When Danny Duncan Collum thinks about Facebook, he thinks about the fable of a crocodile who offers a monkey a ride across a river — only to eventually eat the monkey. At the monkey’s surprise, the crocodile responds, “You knew I was a crocodile. You knew crocodiles eat monkeys.”
Duncan Collum, a professor of English and journalism at Kentucky State University and a Sojourners columnist, said Facebook is like the crocodile: sly and pretending to be our friend, but with clear ulterior motives. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly claimed that Facebook’s mission is to “connect the world.” But as numerous data privacy scandals and breaches of the company have demonstrated, Facebook sells user data, keeps its inner-workings hidden from users, and is ultimately focused on financial gain.
For some faith leaders, lawyers, and privacy experts, those realities are especially concerning given that Facebook is now inviting users to share prayer requests on the platform, a move that gives the platform access to users’ most sensitive information.
“Facebook doesn’t exist to facilitate our spiritual lives or our sense of community,” Duncan Collum said. “It exists to sell our information and allow corporations and political campaigns to target us in ways that are devious.”
“The deeper Facebook gets its hands into our lives, the more we’re going to regret it,” he continued. “That’s been the pattern of the last decade.”
A bid for connection
According to Facebook, the new prayer feature is an attempt at fostering connection.
In an email statement to Sojourners, a Facebook spokesperson noted that the feature is about “supporting” the many faith communities that use the platform. Within Facebook groups in the United States, users can request a prayer once the administrator of the Facebook group has enabled the prayer feature.
“Once a prayer request has been posted, group members can choose to indicate they’ve prayed, react, leave a comment, or send a private message,” the spokesperson wrote.
Social media sites like Facebook became especially important to faith communities during the COVID-19 pandemic: According to survey data from Lifeway Research, an evangelical research firm, in the fall of 2019, 41 percent of Protestant pastors surveyed did not provide any video content for their congregation; by March 2020, that number dropped to 8 percent.
Similarly, a 2020 survey conducted by Ministry Brands, a network of software companies providing digital tools for churches, found that 80 percent of the respondents representing 1400 churches nationwide said "Facebook and other social media channels were a significant way to virtually build engagement with members.”
Facebook is not only aware of these statistics, it’s ahead of the curve. In 2017, Zuckerberg set up a team dedicated to faith partnerships. By the end of 2020, Facebook’s Year in Review noted that, “with in-person services on hold due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the holiday week of April 6 (Easter and Passover) was the biggest for group video calls on Messenger and the most popular week of Facebook Live broadcasts from spiritual Pages, ever.”
The prayer feature was a response to this wave of virtual churchgoing, and, as the New York Times reported, the feature was also a result of a months-long collaboration with Hillsong, the Assemblies of God, and the Church of God in Christ, among other congregations.
In a statement to Religion News Service, Nona Jones, head of Global Faith Partnerships at Facebook, wrote that the prayer feature was informed by her experience as a pastor during the pandemic.
“Our mission to give people the power to build community extends to the world’s largest community; the faith community,” Jones wrote. “As a local church pastor with my husband, I know very well how disruptive the last year has been for people of faith and the houses of worship that serve them. This is why we are committed to finding ways to build the tools that help people connect to hope on Facebook.”
Praying or preyed upon?
But praying on Facebook differs from praying in church: In a physical church, it’s understood that prayers will be kept confidential within the community. On Facebook, however, prayers are shared with other members of the Facebook group and the content of a prayer request becomes another source of data Facebook can use to send targeted advertisements. Though this practice is outlined in Facebook’s terms and conditions, tech experts question whether those who use the prayer feature are aware of this.
Christine Bannan, a policy counsel at New America’s Open Tech Institute, a nonprofit think tank that advocates for equitable access to digital technology, noted that while prayer is “natural and good,” bringing prayer to Facebook elicits nightmares of users’ information being preyed upon and resulting in advertisements for products or services that are “ultimately harmful to the person requesting the prayer.”
“If someone requests a prayer because they’re struggling to pay their rent or bills, and they’re targeted with ads for payday loans or other suspect financial products, that seems bad,” Bannan told Sojourners.
Bannan also noted that someone praying about a medical condition could receive advertisements for ineffective or harmful treatments. She said it’s equally scary to imagine Facebook knowing who has cancer or who is getting divorced, and then preying upon these vulnerabilities.
Mari Smith, a leading expert on marketing through Facebook, warns users against getting “carried away in sharing really granular details of what their prayer request is about” because Facebook is always mining data.
“We must remember that Facebook is a business, and a massive part of their business is the harvesting of every single micro data point,” she wrote.
The feature isn’t just dangerous in terms of advertising and monetization, it holds the capacity to place prayer within an algorithm that typically favors inflammatory posts and popularity — the opposite of in-person prayer sessions where every participant has an opportunity to be heard.
If Facebook’s prayer feature parallels its newsfeed algorithm, the most provocative prayers are the most likely to be prioritized based on engagement.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a United Methodist pastor, writer, teacher, and nonviolent community activist, said that this kind of interaction is dangerous.
“I don’t want an algorithm coming between me and the folks I’m praying for,” Wylie-Kellermann said. “Algorithms are personalizing information and creating communities by their artificial intelligence light … Facebook artificially creates communities in the process of data mining and shaping who you’re seeing and who you’re connected with.”
Rather than pray on social media, Wylie-Kellermann would prefer to pray with and for his community “at a distance” if they can’t be together in-person.
For people like Wylie-Kellermann who would prefer to keep their prayers off of Facebook, there are other virtual alternatives. Zoom, YouTube, Skype, and Google Hangouts all offer “much more transparent platforms,” according to Jeff Gary, policy director at the Institute for Technology Law and Policy at Georgetown University Law Center.
“They’re not in charge of saying who’s getting put in front of whom,” Gary said, noting that these platforms are not only more transparent with their privacy terms, but allow users to interact in real-time, rather than creating a post or a video that is saved and then filtered through a nebulous algorithm.
These platforms also provide vehicles for more stable communication in the long-term, which is important for churches that are looking to strengthen their communities.
“Once you're using Facebook, you are subject to Facebook design choices, and your ability to worship how you choose will be constrained and shaped by the tools that Facebook decides to create and the functions it decides it will not support,” including whether ads are displayed, what user reactions are allowed, or even how long uploaded videos can be, Gary said.
Facebook could also decide to delete the prayer feature at any time without warning: It wouldn’t be the first time Facebook abruptly removed a feature. In December 2020, Facebook disabled various messenger features as well as the Instagram plugin and Instagram stickers for Europeans leaving users questioning what had happened.
The future of Facebook prayer might be a global rollout. Or, it might be a disappearance of the feature altogether.
In addition to refraining from being too vulnerable while using the feature, Smith urges users to refrain from becoming too attached to it.
“Hopefully the tool will ultimately be a very welcome feature among the right types of groups and provide more connection between users and group owners,” Smith wrote. “Even so, as is typical of so much that Facebook does...they could decide to suddenly pull the plug at any time just when a portion of users really love and embrace the tool.”