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Facebook Wants You to Connect With God. On Facebook.

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Months before the megachurch Hillsong opened its new outpost in Atlanta, its pastor sought advice on how to build a church in a pandemic.

From Facebook.

The social media giant had a proposition, Sam Collier, the pastor, recalled in an interview: to use the church as a case study to explore how churches can “go further farther on Facebook.”

For months Facebook developers met weekly with Hillsong and explored what the church would look like on Facebook and what apps they might create for financial giving, video capability or livestreaming. When it came time for Hillsong’s grand opening in June, the church issued a news release saying it was “partnering with Facebook” and began streaming its services exclusively on the platform.

Beyond that, Mr. Collier could not share many specifics — he had signed a nondisclosure agreement.

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“They are teaching us, we are teaching them,” he said. “Together we are discovering what the future of the church could be on Facebook.”

Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed religious groups to explore new ways to operate, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunity to draw highly engaged users onto its platform. The company 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. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups.

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Virtual religious life is not replacing in-person community anytime soon, and even supporters acknowledge the limits of an exclusively online experience. But many religious groups see new opportunity to spiritually influence even more people on Facebook, the world’s largest and arguably most influential social media company.

The partnerships reveal how Big Tech and religion are converging far beyond simply moving services to the internet. Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has done for political and social life.

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Credit…Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

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The company’s effort to court faith groups comes as it is trying to repair its image among Americans who have lost confidence in the platform, especially on issues of privacy. Facebook has faced scrutiny for its role in the country’s growing disinformation crisis and breakdown of societal trust, especially around politics, and regulators have grown concerned about its outsize power. Over the past week, President Biden has criticized the company 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, said in an interview.

Last month, Facebook executives 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.

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“Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection,” Ms. Sandberg said.

“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,” she said.

Facebook’s summit, which resembled a religious service, included testimonials from faith leaders about how Facebook helped them grow during the pandemic.

Imam Tahir Anwar of the South Bay Islamic Association in California said his community raised record funds by using Facebook Live during Ramadan last year. Bishop Robert Barron, founder of an influential Catholic media company, said Facebook “gave people kind of an intimate experience of the Mass that they wouldn’t normally have.”

The collaborations raise not only practical questions, but also philosophical and moral ones. Religion has long been a fundamental way humans have formed community, and now social media companies are stepping into that role. 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.

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Image “Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said.

Credit…Alex Brandon/Associated Press

There are privacy worries too, as people share some of their most intimate life details with their spiritual communities. The potential for Facebook to gather valuable user information creates “enormous” concerns, said Sarah Lane Ritchie, a lecturer in theology and science at the University of Edinburgh. The goals of businesses and worshiping communities are different, she said, and many congregations, often with older members, may not understand how they could be targeted with advertising or other messages based on their religious engagement.

“Corporations are not worried about moral codes,” she said. “I don’t think we know yet all the ways in which this marriage between Big Tech and the church will play out.”

A Facebook spokeswoman said the data it collected from religious communities would be handled the same way as that of other users, and that nondisclosure agreements were standard process for all partners involved in product development.

Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking religious organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and those groups seem undeterred by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year Facebook tested a prayer feature, where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, worked with the company to test it.

Facebook’s outreach was the first time a major technology company wanted to collaborate on a development project, said Bobby Gruenewald, YouVersion’s creator and a pastor at Life.Church in Oklahoma, recalling how he also worked with Facebook on a Bible-verse-a-day feature in 2018.

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“Obviously there are different ways they ultimately, I am sure, will serve their shareholders,” he said. “From our vantage point, Facebook is a platform that allows us to build community, and connect with our community and accomplish our mission. So it serves I think everybody well.”

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Credit…Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

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Credit…Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, via Getty Image

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was invited to be a Facebook faith partner in December, said Melody Smith, a spokeswoman for the denomination’s missions agency. The denomination agreed in a contract that it would have no ownership of any products it helps Facebook design, she said.

Leaders of the Church of God in Christ, a largely African American Pentecostal denomination of roughly six million members worldwide, recently received early access to several of Facebook’s monetization features, offering them new revenue streams, said the denomination’s social media manager, Angela Clinton-Joseph.

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They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers watching services online to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams.

The pandemic accelerated existing dynamics, packing years of technology development into one, said Bob Pritchett, who founded Faithlife, a Christian ministry platform with a suite of online services.

But spiritual life is different from the personal and professional spaces occupied by Facebook and LinkedIn, he said.

It is dangerous to have your community anchored “on a tech platform that is susceptible to all the whims of politics and culture and congressional hearings,” he said.

Facebook created its faith partnerships team in 2017 and began courting religious leaders, especially of evangelical and Pentecostal groups, in earnest in 2018.

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“Facebook basically said, hey, we want to be the It, we want to be the go-to,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a Sacramento pastor who leads a large coalition of Hispanic churches.

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Minister groups for the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal denomination with 69 million members worldwide, were early adopters of a Facebook tool allowing users to call in to a livestream. The Potter’s House, T.D. Jakes’s megachurch of 30,000 in Dallas, also tested various features before they were rolled out.

For some pastors, Facebook’s work raises questions about the broader future of church in a virtual world. So much of religious life remains physical, such as sacraments or the laying on of hands for healing prayer.

Online church was never meant to replace the local church, said Wilfredo De Jesús, a pastor and the general treasurer for the Assemblies of God. He was grateful for Facebook, but ultimately, he said, “we want everyone to put their face in another book.”

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“The technology has created in the lives of our people this quickness, this idea that I can call and just show up at Target and park my car and they open my truck,” he said. “The church is not Target.”

For churches like Hillsong Atlanta, the ultimate goal is evangelism.

“We have never been more postured for the Great Commission than now,” Mr. Collier said, referring to Jesus’ call to “make disciples of all nations.”

He is partnering with Facebook, he said, “to directly impact and help churches navigate and reach the consumer better.”

“Consumer isn’t the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Reach the parishioner better.”

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Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey

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Facebook has had its share of controversies this year. The company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents.

Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.

Yahoo Finance notes, “Facebook has had its share of controversies this year.” Starting in January, Meta-owned WhatsApp got caught up in a huge controversy after the messaging app announced a new privacy policy (Terms of Service). WhatsApp said it would collect user information and share it with third-party apps for a better user experience. However, the app gave users no choice but later made modifications to the policy under pressure. Similarly, the company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents showing the company’s problematic practices. It was revealed that Meta-owned Instagram had a negative impact on teenage girls, but the company did almost nothing to rectify the problem.

Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.

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However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.

On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.

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Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal

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In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.

In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.

Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws

It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.

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Russian social media laws

As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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