Social Media

Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

The Daily Beast isn’t exactly noted for good religion coverage but they sure scored a good one in this piece about ex-Mormons targeting their devout friends with Facebook bombs.

This piece, “Inside the Secret Facebook War for Mormon Hearts and Minds (with a really cool photo illustration combining a Facebook logo with a flood-lit Mormon temple), did what religion reporting is supposed to do well: Take a religious group you may not know much about or talk about a debate among its members and twin it with a popular trend.

Which is what happened here:

In November 2017, a provocation appeared in the Facebook feeds of 3,000 Mormon parishioners. It was a sponsored post crafted in the gauzy style of one of the Mormon church’s own Facebook ads, but addressing a seldom-discussed truth about the early history of the church and its founding patriarch, Joseph Smith. “Why did Joseph marry a 14 year old girl?” the post asked. “The church has answers. Read them here.” Below the text was a photo of a gold wedding band balanced across the inside spine of an open Book of Mormon.

About 1,000 people who saw the Facebook ad clicked on it and were taken to a page deep within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ website that expounded on the “revelation on plural marriage,” the order from God that was used to sanction polygamy for decades. During that time some male followers of the Latter Day Saint movement took dozens of wives each, disproportionately favoring girls between 14 and 16 years old. Church leaders finally banned polygamy in 1904.

If anyone reading the text thought to wonder why Facebook served them a slice of the most controversial chapter in their religion’s history, they likely chalked it up to the impersonal vagaries of the platform’s profiling algorithms. But they’d be wrong. The ad was very personal. Everyone who saw it was secretly hand-picked by a friend or loved one who had walked away from the LDS church, and now turned to Facebook’s precision ad system in a desperate attempt to explain their spiritual crisis to those they’d left behind.

This isn’t exactly new.

Jews for Jesus used to tell folks — who were scared to approach their Jewish friends or family as to why they’d converted to Christianity — to supply them with their contacts’ snail mail addresses (this was back in the pre-Internet ‘70s) so they could drop them an evangelistic packet that didn’t divulge the source.

The project was called MormonAds, and it was a brief but perhaps unprecedented experiment in targeted religious dissuasion. In four months at the end of 2017, the project targeted more than 5,000 practicing Mormons with messages painstakingly crafted to serve as gentle introductions to the messier elements of LDS history that were glossed over within the church. All the names and email addresses for the campaign came from disillusioned ex-Mormons.

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Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists

Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists

Let’s face it, mass-communications researchers are going to be studying the Covington Catholic High School media meltdown (click here for GetReligion files) for years to come.

I’d still like to know why the Lincoln Memorial drama was an earth-shaking event, but attempts by Native American protest drummers to invade a Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was a “conservative” non-story. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Of course, there’s an outside shot that legal scholars may be involved in future accounts of all this, depending on how judges and, maybe, some juries feel about journalists basing wall-to-wall coverage on short, edited videos provided by activists on one side of a complex news event. In the smartphone age, do journalists have a legal obligation — in terms of making a professional attempt to check basic facts — to compare an advocacy group’s punchy, edited YouTube offering with full-length videos from others?

Before someone asks: I feel exactly the same way about covert videos (think Planned Parenthood stings) by “conservative” activists. Nobody knows anything until the full videos are available to the press.

Now we have an early Washington Post story about a a private investigation of the Covington encounter with Native American activist Nathan Phillips, as well as those angry black Hebrew Israelites. The headline is rather blunt: “Investigation finds no evidence of ‘racist or offensive statements’ by Covington Catholic students during Lincoln Memorial incident.”

Yes, I would like to know who hired the private investigators. Nevertheless, here is the overture. The key findings: No “build the wall” chants. But isolated tomahawk chops.

An investigation released Wednesday into an encounter between Covington Catholic High School students and Native American activists at the Lincoln Memorial last month largely supports the students’ accounts of the incident, which prompted immediate and widespread condemnation of the boys after a video of the encounter went viral.

A short video clip showed Nathan Phillips, playing a traditional drum, in an apparent standoff with student Nick Sandmann, who was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School, which arranged the trip, were among those who initially condemned the boys’ actions in the video.

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What do Valentine's Day, Jeff Bezos and Catholicism have in common? Time to read some 'explainers'

What do Valentine's Day, Jeff Bezos and Catholicism have in common? Time to read some 'explainers'

The primarily role of journalism is to inform. How that is done has dramatically changed over the past two decades. That time encompasses most of my adult life, where I worked as a reporter and later editor.

“Information overload” and “fake news” are both seen as major impediments to an educated population that can make sound decisions. Long gone are the days of my childhood when getting the morning paper and catching up on the day’s events by watching one of the evening network newscasts. We live in a frenetic 24-hour news cycle with a seemingly never-ending scroll of social media posts and constant chatter by “expert panels” on cable TV.

This takes me to my main point regarding journalism (specifically religion coverage) and how major news organizations can, and have, done a good job explaining faith. The journalistic form — commonly referred to in newsrooms as “the explainer” — has been one of the positives to come out of the digital age. It’s one that I increasingly have come to rely on when trying to make sense of a topic or ever-changing news developments that span days or even weeks.

Complex issues and topics have always been boiled down for ordinary readers to understand. After all, that’s what journalism is really all about. The same goes for understanding religion — and this is where journalism can be a wonderful tool to help people understands different belief systems, traditions, how they intersect with politics and how it impacts our culture and society. How journalists can create better explainers by using newspapers archives, social media, video — and yes, original reporting — is vital to the storytelling of the 21st century.

In explaining the Catholic church, for example, as it is repeatedly thrust into the media spotlight due to the clergy sex scandal, the abortion debate or any other topic means news websites have the vital responsibility of both informing and educating readers. Many of these readers are Roman Catholics, but most are not. Here’s where journalism is vital and a great way for reporters to delve into complex issues in addition to their news coverage of a given topic.

Take St. Valentine’s Day as an example.

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Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Who enjoys reporting and writing stories about abortion?

How about this journalism issue: Who wants to write news stories about abortion that offer information and viewpoints from the many articulate believers on both sides of this issue that has divided America for several decades now? Who wants to write about a subject that so bitterly divides Americans, creating painful puzzles for anyone who studies poll numbers?

Yes, there is a media-bias issue here, one that shows up in any major study of the professionals who work in major newsrooms — especially along the crucial Acela corridor in the bright blue zip codes of the Northeast. The evidence was strong when I did my graduate-school research in the early 1980s. It was still there when the media-beat reporter David Shaw wrote his classic Los Angeles Times series on this topic in 1990 (click here for the whole package). Remember the classic opening of Shaw’s masterwork?

When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.

"Her message was clear," Okie recalled recently. "I felt that they were . . . (saying) 'You're hurting the cause' . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line."

Okie says she was "shocked" by the "disquieting" assumption implicit in the complaint -- that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.

But it's not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employees at many major papers, has officially endorsed "freedom of choice in abortion decisions."

This was the subject that loomed in the background as we recorded this week’s “Crossroads” podcast that focused — no surprise here — on the chaos on the Democratic Party in Virginia. (Click here to tune that in.)

Does anyone remember where that train wreck started? Here’s how I opened my national “On Religion” column this week, with a long and rather complex equation.

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I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I did not watch the State of the Union show last night, in keeping with my long-standing policy that I strive to prevent the face of Donald Trump from appearing on my television screen. I took the same approach to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 race.

In other words, I wait for the transcript of the speech and I read the key parts. This approach is much easier on my aging stomach lining. In other words, I’m interested in what was said — not the Trump dramatics and the talking-heads circus that followed.

This time around, I was interested in what Trump had to say about the current firestorms in Virginia and New York about what U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has called “fourth-trimester abortion.”

You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that fact-checkers at The New York Times were not impressed with Trump’s comments in this area. Click here to see that, and then click here for a conservative academic’s skeptical fact-check of the Times fact-check.

I also checked Twitter a bit, during the speech, and then read all the way through my feed this morning looking for signs of post-SOTU intelligent life.

Thus, I ran into the amazing tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Annie Karmi stating:

Trump Just Ad-Libbed "They Came Down From Heaven" When Quoting A Holocaust Survivor Watching American Soldiers Liberate Dachau. Jews Don't Believe In Heaven.

Wow. I had no idea that there was a Jewish catechism that definitively stated loud dogma on issues of this kind.

I was under the impression — based on graduate school readings on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life and culture — that trying to say that “Jews believe” this, that or the other is rather difficult. In this case, are we talking about Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhist Jews, “cultural” Jews, Jewish agnostics, secular Jews or what?

Saying “Jews don’t believe in heaven” is sort of like saying “Democrats don’t believe in God.” I mean, there are Democrats who believe in God, and there’s evidence of that, and there’s some evidence that lots of Democrats don’t believe in God. How would anyone try to make a definitive statement about something like that?

Ditto for Jews and “heaven.”

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Say what? Newborn would be 'resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired'

Say what? Newborn would be 'resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired'

For lots of people, this was the story of the week — if you saw it covered anywhere.

Say what? If you were following any moral and religious conservatives on Twitter late this week, then you saw the explosion of outrage about proposed Virginia legislation that cranked up the flames under a topic that has long caused pain and fierce debate among Democrats — third-trimester abortion.

However, if you tend to follow mainstream media accounts on Twitter, or liberal evangelicals, or progressives linked to other religious traditions, then you heard — not so much. Ditto for big-TV news.

Now why would this be?

After all, the direct quotes from Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia were pretty out there, if you read them the same way as the leader of Democrats For Life, Kristen Day, who put the i-word in play — infanticide.

Once again, no one has to agree with her, but there are fierce debates about how many Democrats would welcome new restrictions on abortion, especially after 20 weeks or “viability.”

What’s the fight about? On one side are those who see Northam & Co. opening a door that leads — with a wink and a nod — to horrors that are hard to contemplate. On the other side are those who see the right to abortion under attack and want to protect every inch of the legal terrain they have held for years, and perhaps even capture new ground.

On the pro-abortion-rights left, what happened in Virginia — what Northam and others advocated — is not news. The news is the right-wing reaction — it’s the “seized” meme — to those words. And, of course, the tweeter in chief piled on.

Want to guess which wide the Acela-zone press backed?

Here’s the headline at The New York Times: “Republicans Seize on Late-Term Abortion as a Potent 2020 Issue.”

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Andrew Sullivan: You want to see hate? Why did media Twitter-verse want to punch out some kids?

Andrew Sullivan: You want to see hate? Why did media Twitter-verse want to punch out some kids?

Your GetReligionistas could have run nothing the past week except for news and commentary about the Covington Catholic High School teens and we still would not have looked at half of the worthy stuff that was out there.

I could run 10 think pieces today on this topic and they all would be worthy of your attention.

The bottom line: This disaster is turning into a watershed moment in media-bias studies, one that — for people of good will in the middle of American public discourse — is increasingly being seen as a parable involving more than read MAGA hats.

Then again, debates about the Covington Catholics would be snuffed out like a candle if Ruth Bader Ginsberg announced that she was retiring from the U.S. Supreme Court. At that point, screams about Loud Dogma would drown out everything else.

Back to the Covington teens. At this point, there’s no reason to read people on the far left or the far right. The ruts there have been dug pretty deep by this point.

Thus, I would urge readers who care about the mainstream press, and religion-beat news in particular, to seek out voices toward the unpredictable middle of American public discourse. For example, see the Caitlin Flanagan piece in The Atlantic that ran with this headline: “The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story — And the damage to their credibility will be lasting.”

The must-read essay that journalists really need to ponder, however, is by Andrew Sullivan, a political and cultural commentator whose voice is hard to label — other than the fact that he is an old-school liberal on First Amendment issues. The New York magazine headline: “The Abyss of Hate Versus Hate.”

On one level, Sullivan’s piece focuses on the same question that I put at the center of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast: “Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?” As opposed to what? As opposed to the Black Hebrew Israelite protesters whose verbal attacks on the Catholic teens lit the fuse on this entire media exposition.

How did elite media handle the stunning direct quotes — they’re on videotape — packed with hate that these bullhorn screamers aimed at the Catholic boys?

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Friday Five: Twitter mobs, Covington Catholic controversy, ABC journalist's faith

Friday Five: Twitter mobs, Covington Catholic controversy, ABC journalist's faith

In the age of outrage, it’s hard to escape social media mobs.

People screaming from behind smartphones and keyboards feed a seemingly endless loop of headlines like this one: “Twitter rips Savannah Guthrie for 'appalling' interview with Nicholas Sandmann on 'Today.'“

Certainly, Guthrie’s interview of the Covington Catholic High School teen at the center of this past weekend’s viral videos is fair game for criticism and debate. But isn’t there a more productive way to do that than succumbing to a clickbaity “Twitter rips” approach?

What would happen if newspapers such as USA Today stopped biting or at least insisted on doing actual interviews and quoting smart sources with strong, nuanced opinions? That used to be called journalism, right?

Speaking of a better way, over at Poynter, Tom Jones makes a fair, sensible case for why “Guthrie did her best and did well.” He notes:

When you’re getting criticized from both sides, there’s a decent chance you did a good job.

Amen.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The villains were clear — or seemed to be — in the original stories Saturday (examples here, here and here). But by Sunday, a much more complicated pictured emerged. And days later, we’re still talking about this.

There’s still time to catch up on all the excellent analysis and commentary on this subject here at GetReligion:

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Mainstream media have some explaining to do about Black Hebrew Israelites. Also: It's complicated

Mainstream media have some explaining to do about Black Hebrew Israelites. Also: It's complicated

“I still can't believe that the *black Israelites* are playing a key role in a multi-day national controversy,” Washington Post political writer Dave Weigel tweeted Monday as the various videos of whatever happened Friday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were dissected again and again.

“If you live in a big east coast city you've been putting in headphones and ignoring those guys your whole life,” Weigel added.

Here at GetReligion, my colleagues already have delved into various crucial angles of the brouhaha. Read the latest here, here and here.

But let’s go ahead and delve into another one, especially since the Black Hebrew Israelites angle is so fascinating and, believe it or not, important to grasping the full story.

Kudos to the Washington Post, which turned to Sam Kestenbaum, a contributing editor at The Forward, to write an explainer on the group:

In the initial media churn, they were nearly missed.

But a small band of Hebrew Israelites, members of a historic but little-known American religious movement, may actually be at the center of a roiling controversy that has gripped the nation in recent days.

It began with a now-viral video clip, filmed Friday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which high school students from a Catholic school in Kentucky appeared to be in a faceoff with a Native American elder, who was beating on a drum. The boys, some wearing red hats with President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, appeared in the clip to be mocking a man, named Nathan Phillips. The clip was widely understood as being centrally about the dangers of Trumpism, and the teens were condemned.

But a longer video soon bubbled to the surface, widening the lens. It showed how a group of half a dozen Hebrew Israelites had, in fact, been goading and preaching at both the Native Americans and high schoolers, using profanity and highly provocative language, for nearly an hour. Phillips later told journalists that he was seeking to defuse tensions between the Israelite group and the high school students by stepping in between them.

But who are these Hebrew Israelites?

From there, Kestenbaum does a nice job of explaining the group’s history. I won’t attempt to summarize here but rather point you to his full article.

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