How do you break through the religious bubble to inform believers about the harsh truths about their faith?
At the end of 2017, a group of ex-Mormons came up with a strategy: They would target current Mormons on Facebook by serving up ads tailored to look like they came from their church but actually confronted them with their religion’s own disturbing history.
The Daily Beast‘s Kevin Poulsen tells their story:
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.
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.
The creator of the campaign (who wanted to remain anonymous) micro-targeted people by asking other ex-Mormons to share the email addresses of believers in their lives. One man, who submitted his Mormon wife’s name, said the ad served its purpose even if she didn’t leave the Church for good.
It worked. His wife was soon exposed to one of [creator] 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.”
The campaign didn’t go over well with all ex-Mormons, though. Some felt he was harassing people through the micro-targeting. He was banned from the ex-Mormon subreddit (which had been the best way to get emails and donations for the project). He bought ads to counteract that… until he was banned from Reddit altogether. But before all that happened, he raised thousands of dollars for the project — and he used up just about all of it.
It’s not clear if the project “worked” because it’s not like anyone clicked on the ad and then left the Church. It’s never that simple. But planting those seeds could make a difference down the road. It’s something atheist activists have known for a long time; when someone pierces that bubble you’re living in, it may take a while before you change your mind, but the wheels are now in motion. The key is to get your message through to them. Lead the horse to water and all that.
There is something disturbing about how these Mormon family members were willing to believe what they saw on Facebook while ignoring the critics in their own lives… but again, when you’re trying to change someone’s mind about something that forms the basis for their whole life, you’re going to need a different approach. The ability to use Facebook to target gullible people is disturbing for a lot of reasons, but this may be one of the few positive ways to use the system.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)