Inside the Secret Facebook War For Mormon Hearts and Minds
What happens when social media manipulation targets religious faith?
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.
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.
“I had to be creative about getting the information to them,” said the project’s creator, whom we’re calling John Jones. He is a small business owner in Southern California who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, because he fears reprisal from his former church. “You’re taught not to listen to apostates. You don’t listen to anything anti-Mormon, the same way you wouldn’t give in to any other temptation.”
At at time when the nation is focused on Facebook’s whack-a-mole game against covert influencers, MormonAds offers lessons from a quieter kind of Facebook manipulation, a campaign of much smaller scale but equal consequence for those involved. Jones took advantage of the same commodities market in consumer attention that Russia inhabited so effectively in the 2016 election. But MormonAds throws a novel new question into the mix. We may be resigned to faceless corporations buying their way into our thoughts, but are we ready for a world where our neighbors and in-laws can do the same?
“The business model of delivering messages according to customer lists or email addresses—we have all heard of that,” said Omer Tene, chief knowledge officer at the International Association of Privacy Professionals and an affiliate scholar at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. “But this is something I never thought about, and it definitely pushes the envelope… This is not a washer-dryer. It’s religious faith.”
Jones grew up in a Mormon family, attended Brigham Young University and then taught theology to kids in Mormon seminary. For most of his life his devotion to the Latter Day Saints was unfailing. “I was about as deep into the church as you could get,” he said. “I served a two year mission in Mexico. My wife and I were married in the Salt Lake Temple.” He appreciated the way the Mormon community instilled values like hard word and service. “And I got a lot out of the sense of purpose, the unifying purpose, that the church give you. It tells you that you’re special, you’re chosen.”
All that began to change for Jones in the spring of 2016, when he came home to find his wife reading a treatise titled Letter to a CES Director, an 84-page open letter addressed to an official in the LDS Church Education System written by a doubt-plagued Mormon named Jeremy Runnells in 2013. The work details the sordid parts of the LDS church’s history, and tests the accounts of the 19th century miracles underpinning the faith against the evidence of modern science--to the detriment of the former.
“The CES letter has been super-effective in getting people to leave the church because it raises a lot of questions about things that Mormons have not heard about before,” said Dennis Yu, a digital marketer who’s done work for the Mormon church.
The letter was a prime example of what Jones then viewed as “anti-Mormon propaganda”—the kind of material good Mormons don’t read. His wife only encountered the treatise by accident, the way you might pick up a computer virus—by clicking on an innocent-looking link on a friend’s Facebook timeline. But once she started reading it, she couldn’t stop. “She stopped believing a couple days after that,” said Jones. It took Jones longer, but after six months of reading and reflection he concluded that he’d devoted much of his life to a dishonest and morally corrupt dogma.
“I learned a lot of really important things in the church,” Jones said. “I learned how to build relationships of trust with people, how to work hard. But a lot of the ideas of morality I had were geared to ideas that were confused, mixed together with unhealthy stuff like bigotry.”
Nothing, though, prepared him for the psychological impact of separating from the church, which treats apostates as a dangerous infection that must be isolated from the flock. “I lost a lot of my friends, and things were very touch-and-go with my family for a while,” he said. LDS teaches that apostasy is a sign that the faithless parishioner is harboring some dark sinful secret, like a drinking habit, a gambling addiction or an affair. Nobody wanted the hear his real reasons for giving up his religion. “Nobody would listen to me,” Jones said. “They thought I had to be doing something else bad to leave the church.” (The Church of Latter-day Saints declined comment for this story).
After a lifetime in the close knit community, the abrupt social isolation was painful. Jones searched for a way out of it. Then in August 2017, he had a revelation of his own. A way to explain himself to his friends and relatives that they wouldn’t reject out of hand, and would never trace back to him.
Jones had a working knowledge of Facebook’s ads tool through his business, and he knew that he could precision target an ad to a custom audience as small as 20 people. All he needed were their email addresses. “If I target my family with ads, then I’m not the apostate messenger,” he said. “Maybe they’ll look at it or read it. If they knew what I knew about Mormon history, they’d understand why I left the church.”
Practicing Mormons are primed to expect messages about their religion to pop up on Facebook. The church uses Facebook to drive customers to its massive portfolio of business holdings, and maintains a vast network of Facebook pages to proselytize and grow its ranks, said Yu, CTO and co-founder of BlitzMetrics.
“They have the largest footprint of anyone on the planet,” said Yu. “Any media company, any athlete. They have hundreds of pages about family and love, inspirational pages and memes that each have millions of fans.”
Yu said he’s worked on some of these LDS campaigns himself, and they’re very effective. “They use these pages that are not extensively associated with the Mormon church and they remarket from there. They get an email address, or the missionaries come over and you start learning about Joseph Smith and the golden plates, etc. In a sense, it’s a funnel.”
Jones’ plan was to do the same thing in reverse.
He built out a Facebook audience list that included the people once closest to him who’d now turned away—his business partner, his sisters, a neighbor and his mother. Then he crafted a sponsored post in the style of an LDS ad, but linking to a Mormon-friendly apologia website that attempts to explain the more controversial aspects of the religion. “The link was to a defense of polyandry,” he said. “So they click the link and read a defense of why Joseph Smith sent men away on missions and then married their wives.”
Of the 30 people targeted in that first ad, only three clicked. But it was enough to convince Jones his plan could work. “I could see how many unique people were seeing my ads, and I could see the clicks,” he said. “It gave me the satisfaction of knowing that some were going to sites that showed them what I knew and they didn’t. That was good for my psyche.”
He decided to create more ads, and to open up his project to other ex-Mormons in the same predicament as him. The next day Jones set up a website, MormonAds[.]org, where disillusioned members of the Mormon diaspora could upload their own email lists of friends and loved ones left behind. He announced the effort in a Reddit group called ExMormon, a bustling subreddit with 100,000 members that Jones joined after losing his religion.
Ex-Mormons responded in droves to dump their contact lists of current Mormons. By the end of the first day his ad target list had grown from 30 to 397.
From his decades in the church, Jones knew every design decision in his peer-to-peer ad campaign would require threading a needle. The slightest whiff of anti-Mormon sentiment would send his target audience scurrying. To host the ads he set up Facebook pages with neutral titles like LDS Marriage, LDS Essays and LDS Answers. “If I called it, ‘The Truth About the Mormon Church!’, nobody would click,” he said.
The ad layout was just as important. “When they see an LDS Marriage ad, they’re immediately going to ask, ‘Is this friendly or is this dangerous?,’” Jones said. “They’re looking at the picture, does it look bright and friendly?” He began purchasing stock photography: photos of the Mormon Tabernacle, clean-cut millennials frolicking under the sun, a caucasian Jesus gazing compassionately into the camera.
The most important decision, though, was where to send people who clicked on the ad. Facebook displays the link below each sponsored post, and as an ex-Mormon, Jones knew his audience wouldn’t click on something that might lead to a site critical of LDS.
The church itself provided the solution.
After a mass crisis of faith in the church’s Stockholm chapter in 2010, LDS leaders realized they were at risk of losing parishioners now that the hidden parts of Mormon history were easily obtained from “questionable and often inaccurate sources” on the internet. In response, church scholars penned a series of carefully worded essays addressing controversial topics from the church’s point of view. The so-called “Gospel Topics Essays” were posted to the LDS website in 2013, deep in a maze of clicks from the homepage where nobody who isn’t actively searching is likely to find it.
Jones pointed his ads right at the spot.
For the ad text he adopted the voice of someone eager to clear up misunderstandings about topics like LDS and polygamy, or early Mormons marrying pre-teens, or what those Egyptologists said about the papyrus from which Smith supposedly transcribed the Book of Abraham. One sentence provoked, the next implicitly promised a cure for the unsettled feeling left by the first. And it was a guaranteed safe click straight to a page on your religion’s own website.
Redditors from ExMormon also contributed suggestions for new ads. Some asked how they could chip in financial support to cover Jones’ costs, so he added a GoFundMe button to the page and began posting receipts showing how he was spending it. He ran A/B tests on variations of the ad text and imagery, and posted each ad and the analytics showing how it performed.
Some redditors included their own email addresses in their submission, to provide cover if the list somehow leaked, or to test the system. One reported back to Reddit that he saw his first polygamy ad 24 hours later.
One ex-Mormon who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, put in the name of his wife of 20 years. He’d left the church years earlier earlier; his wife was still a member. For months he’d been trying to get her to read the church’s own Gospel Topics Essays on polygamy and other touchy subjects. “She wouldn’t touch them,” he said. “Not with a ten foot pole. She didn’t want to read anything that might hurt or harm her testimony… But my wife likes Facebook. She’s on there maybe 20 to 30 minutes a day.”
It worked. His wife was soon exposed to one of Jones’ sponsored posts, and, mistaking it for an official LDS ad, she clicked through and started reading. “And she spends a solid hour-and-a-half going through the Polygamy in Nauvoo essay. She goes through it a couple of times, clearly bothered by some of the things in there.”
Afterwards the couple talked about what she’d read. It was the first time she’d been open to such a conversation, the ex-Mormon said. In the end, his wife’s faith in the church survived her fleeting encounter with its past. She even chided her husband for so often complaining that the church covered up its mistakes. “The church is advertising them on Facebook, so they clearly aren’t hidden.” “But I consider this a significant positive step, that she would even read the church’s whitewashed version,” he said. “It was incredibly helpful. It spawned a conversation.”
He added, after a pause, “It’s kind of crazy to me that she’s more willing to listen to a Facebook ad than listen to her husband.”
Another ex-Mormon contributed a thank-you note with his $25 donation. “Thanks for the work that you do... I just want to have a beer and a good (real) discussion with my brother.” Another wrote, “Great site and great work! Keep it up! Maybe you could add other languages too. Also you should consider doing some Google Adwords.”
But the project had critics too, and unfortunately for Jones, they included the half-dozen volunteer moderators of the subreddit. (One moderator declined comment for this story. The others didn’t respond.) “The main thing that concerns me personally is that although these ads could have a good effect on some people, I think they would generally be interpreted as a kind of harassment and are likely to scare, anger, and offend most believing Mormons,” wrote a moderator called Mirbell. “I also have concerns about encouraging people to give friends' and relatives' personal information to a stranger on the internet who will use it to spam them with likely unwelcome ads.”
The moderators claimed that the donation button on Jones’ website violated an ExMormon policy prohibiting links “to sites with the primary purpose of raising funds for specific individuals or groups.” And they pointed out, correctly, that Jones was violating Facebook’s advertising policies by targeting ads to a custom audience that didn’t opt-in to receive them.
Within days of the MormonAds launch, the subreddit moderators deleted Jones’ posts and ordered him not to discuss his project in the subreddit. Jones appealed. He moved the donation button off of MormonAds home page, and argued that it wasn’t up to moderators to enforce Facebook’s terms of service. Unmoved, they banned Jones’ Reddit account from ExMormon altogether.
The subreddit had been Jones’ only way of presenting his project to a large group of former Mormons, and he wasn’t about to give it up without a fight. Once again he turned to advertising to get his message across. He may have been banned from posting to ExMormons, but the moderators couldn’t stop him from running ads there. He took out an advertisement at the top of the ExMormon subreddit, “Anonymously advertise to your TBM [True Believing Mormon] loved ones with MormonAds.”
“That made them very angry,” said Jones.
With the Reddit ads driving interest, MormonAds flourished for another two months before Reddit joined the fray and banned Jones from its ad platform, accusing him of “targeted harassment.” That was the beginning of the end for Jones’ project. He kept his Facebook campaign running for another month, until the last of the roughly $2,500 in donation money was spent, then closed it down and shuttered his website.
When he tallied up the results, 5,082 names were on his final target list, and more than half of them, 2,284, had clicked on at least one of the 23 ads Jones was shuttling through their feeds. That’s more than two thousand practicing Mormons who learned something about their religion they likely didn’t know before. Some people clicked two or three times.
It’s a use of Facebook’s sophisticated ad system likely never contemplated by Mark Zuckerberg. Jones believes that peer-to-peer Facebook ads have a future. “It’ll be interesting see where we stand when these capabilities get into the hands of everyone,” he said. “And, really, they already are, they just don’t know it yet.”
Jones’ ads, though, derived their effectiveness from the viewers’ false belief that they weren’t personal at all. Without that comforting sense of anonymity, Facebook ads might become considerably creepier. We’re just now growing accustomed to seeing “retargeted” ads that push us to buy a car seconds after looking at one on a dealership’s website. What happens when every sponsored post prompts the question, Did my in-laws put that there? My neighbor? My ex?
“The line between normal and creepy is very complex, and depends on how you do it and how you present things,” said Stanford’s Tene. “If you tell people you’re seeing an ad because a person thought you might want to see it, that might have value. I value the opinions of my friends and relatives more than Toyota’s. But if it’s not evident, or it’s disguised, there’s no way for you to identify the source or the reason you’re seeing particular things. That’s definitely troubling.”
In the end, none of Facebook’s analytics couldn’t answer Jones’ most important question. Did MormonAds change any minds? He can’t tell, even with the handful of people on his personal target list. “The relationship with my family has gotten better,” he said. “I don’t know if I can correlate it to my ads.”
He may never know for sure. “Truthful information is the most powerful weapon,” said Jones optimistically. He compares his secret ads to the propaganda leaflets British pilots dropped over German trenches in World War I. German soldiers were forbidden from reading the leaflets, and under standing orders to turn them over to superior officers.
“They estimate that one in seven pamphlets was kept, someone held on to it illegally,” he said. “I guess that would be their clickthru rate.”