© Reuters. Video from Facebook’s virtual faith meeting with religious leaders on June 29, 2021 is seen in this screenshot taken in New York City, US, July 21, 2021. Posted via Reuters
Written by Elizabeth Culliford
(Reuters) – Facebook (NASDAQ) has always wanted your attention. In recent weeks, I’ve started asking for your connections as well in a new tool now available to US Facebook groups.
The prayer feature is part of Facebook’s modern and coordinated outreach to the religious community, which it is talking about in detail to the media for the first time. Facebook sees devotees as a vital community to drive engagement on the world’s largest social media platform. Early in 2017, CEO Mark Zuckerberg cited churches as one example in a lengthy statement about connecting the world and the company created a team focused on “religious partnerships.”
Nonna Jones, Facebook’s head of religious partnerships, told Reuters in an interview that COVID had given new importance to the effort. Jones, who is also a pastor in Florida, said the new Prayers product was spun after the company saw an increase in the number of people asking for prayer from each other during the pandemic.
This outreach culminated in the company holding its first virtual faith summit with religious leaders last month. During a Facebook Live event where the company played videos with heart emojis floating on screen as religious leaders served their followers, COO Sheryl Sandberg discussed a future where leaders interact with worshipers with virtual and augmented reality tools.
At the end of May, Facebook made its prayer tool, which it has been testing with some religious communities, available to all US Facebook groups to run. In one of the private groups seen by Reuters, a woman used the tool to ask for prayer for her aunt who has coronavirus. People responded by clicking a button to say “I prayed,” and their names were counted under it. Users can choose to be notified with a reminder to pray again tomorrow. Others demanded prayers for a daughter’s broken heart, a test drive for a son and problems with an insurance company.
Jones emphasized the use of prayer posts to personalize ads on Facebook, like other content. A spokesperson said the data could feed into how Facebook’s machine learning systems decide which ads to show to users. Advertisers won’t be able to target ads directly based on prayer content or use of the feature, the person said. The spokesperson also said that the use of the prayer tool will not be included in the categories that ad buyers already use to segment Facebook audiences based on a clear interest in topics, such as “faith” or “the Catholic Church.”
“One of the biggest communities using Facebook products to connect are religious people,” said Fidji Simo, the outgoing Facebook app head, in a conversation with religious leaders and a session of spiritual breathing, breathing exercises, and meditation. .
“When I looked at the data of what was taking off during the pandemic, we were seeing tremendous growth in the spiritual category.”
Early in the pandemic, Facebook sent “startup kits” of equipment such as mini tripods and phone stands to religious groups to broadcast live and film content as places of worship closed. She launched a faith resource site with online tutorials and quizzes on best practices, noting that “the people your house of worship wants to reach are already on the Facebook platforms.”
This year, the Interfaith Advisory Board began to hold regular meetings with religious leaders and educators. In addition to consulting religious leaders — who told Reuters their wish lists for the site include church planning tools and emojis that show more diverse forms of worship — Facebook has been picking on the minds of organizations that already operate large online faith platforms such as Greater Evangelical Church Life. Reverend Kyle Cotter said.
While many of the religious leaders who spoke to Reuters welcomed Facebook’s interest in a year when their communities were forced to stay home, some users of the group cited concerns about the privacy of prayer posts, questioned how their online spiritual activities were being exploited, or said they found it clinical. .
Simcha Fisher, a member of the Catholic Women’s Facebook group, said she had only seen the prayer post used by her friends, who noted it was “difficult”. Her friend compared Facebook to an arrogant father who engages in naturally occurring interactions on the platform: “Anytime Facebook comes up with something new, you know it’s hoping to make money from it… to eventually sell you something, somehow,” Fisher said.
Some religious leaders and group members said they wanted to see the same level of commitment that Facebook showed in launching a prayer to deal with abuse targeting their communities on the site. Khezer Sobhani, who runs a Facebook group for Muslims in the Gulf region that has been given early access to the prayer feature, said he welcomes the company’s focus but weighs it against his frustration with Facebook’s handling of hate speech about religious groups on the platform.
For Facebook, which faces attacks from global regulators and lawmakers, including its track record of failing to curb harmful content such as violent rhetoric and misinformation about vaccines, linking believers during a global pandemic is the kind of app it says wants to double its use. . At the summit, Sandberg said religious communities represented “the best of Facebook and we hope to keep it that way now and in the future.”