During The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ semiannual General Conference last weekend, President Russell M. Nelson challenged women of the faith to take a 10-day fast from social media.
That invitation comes on the heels of a powerful wave of women’s voices and engagement in the political arena, less than a month before the midterm election and days before ballots were mailed out — leaving some women politicians to worry their participation in the “fast” may mean a disadvantage at the ballot box.
Upon hearing the news, “I panicked,” said Michelle Quist, a Republican candidate for Salt Lake County Council District 4. “I thought, you know, what am I going to do? Social media is such a big part of campaigns, especially local campaigns for candidates who don’t have a lot of money. So obviously I want to follow my church leader’s directions or request, but I don’t want to hurt my campaign.”
Quist, a former columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune, said she’s decided to take a compromise approach, with a 10-day break from personal social media while maintaining her business and campaign presence.
“The purpose behind the request was to step away from the avenues and the platforms that have us comparing our lives with each other and, you know, experiencing the depression that comes with that, and so I’m doing that. You know, I’m trying to do that,” she said. “But my campaign postings and other people’s business postings kind of don’t fit within that definition.”
Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, who is running for re-election in District 3, said she’s taking a similar approach.
“For me it’s not feasible to give up social media completely, as I have constituents who contact me that way,” she said in a message. “But I’ve decided to limit my social media usage to 30 minutes a day, just so I have a chance to still be responsive to constituents.”
U.S. Rep. Mia Love, who is in one of the hottest races of the election, declined to comment for this story.
Though this invitation was issued only to women of the faith, Nelson had urged Latter-day Saint youths around the world to abstain from social media for one week earlier this year, warning them of the “spiritual risk” of paying more attention to their social media feeds than to “the whisperings of the Spirit.”
In his speech Saturday, Nelson urged women members to take a break from social media “and from any other media that bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind.”
“Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast,” he said. “The effect of your 10-day fast may surprise you. What do you notice after taking a break from perspectives of the world that have been wounding your spirit? Is there a change in where you now want to spend your time and energy? Have any of your priorities shifted — even just a little? I urge you to record and follow through with each impression.”
Rozan Mitchell, a Republican candidate for Salt Lake County Clerk, noted that Nelson “never said” Latter-day Saint women should start the fast “immediately,” so she’s decided to wait until after the election is over.
“I’ll steer away from my personal Facebook and Twitter and Instagram pages, but I will still utilize it for campaign purposes at this point,” she said. “At a later time, when I feel that it might be a little more meaningful in my life, I will then take the full 10-day pledge.”
‘It can be irresponsible to step away’
Social media has become an increasingly important tool in connecting with voters and running a successful campaign, said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
“October is an important month,” she said. “It’s usually when campaigns are full speed ahead, everybody’s working overtime, and they need to use all the tools in their kit in order to finish the campaign strong.”
Taking a break from social media four weeks before an election would be challenging for any campaign, she noted, and it’s somewhat uncommon — especially at the local level.
“Usually when you do see that there is a pause in a campaign, it’s both candidates," she said. "It would be a really difficult situation in which one candidate had to stop. Usually it’s such a big issue that for parity’s sake, you see the other candidate saying ‘I will also stop,’ you know, out of respect or out of fairness.”
Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, is running for re-election in House District 42 and said that while she likes the idea of taking a social media fast, she, too, will wait until after the election. But even if they stay on the platforms through the end of the election, she and other female candidates who are members worry they’ll still lose access to a number of voters during the fast.
“I do at least quarterly town halls; I go to meet the candidate nights,” she said. “What I’ve found is the benefit of social media is it’s not constrained by people’s inability to go to a meeting. It doesn’t compete with someone’s work schedule or kid’s soccer schedule, or other commitments people have. They can go into social media 24/7 and access what I’m putting out there.”
As a number of potential voters go dark on social media, she said, “It does prompt me to think, ‘Do I need to redirect my resources to additional ways of communicating with women who may not be on social media right now?’”
Others said that while it’s not ideal to lose the attention of voters this close to the election, they don’t think it will have too big of an impact on voter engagement or turnout. Not all voters are members of the faith, Mitchell noted, and not all female members will participate.
Jessica Steele, a 25-year-old American Fork resident, is one Latter-day Saint who has chosen to opt out of the social media fast.
While she said she supports the premise, she said she worries that women of the faith who do participate may become politically disengaged at an important time.
“Briefly stepping away from the overwhelming dump of news and opinions plaguing our nation at the moment can be healthy in moderation,” Steele said. “But there are also times where I think it can be irresponsible to step away. And one month prior to a critically important midterm election is one of those times.”