The social media site Facebook has been on the chopping block for several years now over the way it treats its customers. From allowing their data to be harvested by corporations to enabling everyone from the Russians to the Iranians to try to manipulate public sentiment through misleading articles and ads, Facebook’s actions have gained it a lot of criticism, including from national legislatures like the US Congress and the UK Parliament.
One of the most recent brouhahas concerning the company centered on its refusal to ban political ads that contain falsehoods, as long as they come from political candidates. For some reason, all other ads can be pulled from the site for lying; political candidates are somehow different.
But one other, lesser-known aspect of Facebook’s apparent willingness to endanger its users has come out in a lawsuit filed against Facebook’s Israeli wing by Yad L’Achim, the anti-missionary organization. The suit claims that Facebook has allowed missionaries to use its site to ensnare teens, and sometimes children.
Proselytizing to people under 18 without their parents’ permission is a criminal offense in Israel. But missionaries have found a way around that: reach children online. That’s what Yad L’Achim wants to stop…and Facebook is resisting.
The Proselytizers’ Plan
Rabbi Yoav Robinson is an Israel-based activist for Yad L’Achim. He told me that Yad L’Achim became aware of the problem through parents.
“A few years ago we started noticing that we were getting more and more complaints from parents that their children were being contacted through Facebook by Christian missionaries. Some of them were as young as 11, some of them were young adults or teenagers ages 14, 15, 16, 17—all minors.”
They asked the parents to send them screenshots and videos of what their children were seeing online. What they found was that children were watching children’s videos on YouTube, when advertisements about Christianity that were targeted at children would come up.
Facebook ads were also popping up for children, and when parents clicked on the “Why am I seeing this?” button next to the advertisements, the information page would indicate that the ad was targeting people age 13 and older. (Facebook technically requires that users be 13 or older, though younger children will often lie to get on the site.)
The ads in question were sponsored by a Christian “bible college” in Netanya. (Its name, HaMichlala L’Mikra, literally means “bible college,” but it is a Christian missionary college.) The videos were professionally produced animations and other spots, aimed specifically at children.
The Internet has become a major tool for proselytizing to Jews, Rabbi Robinson asserted. He quoted a prominent “messianic Jewish” leader who said a few years ago that more Jews have converted in the past 20 years than in the last 20 centuries, only because of the Internet.
“The Internet allows missionaries to reach people in their homes,” Rabbi Robinson said. “In the past, they had to meet them on the streets. Now they can come into their living rooms and talk to them, teach them and brainwash them.”
Rabbi Robinson said that Eitan Bar, one of the lead directors at the Netanya Christian bible college, sent out an email making that idea clear and setting out some ideas for how to use it. In the email, which was provided to us by Rabbi Robinson, Bar notes that Facebook is ubiquitous among Israelis (excluding chareidim). He notes that it is illegal to proselytize to people below 18 in the country, so doing it through the Internet is a safer method. In his words: “The Internet is both the best way for them to explore for themselves as well as a point of reference for believing youth to send their friends to.”
Bar also notes that while Israelis would be embarrassed to carry around physical Christian material, such as a Christian bible, in public or in front of their families, the Internet enables them to access it without fear of embarrassment or responses from people around them.
Rabbi Robinson said, “They’re putting a lot of money into advertising that specifically targets children. Children are often naïve. They’re uneducated about Judaism, especially those who have Internet. They’re not necessarily religious, so they don’t know much about Judaism to begin with. And they’re easy prey.