In January 2018, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints elected a new president, a stern looking 94 year old named Russell M. Nelson. Not long after he took office, a Twitter account with the handle @LostMormon outfitted their profile to look exactly like Nelson’s–matching his photo, banner and display name–and started tweeting in a style similar to the new president, but with a few key differences. In response to a high ranking Mormon official, for example, the impersonator noted that Nelson’s wife “gives damned good blow jobs when she concentrates.”
The likelihood of anyone mistaking the two accounts was slim. Like most public figures, the Mormon president has a verified Twitter account and a substantial pool of followers hovering just under 150,000. His impersonator, by contrast, is unverified, with an audience of just over a thousand. But when a blogger found the parody account last week, it riled up parts of the Mormon internet and spawned an effort to get @LostMormon banned.
Mormon Blogger Christopher Cunningham wrote a Jan. 10 article for Patheos called, “Twitter Fails to Ban Hypersexualized President Nelson Impersonator.” Cunningham was alarmed by the sexual content of the copycat tweets and argued that the account was deliberately deceptive. “For someone who is just looking into the church and may not be as savvy on Twitter,” Cunningham wrote, “this could create genuine confusion.” Readers chimed in to agree. “Let’s be clear: it was not a mistake,” commenter Kiwi57 wrote. “The miscreant did it intentionally. He/she/it was lying in wait to deceive.”
But the man behind the parody account, a California software engineer named John O'Connor, has a different version of events. O’Connor is part of what some people have termed the “Google Apostasy,” or the growing wave of ex-Mormons whose departure from the Church was brought on by the internet. @LostMormon is far from unique in the world of parody accounts; it inhabits one of the lesser-seen corners of Twitter, where scores of ex-Mormons air their frustrations with the Church of Latter-day Saints by way of poop jokes and crass one-liners.
Like many of his online ex-Mormon peers, O’Connor used Twitter as a coping mechanism, he said, to work through pent-up feelings about leaving a religion he called a “cult.” But the sexual nature of the tweets, he told The Daily Beast, stemmed from his experience of abuse within the congregation. The LDS Church has been sharply criticized in past years for its practice of “bishop interviews,” where teenagers are required to be interviewed in detail by adult male faith leaders about their sexual experiences. “It’s OK to acknowledge the extreme sexual abuse by making fun of it,” O’Connor said. “The church itself is a very sexual church. It’s repressive. It creates a lot of pedophiles. It creates a lot of abusive men.”
O’Connor wasn’t born in the Mormon Church. He joined at age 14 when a group of missionaries rang the doorbell of his family home in Paducah, Kentucky, and told him the story of another 14-year-old, the young Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, who supposedly spoke to God at a young age. O’Connor converted on the spot. “Like the big-mouthed bass, I took it hook, line, and sinker,” he said. “I ran with it.”
Years later, he got a full ride to college in Kentucky, but turned it down to do a missionary trip in Tokyo. The trip had an effect that he would later find in earnest online. “I probably first began to have doubts when I stepped off the plane in Tokyo, Japan,” O’Connor said. “Once you leave the cave of the LDS Church, you step off the patio and you’re immediately exposed to the world and different ideas.”
Still, O’Connor stayed in the Church into his adulthood. He married a Mormon; he had Mormon children. But in his forties, he began to harbor serious doubts.
“I made a Twitter account in 2010 or 2011, when I was beginning to question things,” O’Connor said. “I called it Lost Mormon, because I was a Mormon who was lost in this sea of information. I truly was a person who was lost, who was confused. I used the account as a way to ask questions anonymously.”
One of his primary concerns, he said, was the LDS treatment of sexuality. As his kids got older, they began having bishop interviews themselves, and he tried to intervene. “I walked in there and I had to threaten legal and physical force,” he said, “I told him that if he talked to my children again I would report him as a pedophile. He did it anyways––it’s institutionalized.”
So last year, after Nelson was named president, O'Connor decided to make his Twitter pointed. The imposter account, he said, is a small, weird, silly kind of protest. And he doesn’t plan to let up: “The intention from now on–church presidents don’t change quickly–my intention is to take on the persona of each president until I die.”