Facebook has been courting religious groups for a partnership, The New York Times reported Sunday.
The social media platform has been cultivating deals with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, the Times said, and sees even greater strategic opportunity after the coronavirus pandemic forced religious groups to find new ways to reach followers.
The Times said Facebook, "aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money."
The online giant has created new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed to help faith groups. One tool allows for subscriptions where users pay to receive exclusive content.
Although in-person religious gatherings aren’t going to be replaced by virtual meetings, many religious groups see opportunity to reach more people on Facebook.
News of Facebook seeking religious partners comes as the company has been criticized greatly for privacy issues and its role in the country’s growing disinformation crisis.
Even President Joe Biden criticized Facebook for its role in the spread of false information about COVID-19 vaccines.
"I just want people to know that Facebook is a place where, when they do feel discouraged or depressed or isolated, that they could go to Facebook and they could immediately connect with a group of people that care about them," Nona Jones, the company’s director for global faith partnerships and a nondenominational minister, told the Times.
The Times said Facebook executives recently pitched their efforts to religious groups at a virtual faith summit. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, shared an online resource hub with tools to build congregations on the platform.
"Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection," Sandberg said, according to the Times.
"Our hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well, or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith."
The Times reported Facebook created faith partnerships team in 2017, and began courting religious leaders, especially of evangelical and Pentecostal groups, in earnest in 2018.
"Facebook basically said, hey, we want to be the It, we want to be the go-to," Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a Sacramento, California, pastor who leads a large coalition of Hispanic churches, told the Times.
Sarah Lane Ritchie, a lecturer in theology and science at the University of Edinburgh, told the Times that the potential for Facebook to gather valuable user information creates “enormous” concerns.
"Corporations are not worried about moral codes," Ritchie told the Times. "I don’t think we know yet all the ways in which this marriage between Big Tech and the church will play out."
Facebook has nearly three billion active monthly users, making it larger than Christianity worldwide, which has about 2.3 billion adherents, or Islam, which has 1.8 billion, the Times reported.
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