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Do faith groups love Facebook? It’s complicated

Concerns over privacy, hate speech and misinformation have led many, including some churches, to leave Facebook behind

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 23, 2019.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Faith groups embraced Facebook during the pandemic as they scrambled to stay connected with congregation members stuck at home. But a former employee’s accusations against the company have some pastors now considering logging off for good.

Frances Haugen, who took copies of thousands of internal documents with her this spring when she left her job in Facebook’s civic integrity unit, alleges that the site’s leaders delay finding or implementing solutions for the site’s problems if doing so could reduce profits.

On Tuesday, she testified before Congress about these claims, spelling out why she chose to file federal whistleblower complaints.

“Mark (Zuckerberg) has built an organization that is very metrics-driven. ... There is no unilateral responsibility,” she said.

The documents she copied reportedly reveal that Facebook has stuck with this approach even after promising to address issues like data leaks, conspiracy theories and faith-related harassment on the site.

Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill on Oct. 5.
Drew Angerer, Associated Press

Even before Haugen’s testimony, Facebook was in hot water. For years, policymakers and others have pushed back against the company’s failure to safeguard user privacy or root out misinformation. Like other social media sites, Facebook has also been accused of taking advantage of — and, in some ways, encouraging — political polarization.

Some people of faith and religious institutions have gone as far as shutting down their Facebook accounts because of these and related concerns. In an article for Sojourners magazine last year, Danny Duncan Collum told some of their stories and encouraged other churches to take the leap and stop using the site.

“When we lend our eyeballs to that platform, we bring it advertising dollars, helping to fund its corrupt and dangerous practices,” he wrote.

Those dangerous practices include allowing posts from so-called “troll farms” — the foreign groups exploiting Facebook’s algorithm to spread misinformation — to appear in the feeds of people who never sought them out. An internal company report from 2019 that was leaked to MIT Technology Review said that “in any given month, Facebook (showed) troll farm posts to 140 million Americans. Most of the users never followed any of the pages,” according to Ars Technica.

The same report noted that 19 of the top 20 Facebook pages for American Christians in 2019 were run by Eastern European troll farms, as Relevant magazine reported last month.

“Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church,” wrote Jeff Allen, who used to be a senior-level data scientist at Facebook, in the leaked report, according to Relevant.

Some troll accounts have been linked to anti-religious hate speech. In 2016, the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent a letter to Congress urging policymakers to work with social media sites to do more to limit these harmful activities.

Faith groups also have to deal with online hate coming from closer to home. Many people who run Facebook accounts for houses of worship and other religious organizations have spoken about struggling to respond to or delete hurtful comments.

Facebook’s lack of urgency when it comes to addressing anti-religious hate speech is especially frustrating for faith leaders who have noticed how fast the company moves on other, more profitable projects.

For example, it took Facebook only around 15 months to develop and launch a prayer tool after it noticed that many churches were fielding virtual prayer requests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tool is part of the company’s broader push to strengthen its relationship with faith communities, which are seen as major drivers of user engagement, as Reuters reported this summer.

Although many religious leaders have praised Facebook’s interest in studying how houses of worship use the site, many have also acknowledged that such attention ultimately benefits the company’s bottom line. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to Reuters that data collected by the new prayer tool will help the site offer personalized advertisements.

“Anytime Facebook rolls out something new, you know it’s because they’re hoping to make money off it ... to eventually sell you something, somehow,” said Simcha Fisher, a member of a Catholic women’s Facebook group, to Reuters.

Despite this reality, many faith leaders believe the opportunities created by Facebook are simply too good to pass up.

The Rev. Gabe Moreno, executive pastor of ministries for Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, Washington, recently told The Associated Press that he sees using the site for evangelism as way to follow Jesus’ lead.

“We should go where the people are,” he said. “The people are on Facebook. So we’re going to go there.”