Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

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The Daily Beast isn’t exactly noted for good religion coverage but they sure scored a good one in this piece about ex-Mormons targeting their devout friends with Facebook bombs.

This piece, “Inside the Secret Facebook War for Mormon Hearts and Minds (with a really cool photo illustration combining a Facebook logo with a flood-lit Mormon temple), did what religion reporting is supposed to do well: Take a religious group you may not know much about or talk about a debate among its members and twin it with a popular trend.

Which is what happened here:

In November 2017, a provocation appeared in the Facebook feeds of 3,000 Mormon parishioners. It was a sponsored post crafted in the gauzy style of one of the Mormon church’s own Facebook ads, but addressing a seldom-discussed truth about the early history of the church and its founding patriarch, Joseph Smith. “Why did Joseph marry a 14 year old girl?” the post asked. “The church has answers. Read them here.” Below the text was a photo of a gold wedding band balanced across the inside spine of an open Book of Mormon.

About 1,000 people who saw the Facebook ad clicked on it and were taken to a page deep within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ website that expounded on the “revelation on plural marriage,” the order from God that was used to sanction polygamy for decades. During that time some male followers of the Latter Day Saint movement took dozens of wives each, disproportionately favoring girls between 14 and 16 years old. Church leaders finally banned polygamy in 1904.

If anyone reading the text thought to wonder why Facebook served them a slice of the most controversial chapter in their religion’s history, they likely chalked it up to the impersonal vagaries of the platform’s profiling algorithms. But they’d be wrong. The ad was very personal. Everyone who saw it was secretly hand-picked by a friend or loved one who had walked away from the LDS church, and now turned to Facebook’s precision ad system in a desperate attempt to explain their spiritual crisis to those they’d left behind.

This isn’t exactly new.

Jews for Jesus used to tell folks — who were scared to approach their Jewish friends or family as to why they’d converted to Christianity — to supply them with their contacts’ snail mail addresses (this was back in the pre-Internet ‘70s) so they could drop them an evangelistic packet that didn’t divulge the source.

The project was called MormonAds, and it was a brief but perhaps unprecedented experiment in targeted religious dissuasion. In four months at the end of 2017, the project targeted more than 5,000 practicing Mormons with messages painstakingly crafted to serve as gentle introductions to the messier elements of LDS history that were glossed over within the church. All the names and email addresses for the campaign came from disillusioned ex-Mormons.

The creator was a “John Jones,” a pseudonym for an ex-Mormon who was looking for a way to seed questions about the faith among his unsuspecting Mormon friends and family. I assume his project didn’t take place during the “social media fast” that some Mormons — at the behest of their president — undertook last fall.

At at time when the nation is focused on Facebook’s whack-a-mole game against covert influencers, MormonAds offers lessons from a quieter kind of Facebook manipulation, a campaign of much smaller scale but equal consequence for those involved…We may be resigned to faceless corporations buying their way into our thoughts, but are we ready for a world where our neighbors and in-laws can do the same?

What follows is an entertaining piece on how even religious faith is not immune from Facebook’s prying. In other words, if you want friends or family to consider leaving a certain faith but you don’t dare forward them propaganda from your own Facebook account, here was a way to anonymously do it.

Jones and his wife had left the Latter-day Saints, getting ostracized for their pains. They learned that other ex-Mormons were afraid to out themselves, knowing the social isolation they’d be enduring for the rest of their lives.

After a lifetime in the close knit community, the abrupt social isolation was painful. Jones searched for a way out of it. Then in August 2017, he had a revelation of his own. A way to explain himself to his friends and relatives that they wouldn’t reject out of hand, and would never trace back to him.

Jones had a working knowledge of Facebook’s ads tool through his business, and he knew that he could precision target an ad to a custom audience as small as 20 people. All he needed were their email addresses. “If I target my family with ads, then I’m not the apostate messenger,” he said. “Maybe they’ll look at it or read it. If they knew what I knew about Mormon history, they’d understand why I left the church.”

The following is where the writer clearly did his research.

Practicing Mormons are primed to expect messages about their religion to pop up on Facebook. The church uses Facebook to drive customers to its massive portfolio of business holdings, and maintains a vast network of Facebook pages to proselytize and grow its ranks, said Yu, CTO and co-founder of BlitzMetrics.

“They have the largest footprint of anyone on the planet,” said Yu. “Any media company, any athlete. They have hundreds of pages about family and love, inspirational pages and memes that each have millions of fans.”

Not being in the Latter-day Saint culture, I didn’t know this. Clearly here was a system that Jones could easily exploit.

The rest of the story is fascinating; how Jones joined a Reddit group of ex-Mormons who gave him reams of emails; how some in Reddit accused him of harassment and how he eventually was forced off their platform. The piece doesn’t stop there but suggests it’s only a matter of time before other individuals with religious or anti-religious motives try the same thing.

It’s called stealth evangelism, if you will. I thought it was a brilliant idea in this age of non-confrontation amongst a society that hides behind its iPhones. I’m always interested in how religion intersects with social media (and last year I came out with a book on this topic) as the subject isn’t going away.

This piece was what I wish the Daily Beast would do more of: A dispassionate look at what one believer did via Facebook to persuade his co-religionists. There was no ax to grind, no weird jabs at the LDS church, no trashing of Jones, the man behind it all.

It’s amazing how much good religion reporting can be done when all the reporter wants to do is plainly tell a good story.

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