Why Mark Zuckerberg’s Trip to Capitol Hill Matters for Your Church

It’s not every day that Mark Zuckerberg exchanges his famous hoodie and blue jeans for a finely tailored navy suit.

But then again, it’s not every day that one of the most powerful Millennials in America meets with the U.S. Congress.

And that’s what happened this week on Capitol Hill.

If you paid any attention to your social media feeds or cable news, you probably caught a piece of the Facebook founder testifying before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

No, it wasn’t must-see TV, but the controversy that preceded the hearings has brought attention to issues regarding technology and privacy that has significant implications for churches.

Here’s Why Mr. Zuckerberg Went to Washington

News broke last month that Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan had created an app (called “thisisyourdigitallife”) that collected the personal information of Facebook users by asking them to answer questions for a psychological profile. About 300,000 people paid to take the psychological test. The app then gathered the data from these users’ Facebook friends, too. In total, Facebook reports that the app “harvested” the personal data of 87 million people through this app.

Cambridge Analytica co-founder Christopher Wylie says the London-based election consultancy company used information they bought from Kogan to target ads for the Donald Trump presidential campaign in 2016.

News of this controversy hit Washington, D.C., as legislators were coming to grips with Facebook’s role in the Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. elections. Congress asked Zuckerberg to testify mainly to answer questions on these two topics (although there were questions on a few other fronts as well). Specifically, Zuckerberg appeared before the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary Committee on April 11th and the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee on April 12th.

Tech insiders have called Zuckerberg’s dramatic two days before congress the most high-profile congressional testimony of a tech executive since Bill Gates testified in the late 1990s at the height of Microsoft’s monopoly controversy.

Why the Facebook Privacy Discussion Matters to Your Church

Don’t worry. Your church likely can do nothing through Facebook that’ll end up infringing upon the privacy of people in your community. Most churches participate in Facebook through an organizational page or by publishing ads on the platform. Neither gives you direct access to Facebook user data.

But Facebook is still the most popular communication vehicle on the planet right now. Regardless of the demographics your church serves, most of the people sitting in your worship services use Facebook. It’s an important way many churches drive participation today. If Facebook is that important to the people in your congregation and to your communication plans, you need to keep abreast of the issues surrounding it.

Though your church likely isn’t at risk of misusing Facebook data, the broader issue of privacy is something people in your community care deeply about. Many have said that the interaction between privacy and technology could become one of the defining public policy questions of the 21st century. This current Facebook controversy is just the most recent platform for this conversation. Your church interacts with your community’s data every week—in many cases, every day. Now is the time for your church to grapple with the implications of these tech privacy debates.

Here’s What You Can Do:

1. Understand how Facebook interacts with advertisers

Zuckerberg tried to clear up this point during his testimony on Tuesday. Many people assume that Facebook hands over user data to organizations (like yours) who advertise on the platform. But that’s not how it works. If your church advertises on Facebook, someone on your staff knows this.

Facebook never hands over data to advertisers. Instead, advertisers tell Facebook the people they want to target, and Facebook uses the data it has about people on the platform to put the ads in front of the right people.

For example, if your church wants to promote a new Bible study for single moms, you would never download a single drop of data from Facebook on single moms. Instead, you’d tell Facebook you want to engage single moms, and they would display your ad to single moms in your community.

It’s important you understand the mechanics of how this works because you may have people in your community who are concerned you’re capturing their data when you advertise on Facebook. Even if you’re not in charge of creating Facebook ads for your church, you may want to get familiar with the process just so you can explain it to others.  

2. Have a clear social media policy

Every organization today needs a social media policy. Church social media policies simply lay out guidelines for staff on how they should use social media. The policy should definitely include all branded social media expressions of your church, but you should strongly consider including expectations for how your staff interacts with social media from their personal accounts, too.

Social Church has a great post that includes links to social policies from other churches. It also has its own social media policy template you can customize for your use.

You also should have a data-use policy that clarifies with your staff, your volunteers, and your broader congregation how your church uses data and how you protect your members’ privacy. 

3. Be on the lookout for changes to Facebook usage in your community

Before Zuckerberg testified before congress, many expressed concerns that the platform was treading on dangerous ground, particularly with Millennials and Generation Z. Some industry experts believed the latest privacy controversy could accelerate their exit from the platform.

No one knows whether that’ll actually happen. Currently, Facebook is likely the most cost-effective marketing tool at your church’s disposal. The audience is vast (2.2 billion monthly active users). Advertising is also relatively cheap for the reach you can get.

But you should always be aware of what platforms the people you’re trying to reach are using. For certain demographics and in certain communities, you might find better platforms to use.

Keep your ears to the ground and be involved in the platforms your community is involved in. Facebook usage may someday wane. Don’t be the last one to figure this out.

4. Help your community understand how they can protect their privacy

This may seem like an odd function for a church, but it will provide you with a great opportunity to serve your community. With all the news about Facebook privacy issues circulating, people are wondering how to protect themselves on social media. For example, Facebook (and other social media platforms) provides ways for users to control their privacy settings, but most people tend to leave their accounts on the default controls.

You have the freedom to decide who sees your posts, what personal information is available on your profile, who has access to your friends’ list, and more.

Consider offering a class that helps people maneuver social media in a safe way. Enlist the help of those who are fluent with social media tools to teach the people who are less familiar with their options. And stay tuned for more helpful tips from the Pushpay team in the future.

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