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Possibly spooked by the prospect of being publicly identified, #DezNat creator J.P. Bellum, a self-appointed general in the online fight to support Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saint prophets, has deleted his Twitter account.
In the past six weeks, an estimated 80 other #DezNat regulars seem to have likewise eliminated their accounts or moved them to a private setting, according to researchers in New York and Kentucky. Others have erased the hashtag or wiped out past tweets.
This could signal the beginning of a digital war between #DezNat proponents and critics, with a few of the major users of the hashtag clearly in retreat.
Since its creation in August 2018, #DezNat, short for Deseret Nation, has enlisted loosely aligned ground troops to defend the doctrines and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their battlefield has been the internet, where they hurl verbal attacks, some with violent overtones, and harsh memes from the safety of mostly anonymous accounts.
Starting in May, though, another account called DezNat Exposed (under the handle @ExposeDezNat) has reportedly outed two #DezNat users, including a current Latter-day Saint missionary. And the account is promising to reveal others’ identities.
DezNat Exposed — which stands for Deseret Anti-Fascist Action and which some see as an allusion to antifa — also uses fictitious handles.
“Considering that DezNat is a manifestation of angst by those predominantly on the political right, it is easy to paint the attack on DezNat as an attack by progressives and leftists on the church and righteousness in general (targeting a missionary just fuels that idea),” says Mary Ann Clements, a Latter-day Saint blogger who has analyzed the #DezNat movement. DezNatters “argue that accusations of racism, bigotry and misogyny are common against anyone right of center, no matter how extreme they actually are.”
Any recognition of these accusations among #DezNat tweets “is waved off as the problems of individual members,” she says, “not a problem with the movement itself.”
Besides, many insist they are just jesting with their memes and mockery.
Some wonder if it’s a game or if it’s real, Clements says, and Bellum was “always playing both sides.”
He asserted that many people just don’t get the joke and was angry when some took it seriously, she says, but he knew for some it was serious.
It’s also a question of tactics.
“They need to be aware of how they defend the church,” says Clements, who earlier discussed #DezNat on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “In their minds, they are stopping the liberalization and secularization of the church.”
Even if the majority aren’t “bigots, misogynists and racists,” she says, “they are creating an environment where bigotry, misogyny and racism are acceptable vices.”
Besides, if they are just defending the church, why worry about being known?
Both sides in this Twitter skirmish maintain that anonymity is crucial to avoid being the subject of harassment and even violence.
Clearly, though, #DezNat users started it, by naming liberal Brigham Young University students and professors to get them kicked out of school or fired.
“When you start going after other people’s jobs,” Clements says, “how could you not think they would do it to you?”
Amy Chapman of Columbia University and Spencer Greenhalgh of the University of Kentucky have made an in-depth study of #DezNat tweets.
The researchers see a conflict between DezNatters’ fear of being exposed and their stated mission.
“If their purpose really was about shining a light on the true path, would the possibility of doxxing [being identified] be as scary?” Chapman asks. “Who would be afraid to be seen as a defender of the faith, if that is the only purpose of the hashtag?”
This is “a mirror of what happens to some people on the alt-right when people start calling attention to what they are doing,” Chapman says. “They hide.”
The Columbia researcher argues #DezNat users’ departure from social media amid fears of doxxing is “not related to their attempts to defend the church,” she says. “Rather, it is tied to the white nationalist and misogynistic undertones that frequent the hashtag, the presence of which #DezNat users discount.”
The problem of privacy
Going private also seems counterintuitive to the movement’s stated purpose, says Greenhalgh, who has tracked all the group’s tweets since April 2019.
In his research with Chapman, the two scholars noted that “the movement frequently positioned itself as 1) a collection of exemplary members of the church and 2) as doing work on the internet that the church needed it to do,” he writes in an email. “Both of those parts of #DezNat’s self-conception rely on a public presence. You can’t be exemplary and can’t carry out a public mission if you’re using private groups or private accounts.”
If that’s what prominent #DezNat participants are doing now, Greenhalgh says, “this suggests that they actually have some priorities that are higher than this self-conception that has been a big part of the movement’s identity. That, in turn, raises questions about what the actual purpose of #DezNat is.”
If Bellum is gone, what does that say about the network he created?
Bellum was leading the #DezNat cause, Clements says. “He was also the one who did the most damage control. #DezNat will fracture more without his leadership.”
As for the institutional church, it has emphasized that #DezNat is not affiliated with the faith in any way.
A spokesperson previously noted that leaders have urged “members — of all political views — to follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ in treating others with respect, dignity and love. Anything that encourages or incites violence is contrary to the recent instruction given by church leaders.”
The faith’s General Handbook also counsels members on the internet to “exemplify civility ... and focus on sharing praiseworthy messages that strengthen those with whom they come in contact.”
Clements believes that may not be enough.
Unless Latter-day Saint leaders “speak out specifically against the hashtag, members will continue to use it,” she says. “DezNat folks see it as a successful rallying cry to defend the church and protect those who want to share gospel messages online.”
They don’t seem to believe, the blogger says, “that their actions have any negative effects on the church or its members.”