The highly unethical business of Christian marketing on social media and how Meta enables it

August 2022

Back in January of this year, Meta implemented a number of changes to its Facebook and Instagram platforms which removed the option for detailed ad targeting based on, what it saw as, ‘sensitive’ topics such as race, sexual orientation, political allegiance and religious persuasion. Shortly after this in April, Meta then implemented changes to the settings which allow users to determine which type of ads they want to see on their newsfeeds. In essence then, Meta partly reversed its model on advertisers versus users in terms of what the latter might see on its newsfeeds, but only on topics its management deem as sensitive in their politically correct virtual world.

You might think this is all a good thing, but in reality it seems clear that it’s been somewhat counter-productive. For one it assumes that users will go into their settings to click their ad preferences – and indeed even know such a thing exists. But the real failing seems to be that the element of the algorithm which determines whether or not you see an ad – and partly regardless if you’ve changed your preferences or not – does not take account of whether your interest is positively motivated or negatively motivated. The outcome of this seems to be that an organisation which could previously target people based on their positive interest in what it had to say, now has to contend with a raft of negative comments from people who oppose what they have to say. I don’t know for a fact that the algorithm works that way, but my own experience entirely supports the idea – which takes me on to the subject I really want to cover in this blog . . .

I have an interest in religion. I’ve had this interest for many years and I’m fairly vocal about it, and not least on Facebook. However, my interest isn’t because I love religion or follow any particular doctrine, it’s because I absolutely loath the very concept of religion and the harm it has and continues to do to mankind and the world we live in. In this respect my stance is one of antitheism, though not antitheist as that would be like saying I hate people with cancer because I hate cancer. Indeed, I typically have sympathy for devout theists as I view their state of mind as a type of mental illness.

I also don’t especially identify with the word atheist, as to me the term is no longer relevant in an age of science and understanding (obviously I get why the word was relevant hundreds of years ago). Non-belief in gods is just the default position for any rational person, or at least it is assuming not being brainwashed as a child, having a proper education, being relatively sound of mind and not living in a theocracy. We don’t have specific words which are used for people who don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster or fairies at the bottom of the garden, so therefore there’s arguably no need for a word for those that don’t believe in deities – be it the Abrahamic god, Zeus, Odin or any of the other 3000 or so gods worshipped in human history.

Ahead of Meta’s ad targeting changes, I never had any ads come up on my newsfeed from religious groups with the aim of proselytising or selling their wares – e.g. Christian T shirts with ‘I love Jesus’ on the front (imagine wearing that down your local pub) – but now I’m swamped with them. This can only be happening because the algorithm picks up my interest in religion and despite my historic opposition to it (including following antitheism, humanist and secular pages) and the significant level of negative comments I now leave on Christian and Islamic posts – albeit I don’t get too many of the latter on my newsfeed, because their methods of recruitment are obviously rather less geared to gentle persuasion on Facebook.

I’ve perhaps taken rather a long time here to get to the key point of my blog, but anyway what Meta’s changes have really opened my eyes to is the vile and unethical business of marketing by Christian organisations. This isn’t just about trying to persuade you to come along to their friendly church service this Sunday in Gloucester (and as the person setting up the ad won’t be the sharpest knife in the block, it won’t occur to them that a UK-wide ad is not appropriate for a local affair) but more the ridiculous and false claims they make and often to extract money. Prayer is often central to such scams, and I’ve even seen ads which encourage folk to sign-up for daily advice on what prayers to say (and despite there being zero evidence that prayers work). Other ads are for Christian events where, for example, some charlatan from across the Atlantic is promising to heal you of a long term illness if you come along to a venue on his UK tour – providing that is that you bring a whole load of cash or credit card with you. Of course all of this absurd content on newsfeeds is aimed at the vulnerable and gullible, and whilst organised religion has always preyed on such people, social media has really opened up the opportunities to do so.

There’s also another and arguably even worse level to this, in that I now get ads from ‘Christian marketing agencies’ – and no doubt because the algorithm also knows I work in marketing. These small niche agencies offer a service which is essentially advising church leaders and those who run Christian organisations on how to attract and scam those most at risk in society – though obviously they’re not as honest as I’m being in such an assessment. Such agencies and what they do offend me in two ways, because not only does promoting the targeting of vulnerable people strongly jar with my humanist principles, but they’re also bringing the marketing profession into disrepute. One specific ad from such an agency that I recently found especially offensive, was promoting to church leaders how they could attract children to their congregation – and in so doing start the process of indoctrination on impressionable young minds. So essentially psychological child abuse – which it is if you consider in a rational way what would actually be taking place.

So basically then, Meta is gifting churches, religious organisations and religious marketing agencies with a huge level of privilege so they can get away with messages in adverts which Meta would never allow for a company selling normal goods or services. I mean just imagine an ad from BMW stating that you’ll live 10 years more if you buy one of their cars, or from Disney which encourages you to bring your kids to their theme parks so they can be taught how to worship and revere Mickey Mouse – and if they don’t then it’s an eternity in a fire pit. But it goes deeper of course, because the majority of people that can afford a new BMW or a weekend at Disneyland Paris, would see through the BS even if it were allowed. Now compare that to bronze-age religious dogma which will often find a willing ear with those of low intelligence, with mental health issues, or just folk living a miserable life and looking for even a glint of hope to get them through it.

On a purely personal level, there’s a part of me which rather likes the Meta change and what it’s meant to my newsfeed, because it gives an opportunity to call-out religious bullshit that I previously wouldn’t have seen – well until I get blocked by a page that is (though surprisingly few actually do that – probably only because they don’t know how to). I also like the idea that I can engage in debate with Christians and those of other faiths, albeit that can at times be challenging when you’re faced with someone whose level of critical thinking and debating skills are on a par with a 5 year old child trying to convince you that they shouldn’t go to bed just yet because there’s a monster hiding beneath it.

Meta will have surely known that turning off options for detailed targeting was always going to result in an avalanche of negative comments on adverts, and not only for religious organisations but also political and charities which cross into Meta’s imagined realm of sensitive subjects. Therefore they will have also known it was going to piss-off paying customers, and I don’t doubt some may have called it a day with Facebook and Instagram advertising as a result. They’ve also used the enhanced options for users which allow such ads to not come up as way to counter what some will see as irrelevant and / or offensive content – i.e. “If you don’t like such ads then tell us in your settings and we’ll stop them.”

All of that aside, of course what Meta should do is apply the same rules to religion that you and I have to abide by when we want to promote our products and services – i.e. rules which include no scams and misleading claims. That won’t happen, because religious marketing will be worth billions to Meta annually, plus, and specifically, they won’t want to fall out with the Christian-led right wing of US politics.

Religion is the oldest and largest scale organised scam the world has ever known, and whilst it’s clearly immoral that Meta should give it such an easy and cost-effective way to keep the scam going, at least they’ve also given an open door to those of us who believe in a moral, secular and just world, and therefore feel motivated to call out the scammers. And call them out I do.

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