Utah social media got caught up in an elaborate — and, to some, deeply hurtful — hoax Thursday involving the NAACP, LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and a fictitious apology for the Mormon church’s former practice of excluding black members from its priesthood and temple rites.
The governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did, in fact, meet with leaders of the NAACP on Thursday morning, with the two organizations issuing statements on the need for greater civility and racial harmony.
But an internet prankster was quick on the draw, launching his own website at www.mormon-newsroom.org — note the hyphen — with all the trappings of an actual LDS Church announcement, including functioning links and tabs directing users back to the official Mormon Newsroom site and many of the stylistic flourishes of LDS media releases.
The ruse was convincing enough to deceive many Mormons, including some black members of the faith who were left hurt, and in some cases, traumatized by it.
“I’ve spoken to black folks in tears because they thought this was real as well,” wrote Janan Graham-Russell, a Mormon doctoral student at Harvard, studying Mormonism, black Haitian identity and anthropology.
“Whoever made this site,” she wrote on Twitter, “doesn’t care about any of that.”
The hoax was the work of Jonathan Streeter, a former Mormon who lives in Texas and hosts the blog Thoughts on Things and Stuff under the pen name Thinker of Thoughts.
Streeter said he had pondered what kind of statement the LDS Church might put out if it ever apologized for its past policies on race — and how he might write his own false apology as a thought-provoking parody.
Streeter’s plans kicked into gear after church leaders announced earlier this week that members of the First Presidency were scheduled to meet with NAACP leaders.
“What would it look like if the church engaged in a completely vulnerable, open, contrite apology,” Streeter said, “in much the way that they teach [church] members that they should undergo repentance, including full confession and remorse.”
The fake site he launched included references to past discourses by Mormon leaders and to the faith’s canon of religious texts. It also summarized and linked to the LDS Church’s landmark “Race and the Priesthood” essay, which addresses the since-abandoned exclusions for black church members.
At that point, the website arrives at its punchline: a false apology for institutional racism attributed to Nelson, who is viewed as a prophet by the Mormon faithful.
“I offer a full unqualified apology for the error of racism which was taught from this office and in the tabernacle and over the pulpits of our churches the world over,” Nelson is quoted as saying, which to reiterate, he did not do.
The fabricated statement also includes an announcement by Nelson of a “Scriptural Review Committee on Race” that would recommend updates for the church’s religious texts to remove “faults of men around racism which have been left uncorrected.”
Eagle-eyed readers were able to spot clues of the ruse, including the hyphen in the website domain and a misformatted spelling of LDS Church’s formal title — the church prefers “Latter-day Saints” to “Latter Day Saints.” The bottom of the page also includes some fine print, describing mormon-newsroom.org as the official “pasquinade” — definition: satirical — newsroom of the LDS Church.
But many Utahns, including some members of the media, were initially fooled by the elaborate recreation. Fox 13 briefly posted an article based on the false statement, which has since been deleted. Other reporters remarked on Twitter about seeing Utahns fooled — or being fooled themselves — by the hoax.
The hoax was also swiftly met with backlash online, as many observers criticized the site’s creator for toying with a deeply felt and sensitive topic.
Zandra Vranes, co-creator of the Mormon-themed blog “Sistas in Zion,” posted a tearful, 83-minute video on Facebook about how the hoax had retraumatized black Latter-day Saints.
“May God have mercy on your souls,” Vranes wrote in a message directed at the fake site’s creators.
Streeter said he understands the impulse of some to criticize the parody site for creating a sense of cognitive dissonance among the LDS community.
“It’s very natural for them to lash out against me,” he said, “because it’s not in their nature to criticize their church.”
But he added that feedback has ranged from former Mormons who described the false website as offensive, to practicing Mormons who acknowledge a wish that the parody statement had been Nelson’s actual announcement .
“The emotion that they felt at that time [they read it] is their authentic position on this issue,” Streeter said. “If they felt gratitude and joy and pride in being a Latter-day Saint when they were reading an apology, then that is how they actually, honestly feel about this matter.”
Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, famously remarked in 2015 that the church does not give or seek out apologies. He later reiterated that point in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, remarking that the word “apology” does not appear in the LDS scriptural canon.
"We sometimes look back on issues and say, 'Maybe that was counterproductive for what we wish to achieve,' ” Oaks said at the time, “but we look forward and not backward."