Ogden resident Kate Matheson was about to take a social media pause recently when her husband discovered something that troubled them both.
Gregory Smith, a candidate running for City Council in neighboring North Ogden, had tweeted praise for his campaign team, and that team included people with ties to the #DezNat online group. One of them, Athen Jensen, had recently been outed by the account @ExposeDezNat for allegedly sharing antisemitic literature, participating in racist threads, wearing clothing with imagery from fascist Italy and publicly posting violent, homophobic and misogynistic tweets, often using the #DezNat hashtag.
(Jensen tweeted an apology of sorts soon afterward, saying his past comments were “jokes.”)
Matheson decided to use her Twitter following as communications director for the progressive lobbying group Alliance for a Better Utah to sound the alarm.
“I’m supposed to be on break and I’ll be going back on break in a sec,” Matheson tweeted, “but just flagging that a candidate for North Ogden city council has two folks on his campaign who have the alt-right white nationalist hashtag in their bios.”
DezNat is a movement of loosely affiliated, often anonymous social media users who use the internet to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That sometimes translates into trolling former church members, progressive members and members of the LGBTQ community.
The DezNat term is short for Deseret Nation or Nationalism, and its early adherents express backing for the formation of a theocratic state. While some have posted in support of a white ethno-state, white nationalism is not a core tenet. But many of its most prominent members, using anonymous accounts, have tweeted racist, homophobic, misogynistic and alt-right views. An assistant attorney general in Alaska is being investigated by his office for his reported #DezNat tweets.
North Ogden resident Megan Sanders saw Matheson’s post about Smith’s #DezNat campaign team the following morning and tweeted her concern, too.
“Wow! Greg, this is bad,” Sanders wrote. “Bad bad bad. Now we’re playing with white nationalists?”
In an interview, Sanders expressed shock that Smith had #DezNat ties. The two previously had worked together to oppose a proposed gondola in North Ogden that would have crossed a roadless area to connect with the Nordic Valley ski resort.
“Greg lives around the corner from me,” Sanders said. “We had a good rapport.”
‘When you’re anonymous, you can tweet out any crazy thought’
Smith’s reaction to the women’s tweets, however, was to accuse them of sharing “lies” about his “friends.” He even posted videos calling out and tagging the women specifically for criticizing him. Other #DezNat supporters chimed in with insults.
“Proof we need to repeal the 19th,” tweeted @suede_bilson, referencing the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote, in response to a thread Matheson made about #DezNat trolling and some troubling tweets from Smith’s supposed election staff — some of whom do not appear to know in which city he is campaigning for office.
In an interview, Smith, who uses the #DezNat hashtag himself, said he does not condone racism or white supremacy.
“I’m not sure what’s racist and what’s a bad joke,” he said. “When you’re anonymous, you can tweet out any crazy thought that enters your head, and there’s bound to be some ridiculous thoughts.”
Smith owns a mobile bike repair business and has lived in North Ogden for four years. He does not appear to have a campaign website or a list of political causes. His platform mostly involves protecting public lands, improving trail access and continuing to oppose the North Ogden gondola, which no longer seems to be an active part of Nordic Valley’s expansion plans. He conceded that he doesn’t have much knowledge about other issues facing North Ogden, like growth and the cost of living.
“I’m going to be honest, I don’t know the solution to affordable housing,” he said. “But I know if you put ski resorts in communities, housing goes up.”
Smith said assembling his campaign team was “mostly a joke.”
“This the first time I’ve run for office. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Smith said. “I was thinking of ways to get more Twitter followers.”
On July 7, he tweeted from his @Gregforcouncil account that he was seeking a campaign manager.
“What’s the job duties?” Smith wrote. “Just tell me I’m doing good and put in twitter bio ‘campaign manager for @Gregforcouncil’ until the election.”
Smith said several people responded, so he crafted different job descriptions for each of them, like “get out the vote coordinator” and “POC outreach coordinator.” He said his so-called campaign staff doesn’t actually work for him, apart from occasionally offering informal advice.
“I just Wikipedia-ed what campaign positions there were,” he said, adding that the designees were people he knew from #DezNat. He’s only met two of them in person. (One is Jensen. Smith said he gave him a bicycle.)
Nevertheless, Smith continues to defend his #DezNat supporters, as well as leaders in the movement, even as other Twitter users share questionable content posted by them.
“People keep saying DezNat is political, it’s not,” Smith said, describing himself as moderate, like “Mitt Romney, but I don’t hate everyone to the right of me. I’m not into disavowing people.”
When @hmdoppelganger tweeted at Smith’s campaign account to ask whether he knew that some prominent #DezNat posters had called for repeal of the 19th Amendment and argued that women should be property of their husbands, Smith shrugged it off.
“It was always a joke to cope with how they don’t like how women vote,” he responded.
Smith confirmed that, in addition to his campaign handle, he is behind at least one other Twitter account, @BikeAnon, which has contained comments against women and the LGBTQ community, often using the #DezNat hashtag.
“I try to defend the church. It’s a silly hashtag,” he said. “I don’t need to use the hashtag, but I’m not going to abandon the hashtag.”
Smith appears to have deleted the @BikeAnon account as of Thursday.
“No one off twitter is discussing if the 19th amendment is bad,” Smith began one tweet from that account in May, going on to predict that “in the future this will be a mainstream topic of discussion.”
In a tweet from June, the same month he declared his candidacy, he criticized Gov. Spencer Cox after he issued the state’s first Pride Month declaration, which he followed days later with a call to pray for rain.
“Nah, I’m praying for famine,” Smith tweeted.
Smith has also posted messages implying women are secondary to men.
“Women’s role is to help men out men’s role is not to help women out,” he tweeted in February.
“I’m grateful there’s #radicalorthodoxy for the boys with ugly wives or no wife,” he also tweeted in February. “I #givethanks that deznat is not soiled with seacows.”
Asked about the tweets, Smith said that he believes gay relationships are a sin but said he also views any sexual relationship outside of marriage as sinful.
“I don’t hate homosexuals,” he said. “In ’05, I joined my high school’s gay-straight alliance.”
Smith added that his @BikeAnon account is “ridiculous” and that he’s used it to say things he shouldn’t have.
“I’ve said mean things online,” he added. “I think most people have, especially if you’re a guy.”
He defended his words by repeating a phrase that echoes throughout the #DezNat community as more and more of its participants get called out for their posts: “It’s a joke.”
When jokes become dangerous
For Matheson, the Alliance for a Better Utah communications director who was one of the first to tweet alarm about Smith’s DezNat ties, hiding hateful, discriminatory or antidemocratic ideas behind the guise of jest is harmful.
“If you do some research on how alt-right movements and nationalist movements in online spaces work,” Matheson said, “they couch the most terrible views they have as jokes or sarcasm.”
In April, white nationalist Nick Fuentes went on a long tirade encouraging domestic violence, only to add at the end that he was “just kidding.” Starting in 2008, alt-right groups co-opted the nonpolitical “Pepe the Frog” cartoon and began using it in racist memes during the 2016 presidential election. The Boogaloo Boy movement, with its Hawaiian-shirt uniforms and advocacy for a second U.S. Civil War, got its start as a series of jokes.
Earlier this year, the Radicalisation Awareness Network prepared a report for the European Commission documenting how extremists weaponize jokes, trolling, sarcasm and memes — especially online — to blur the line between “mischief and potentially radicalizing messaging.”
“We know that’s how these groups operate,” Matheson said. “That’s the only way these groups can make their views slowly tolerable to young people in online spaces.”
She added that engaging with extremist movements online in an effort to stop them is futile. Instead, the best remedy is to explain to voters and other audiences why their messages are problematic, she said, so those who spend less time online or on social media platforms have context.
“By their tweets alone, you can see who they are,” Matheson said. “When someone who holds [negative] views about the gay community or holds views about women, or holds views about nonwhite people, then goes into public office and makes decisions for those people, it’s scary.”
(Asked how he plans, if elected, to represent women and LGTBQ constituents he has tweeted about online, Smith said he will be an “amazing city councilman for gay people” and that he believes in separation of church and state.)
Matheson pointed to a wave of extremists, like white nationalists, QAnon conspiracy theorists and Proud Boys, who are running for — and sometimes winning — local public office. Although those candidates aren’t tied to #DezNat or its ideas, Matheson warned of overlap.
“To me, this is a warning shot to Utah,” Matheson said. “We like to talk about how we’re moderate, how we’re kind. I think a lot of that is really true. But there’s a strain of extremism that’s continuing to pop up.”
Seven candidates are vying for the two open North Ogden City Council seats, including incumbent Blake Cevering. The deadline for voters to submit their primary ballots is Aug. 10, which will whittle down the pool to four.