks from global regulators and lawmakers, including its failure to curb harmful content such as violent rhetoric and vaccine misinformation, connecting believers during a global pandemic is the kind of application that it says it wants to double . Faith communities represent “the best of Facebook and we hope to keep it that way, now and in the future,” Sandberg said at the summit.