Facebook invests in the new ‘prayer post’ feature

Like, love, care, and prayer: The popular social media platform take advantage of spirituality communities

Facebook has found a new way to capitalize on faith groups, and their data, by launching the ‘prayer post’ feature. The popular social media platform has long sought our attention and constantly discovered new tools to expand users’ engagement and increase the time they spend online.

Recently, Facebook established a new feature called ‘prayer post’, which allows members of specific Facebook faith groups to ask for and offer up prayers, for other platform’s users. The company started testing the tool last December in the U.S., causing a variety of reactions.

Back in April, Robert Jones, who runs Public Religion Research Institute in Washington DC, was one of the first public figures to whom the new ‘prayer post’ tool had appeared. “So I just had this “Introducing Prayer Posts” pop up as a new Facebook feature on my profile. Anyone else seeing this? Wondering what Facebook algorithm thinks it knows about me?” he posted on Twitter, asking other users to also report if they were able to see the new Facebook feature.

The new tool gradually began to appear to users in the U.S. and is expanding worldwide. Faith group administrators are gradually receiving a notification stated that “you may enable group members to ask for and respond to prayers in a post. You can manage Prayer Request posts and who can create them in Group Settings”.

In a Facebook faith group, the users can make a ‘prayer post’ to ask for worship. The other members can respond by clicking the “I prayed” button, so their names will be added to the list below the button. Users can also request a reminder to pray again the next day. For the group members to be able to use the new tool, the administrator has to turn it on.

According to Facebook, with in-person services on hold due to Covid-19 lockdowns, the holiday week of April 6 in 2020 (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. This ever-increasing popularity gained by the faith groups does not seem to have gone unnoticed by Facebook, which rushed to experiment with new tools to take advantage of this trend.

“Our mission is to give people the power to build community extends to the world’s largest community; the faith community,” Nona Jones, head of Global Faith Partnerships at Facebook, said in a written statement. “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,” Jones said. “This is why we are committed to finding ways to build the tools that help people connect to hope on Facebook.”

Prayer Post Eizabeth Culliford Reuters

Prayer posts lead to targeted ads

Facebook confirmed data collected from these ‘prayer posts’ will be used to personalize ads on the platform and present targeted content to users. The platform’s algorithm will apply this data to decide which ads to show users, although advertisers will not have the option to directly target users based on the content of their ‘prayer posts’.

Early in the pandemic, Facebook promoted its ‘Live features’ to help spirituality communities host online events, stay connected and collect donations. The platform launched a faith resources website providing online courses and quizzes to help users better understand the live-streaming tool. It also sent equipment (smartphone holders and tripods) to faith groups for their online events. This policy reveals Facebook’s aims at intensifying partnerships with spirituality groups and the platform’s attempts to shape the future of the online faith experience.

Users participating in faith communities, like those on Facebook, present the tendency to share some of their most private life details with the other members of the communities. This leads to a series of privacy worries related to the ‘prayer posts’ feature and Facebook data collection policy. Among others, there are serious concerns about the potential use of valuable users’ information for commercial and political purposes.

George Mavridis is a freelance journalist and writer based in Greece. His work primarily covers tech, innovation, social media, digital communication, and politics. He graduated from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki with a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication. Also, he holds an MA in Media and Communication Studies from the Malmö University of Sweden and an MA in Digital Humanities from the Linnaeus University of Sweden.