- Title: Facebook draws criticism for new 'icky', 'gross' prayer button
- Date: 23rd July 2021
- Summary: MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES (FILE) (REUTERS) FACEBOOK LOGO OUTSIDE OF HEADQUARTERS
- Embargoed: 6th August 2021 18:44
- Keywords: CEO Mark Zuckerberg Facebook U.S. Facebook Groups community faith partnerships prayers religious community social media platform worshippers
- Location: NEW YORK, NEW YORK, + MARLBOROUGH, NEW HAMPSHIRE, + WASHINGTON, D.C., + PHOENIX, ARIZONA, + MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES, UNKNOWN LOCATION
- City: NEW YORK, NEW YORK, + MARLBOROUGH, NEW HAMPSHIRE, + WASHINGTON, D.C., + PHOENIX, ARIZONA, + MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES, UNKNOWN LOCATION
- Country: USA
- Topics: Company News Markets,Economic Events,United States
- Reuters ID: LVA00BEN2BVWN
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: Facebook has long sought your attention. In recent weeks, it has started asking for your prayers as well in a new tool now available for U.S. Facebook Groups.
The prayer feature is part of Facebook's recent and concerted outreach to the religious community, which it is speaking about in detail to media for the first time.
"I first noticed it, and we, my friends and I, who are mostly Catholic women, all had the same impression that it was kind of artificial and kind of icky," said Simcha Fisher, a member of a private, closed Catholic women's group in Facebook.
"Any time Facebook rolls out something new, you have to assume that they're trying to exploit you in some way or the other."
Facebook sees worshippers as a vital community to drive engagement on the world's largest social media platform.
As early as 2017, CEO Mark Zuckerberg cited churches as one 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 efforts, according to Facebook.
The new prayers product was spun up after the company saw an increase in people asking each other for prayers 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.
"Facebook is a very powerful tool for bringing people together and bringing people together to pray is one of the core tenets of many religions, notably Christianity," said Natalie Jackson, PhD, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute. "Introducing this prayer function in Facebook groups will enable people to explicitly note that they have seen the posts and they are actively praying without necessarily having to write a comment."
During the live event broadcast on Facebook Live where the company played videos with heart emojis floating across the screen as religious leaders ministered to their congregations, chief operating officer Sheryl Sheryl Sandberg discussed a future where leaders engaged worshippers with virtual reality tools and augmented reality.
At the end of May, Facebook made its prayer tool, which it had been testing with some faith communities, accessible for all U.S. Facebook Groups to turn on.
In one private Group seen by Reuters, a woman used the tool to request prayers for an aunt sick with coronavirus.
People replied by clicking a button to say "I prayed," and their names were counted underneath.
Users could choose to be notified with a reminder to pray again tomorrow.
Others requested prayers for a daughter's broken heart, a son's driving test and problems with an insurance company.
"When you're asking people to pray for you and they're asking you to pray for them, and you actually are publishing names and prayers, there's just something a little icky about that, especially when it's all in one place, coming through one tool, there's just something that just doesn't feel right. It seems a bit off," said Adam Levin, founder of CyberScout and co-host of "What the Hack with Adam Levin," a cybersecurity-themed podcast.
A Facebook spokesperson said the data could feed into how Facebook's machine learning systems decide which ads to show users.
Advertisers will not be able to directly target ads based on the content of the prayer or use of the feature, the person said.
The spokesperson also said prayer tool use would not be factored into the categories that ad buyers already use to slice up Facebook audiences based on a demonstrated interest in topics, like "faith," or "Catholic Church."
Early in the pandemic, Facebook sent "starter kits" of equipment like small tripods and phone holders to faith groups for live-streaming and shooting content as places of worship closed down.
It launched a faith resources website with e-learning courses and quizzes on best practices, touting that "the people your house of worship wants to reach are on Facebook platforms already."
This year, it has started up an Interfaith Advisory Council to hold regular meetings with faith leaders and educators.
As well as consulting religious leaders, who told Reuters their wish lists for the site included church planning tools and emojis showing more diverse forms of worship, as Facebook has been picking the brains of organizations already running large online faith platforms like evangelical megachurch Life Church.
For Facebook, which faces attacks from global regulators and lawmakers, including over its track record of failing to curb harmful content like violent rhetoric and vaccine misinformation, connecting the faithful during a global pandemic is the kind of application it says it wants to double down on.
Faith communities represent "the best of Facebook and we hope to keep it that way, now and in the future," said Sandberg at a recent summit.
(Production: Aleksandra Michalska, Elizabeth Culliford)
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