Why dismissing all #DezNat users as overzealous, over-the-line Latter-day Saints may be wrong

While some clearly go too far in their online assaults, study shows that others truly believe they are doing God’s work — and sometimes the church’s own stances don’t help.

Salt Lake Tribune illustration

Kelley Turner, who describes herself as a “feisty 65-year-old Latter-day Saint,” was shocked this spring, when she received threats on her Facebook page for supporting LGBTQ rights.

A poster warned her that if she wasn’t “careful,” he could get her booted from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “You might not want to mess with me.”

The man sent more foreboding messages: “Repent of your evil actions” for supporting gay rights. “Expect to hear from your bishop. I’ve had many people kicked out. You’re next.”

Turner did some online sleuthing and discovered the man was, indeed, a member of her faith and also used many of the same memes and rhetoric (“Brigham Young did no wrong”) found in a movement known as #DezNat (short for Deseret Nation).

Created in 2018, #DezNat enlisted loosely aligned, self-appointed warriors to defend Latter-day Saint doctrines and practices. Their battlefield was the internet. They blogged, posted, tweeted and shared memes, slapping the #DezNat identifier on Facebook groups, websites, podcasts and YouTube channels.

About three years ago, #DezNat burst into public consciousness, drawing vigorous pushback about its rhetoric and approach. Some who had been using it pulled back, researchers said, but their sentiments haven’t disappeared.

After Turner posted a rainbow flag on her page during Pride month in June, she got another barrage of hostile comments, including a #DezNat user who called her an anti-gay slur.

This is not, Turner says, “what the church is all about.”

Knowing this assault came from a fellow Latter-day Saint really angered her. “Now I understand why it’s paramount that this be exposed; if they are doing this to members, what about those who are not members?”

These online attacks echo what researchers Amy Chapman of Columbia University and Spencer Greenhalgh of the University of Kentucky concluded in their in-depth study of #DezNat users and messages.

Though the movement has been associated with ultraconservative politics, Chapman and Greenhalgh found many of the posts were aimed at gender and women’s issues.

“A lot of conversations and complaints I’ve heard about DezNat focus on questions of politics and race, but it was clear to Amy and me that gender and sexuality were also major themes in DezNat postings,” Greenhalgh says. “That’s especially important because, while the church has encouraged members to take steps against racism and has condemned white nationalism and political violence, it’s harder to tell whether the church would disapprove of the aggressive stances on gender and sexuality that we saw in our posts.”

What the research shows

(Courtesy photo by Pete Comparoni | University of Kentucky Photo) Spencer Greenhalgh, associate professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky, says some #DezNat users truly believe they are doing God’s work.

Greenhalgh and Chapman collected and studied tweets composed between April 3 and April 9, 2019, to focus on the church’s April 2019 General Conference.

Their final dataset included 1,378 screenshots.

They report their findings in an essay for the Journal of the Mormon Social Science Association titled “‘Come for the Memes, Stay for Defending the Faith’: Far-Right and Anti-Feminist Red Pill Influences in the #DezNat Twitter Hashtag.”

Some #DezNatters use or were influenced by the term “red pill” — taken from “The Matrix” film to mean being aware of reality rather than fantasy — to emphasize the convergence of extreme views on gender, race and politics.

The scholars’ findings demonstrate that “DezNat participants regularly drew on far-right and anti-feminist tropes, suggesting that it is disingenuous to describe the movement as merely about Latter-day Saint orthodoxy,” the authors write. “However, even in documenting extremist practices and identities present within this space, we acknowledge that questions about individual and collective purposes may be more complicated.”

Part of the problem in understanding the movement is what they call “intentional ambiguity.”

Latter-day Saint leaders condemn hostility toward women and LGBTQ advocates, Greenhalgh says in an interview, but, because of church stances on these issues, some #DezNat users clearly believe they are doing God’s work.

In the journal article, a prominent #DezNat account argued that “if Mormon feminists went looking for supposed ‘#DezNat Nazis,’ all they would find were Latter-day Saint men in their Sunday best,” the authors write. “Another account suggested that if there was anything radical about DezNat, it was simply the fact that ‘we actually believe our religion.’”

Further, #DezNat communities “perceive feminist — and often queer — communities,” they write, “as threats to masculinity and therefore as legitimate targets for harassment and trolling.”

As worrying as the #DezNat campaign is “as a whole, it’s noteworthy how often they do overlap with mainstream Mormonism,” Greenhalgh says. “The combination of overlap with the rest of Mormon Twitter on one hand and crossing lines with racist and sexist abuse on the other makes DezNat more troubling than if they were all racist all the time.”

It raises the question of when a person or a movement, he says, is “within bounds” and when it crosses a line.

What to do?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson, speaking at General Conference on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023, urges Latter-day Saints to be peacemakers.

Church spokesperson Doug Andersen has reiterated several times that #DezNat is “not affiliated with or endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

He points to the governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles’ statements condemning Jan. 6 violence in Washington and lawless behavior. The church also denounced white nationalism after the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., saying, “white supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them.”

Church leaders have reminded “members — of all political views — to follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ in treating others with respect, dignity and love,” Andersen said. “Anything that encourages or incites violence is contrary to the recent instruction given by church leaders.”

Beyond those statements, the faith’s General Handbook counsels members on the internet to “exemplify civility … avoid all statements of prejudice toward others. … Members should not use threatening, bullying, degrading, violent, or otherwise abusive language or images online. If online threats of illegal acts occur, law enforcement should be contacted immediately.”

For her part, Turner took a more direct approach. The Western grandmother called church headquarters in Salt Lake City and gave security staffers there the man’s name and screenshots of his messages.

DezNat attitudes and allies have not vanished, she says. “They are still out there, flying under the radar.”

Turner took actions she says because their approach “is hurtful and so wrong” and because she doesn’t want the church to “get a bad name for associating with such weirdos.”

She points to church President Russell M. Nelson’s spring conference sermon.

“We are supposed to be peacemakers,” Turner says, “and they’re not following the prophet.”

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