The former Mormon who armed Facebook to declare war on the Church

In November 2017, a provocation appeared on Facebook feeds of 3,000 Mormon parishioners. It was a sponsored post in the gauzy style of one of the Mormon Church's Facebook ads, but facing a rarely-discussed truth about the early church history and its founder, patriarch Joseph Smith. "Why did Joseph marry a 14-year-old girl?" He asked for the post. "The church has answers." Read them here. "Underneath the text was a picture of a gold wedding band hovering over the inner spine of an open Book of Mormon.

Approximately 1,000 people who saw the Facebook ad clicked on it and were placed on a page on the Latter-day Saint Church website that exposed the "revelation on plural marriage", the order of God that has been used to sanction polygamy for decades. During that time some male followers of the The movement of the last days he took dozens of wives each, disproportionately favoring girls between the ages of 14 and 16. Church leaders eventually banned polygamy in 1904.

If anyone reading the text thought they were wondering why Facebook served them a part of the most controversial chapter in the history of their religion, they probably attributed it to the impersonal whims of the platform's profiling algorithms. But they are wrong. The announcement was very personal. All those who saw it were hand-picked by a friend or a loved one who had moved away from the SUG church and now turned to Facebook's precision advertising system in a desperate attempt to explain their own spiritual crisis to those who had left behind.

The project was called MormonAds and it was a short but perhaps unprecedented experiment of targeted religious dissuasion. In four months at the end of 2017, the project targeted more than 5,000 Mormon practitioners with painstakingly crafted messages to serve as gentle introductions to the most disordered elements of Swedish Church history that had been flown over inside the church. All the names and email addresses of the campaign came from ex-Mormons disillusioned.

"I had to be creative in getting the information for them," said the project's creator, whom we'll call John Jones. He is a small business owner in Southern California who spoke with The Daily Beast on condition that he remains anonymous because he fears reprisals from his former church. "You have been taught not to listen to the apostates, you do not listen to anything anti-Mormon, in the same way you will not give in to any other temptation."

At the time the nation is focused on Facebook mazza-a-mole game against hidden influencers, MormonAds offers lessons from a more tranquil type of Facebook manipulation, a much smaller scale campaign but equal consequence for the people involved. Jones took advantage of the same commodity market for consumers' attention that Russia experienced so effectively in the 2016 elections. But MormonAds launches a new new demand in the mix. We could be resigned to faceless societies that buy their way into our thoughts, but are we ready for a world where our neighbors and in-laws can do the same?

"We could be resigned to faceless societies that buy 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 message delivery based on customer lists or e-mail addresses – we've heard about it," said Omer Tene, chief knowledge officer at the International Association of Privacy Professionals and an affiliate scholar at the Stanford Internet and Society Center. "But this is something I have never thought about, and it definitely pushes the envelope … This is not a washer-dryer, it's a religious faith."

Jones grew up in a Mormon family, attended Brigham Young University and then taught theology to children at the Mormon seminary. For most of his life his devotion to Latter-day Saints was infallible. "I was so deeply inside the church as you could get," he said. "I served a two-year mission to Mexico My wife and I were married in the Salt Lake Temple." He appreciated the way the Mormon community instilled values ​​like hard words and service. "And I got a lot from the sense of purpose, from the unifying purpose that the church gives you, it tells you that you are special, you are chosen."

All of this started to change for Jones in the spring of 2016, when he returned home to find his wife while reading a treatise titled Letter to a Director of the ESC, an 84-page open letter addressed to an official of the SUG Church Educational System written by a Mormon afflicted by doubt, Jeremy Runnells, in 2013. The work describes in detail the sordid parts of the history of the Church SUG and puts to the test the stories of 19th century miracles supporting the faith against the evidence of modern science – to the detriment of the former.

"The CES letter was very effective in getting people to leave the church because it raises many questions about things that Mormons have never heard before," said Dennis Yu, a digital marketer who worked for the Mormon Church.

The letter was a prime example of what Jones then saw as "anti-Mormon propaganda" – the kind of good material that Mormons do not read. His wife met the treaty just by chance, as one could detect a computer virus by clicking on a link from the innocent look on a friend's Facebook timeline. But once he started reading it, he could not stop. "He stopped believing a couple of days later," Jones said. Jones spent more time, but after six months of concluding readings and reflections he had devoted much of his life to a dishonest and morally corrupt dogma.

"I learned many really important things in the church," Jones said. "I learned how to build relationships of trust with people, how to work hard, but many of the ideas of morality I had were oriented to confusing ideas, mixed with unhealthy things like bigotry."

Nothing, however, prepared him for the psychological impact of separation from the church, which considers the apostates as a dangerous infection that must be isolated from the flock. "I lost a lot of my friends and things went very well with my family for a while," he said. The SUG teaches that apostasy is a sign that the parish faithful feed an obscure sinful secret, like a drinking habit, a gambling addiction or a relationship. Nobody wanted to hear his real reasons for renouncing his religion. "Nobody listens to me," Jones said. "They thought I should do something else to leave the church." (The Church of Latter-day Saints has declined the comment for this story).

After a life in the united community, the abrupt social isolation was painful. Jones looked for a way out. Then, in August 2017, he had his revelation. A way to explain himself to his friends and relatives who would not have rejected and who could never bring him back.

Jones had a practical understanding of Facebook's advertising tools through his business, and he knew he could precisely target an ad with a personalized audience of just 20 people. All they needed was their email addresses. "If I target my family with publicity, then I'm not the apostate messenger," he said. "Perhaps they will look at it or read it, if they knew what I knew of the story of Mormon, they will understand why I left the church."

Practicing Mormons are ready to expect messages about their religion to be viewed on Facebook. The church uses Facebook to drive customers to its huge portfolio of companies and maintains a vast network of Facebook pages to proselytize and grow their ranks, said Yu, CTO and co-founder of BlitzMetrics.

"They have the biggest footprint of anyone on the planet," Yu said. "Any media company, any athlete, they have hundreds of pages about family and love, inspirational pages and memes that have millions of fans."

Yu said he worked on some of these LDS campaigns, and they are very effective. "They use these pages that are not extensively associated with the Mormon Church and sell themselves from there. They receive an email address, or the missionaries approach and begin to learn about Joseph Smith and the gold plates, etc. In a sense , it's a funnel. "

Jones's plan was to do the same thing on the contrary.

He created a Facebook audience list that included the people closest to him who were now gone: his business partner, his sisters, a neighbor and his mother. He then created a sponsored post in the style of an SUG ad, but by linking to a Mormon-friendly apology website that attempts to explain the most controversial aspects of religion. "The link was a defense of polyandry," he said. "Then they click on the link and read a defense of why Joseph Smith sent men off on a mission and then married their wives."

Of the 30 people targeted in that first announcement, only three clicked. But it was enough to convince Jones that his plan could work. "I could see how many unique people saw 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 did not, it was good for my psyche."

He decided to create more publicity and to open his project to other ex-Mormons in the same situation he was in. The next day, Jones set up a website, MormonAds[.]org, where disillusioned members of the Mormon diaspora could upload their e-mail lists of friends and loved ones left behind. He announced the effort in a Reddit group called ExMormon, a lively subreddit with 100,000 members that Jones joined after he lost his religion.

The Ex-Mormons responded en masse to download their contact lists of current Mormons. At the end of the first day his list of advertisements had increased from 30 to 397.

From his decades in church, Jones knew that every design decision in his peer-to-peer ad campaign would require a needle thread. The slightest hint of anti-Mormon sentiment would have made his target audience run. To host ads, Facebook pages have been set with neutral titles such as LDS Marriage, LDS Says and LDS Answers. "If I called you," The truth about the Mormon church! "No one would click," he said.

The layout of the ads was just as important. "When they see an LDS marriage announcement, they immediately ask:" Is it friendly or is it dangerous? "," Jones said. "Are they looking at the picture, it looks bright and friendly?" He began to buy stock photos: photos of the Mormon Tabernacle, the millennial millennials who flirt in the sun, a Caucasian Jesus looking compassionately in the camera.

The most important decision, however, was where to send people who clicked on the ad. Facebook displays the link under each sponsored post, and as a former Mormon, Jones knew that his audience would not have clicked on something that could lead to a critical site for LDS.

The church itself provided the solution.

After a massive faith crisis in the Stockholm chapter of the church in 2010, Church leaders realized that they risked losing parishioners now that the hidden parts of Mormon's history were easily obtained from "questionable and often inaccurate sources" on the Internet. In response, church scholars wrote a series of carefully formulated essays addressing controversial topics from the church's point of view. The so-called "Essays of Gospel Matters" were published on the LDS website in 2013, deep within a maze of clicks from the home page where it is likely that no one who is not actively seeking can find it.

Jones has aimed his advertisements right on the spot.

For the advertising text he has adopted the voice of someone wishing to clarify misunderstandings on topics such as the SUGG and polygamy, or the early Mormons marrying pre-adolescents, or what these Egyptologists said about the papyrus from which Smith would transcribe the Book of Abraham. A provocative sentence, the later implicitly promised a cure for the unstable feeling left by the first. And it was a sure secure click on a page of your religion's website.

ExMormon's redditors also provided suggestions for new announcements. Some asked how they could support financial support to cover Jones' costs, so he added a GoFundMe button to the page and started publishing receipts showing how he was spending it. He has performed A / B tests on variations in the text of the ad and images and has published each ad and the analysis shows how it was performed.

Some editors included their e-mail addresses in their presentation, to provide coverage if the list somehow leaked, or to test the system. One reported to Reddit that he saw his first advertising of polygamy 24 hours later.

A former Mormon who spoke to the newspaper's beast on condition of anonymity, named his wife for 20 years. He had left the church years before; his wife was still a member. For months he had tried to persuade her to read the Essays on the Church's Gospel topics on polygamy and other touching topics. "He would not touch them," he said. "Not with a ten-foot pole." He did not want to read anything that could hurt or damage his testimony … But my wife likes Facebook, she's there for 20 to 30 minutes a day. "

It worked. The wife was soon exposed to one of the posts sponsored by Jones, and, mistaking her for an official Church announcement, she clicked and started reading. "And he spends a good hour and a half going through the polygyny in Nauvoo's essay, passing by a couple of times, clearly annoyed by some of the things in there."

Later the couple talked about what he had read. It was the first time she had been open to such a conversation, said the former Mormon. In the end, his wife's faith in the church survived his fleeting encounter with his past. She even reprimanded her husband for having so often complained that the church covered her mistakes. "The church is advertising them on Facebook, so they are clearly not hidden." "But I consider this a significant significant step, that she would also read the whitewashed version of the church," he said. "It was incredibly useful, he generated a conversation."

He added, after a pause, "It's a bit strange for me to be more willing to listen to an advertisement on Facebook than to listen to her husband".

Another former Mormon helped with a $ 25 donation. "Thanks for the work you do … I just want a beer and a nice (real) discussion with my brother." Another wrote: "Great site and great work! Keep it up! Maybe you could also add other languages, and you should consider the idea of ​​using some Google AdWords."

But the project also had criticism, and unfortunately for Jones, they included half a dozen volunteer moderators of subreddit. (One moderator declined the comment for this story, the others did not respond.) "The main thing that concerns me personally is that although these advertisements 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 the most believing Mormons, "wrote a moderator named Mirbell. "I also have doubts about encouraging people to provide personal information to friends and family to a stranger on the Internet who will use it to spam them with unwanted advertisements."

The moderators claimed that the donation button on the Jones website violated an ExMormon policy that prohibits 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 personalized audience who did not opt ​​to receive them.

A few days after the launch of MormonAds, the subreddit moderators have canceled the posts of Jones and ordered him not to discuss his project in subreddit. Jones appealed. He moved the donation button from the MormonAds home page and claimed that it is not up to moderators to impose Facebook's terms of service. Property, they have banned the Jones Reddit account from ExMormon entirely.

The subreddit had been the only way for Jones to present his project to a large group of former Mormons, and he had no intention of renouncing it without a fight. Once again he turned to advertising to get his message across. He may have been banned from posting on ExMormons, but moderators could not stop him from posting ads there. He pulled out an advertisement at the top of the suormedd ExMormon, "Anonymous advertising for your TBM [True Believing Mormon] loved ones with MormonAds. "

"This made them very angry," Jones said.

With Reddit ads driving interest, the MormonAds flourished for another two months before Reddit joined the fray and banned Jones from his advertising platform, accusing him of "targeted harassment." That was the beginning of the end of Jones's project. He held his campaign on Facebook running for another month, until the last of the approximately $ 2,500 in donation money was spent, then closed and closed his website.

When he told the results, 5,082 names were on its final destination list, and more than half of them, 2,284, had clicked on at least one of the 23 ads that Jones was shuttling through their feeds. They are more than two thousand Mormon practitioners who have learned something about their religion that they probably did not know before. Some people have clicked two or three times.

It's a use of the sophisticated Facebook advertising system probably never covered by Mark Zuckerberg. Jones believes peer-to-peer Facebook ads have a future. "It will be interesting to see where we are when these skills will be in everyone's hands," he said. "And really, I already am, they do not know it yet."

Jones's ads, however, derived their effectiveness from the false belief of viewers that they were not at all personal. Without that reassuring sense of anonymity, Facebook ads could become significantly more disturbing. Right now we are getting used to seeing "retargeting" ads that drive us to buy a car a few seconds after looking at one on a dealership's website. What happens when every sponsored post raises the question, did my in-laws put it there? My neighbour? My ex?

"The border between normal and disturbing is very complex and depends on how you do it and how you present things."

Omer Tene

"The border between normal and disturbing is very complex and depends on how it is done and how things are presented," said Stanford's Tene. "If you tell people you're seeing an ad because a person thinks you might want to see it, it might have value, I appreciate the opinions of my friends and relatives more than Toyota, but if it's not obvious, or camouflaged # 39; It is way for you to identify the source or reason why you see particular things.This is certainly troubling. "

In the end, none of the Facebook analysis was not able to answer Jones' most important question. Has MormonAds changed his mind? He can not say it, not even with the handful of people on his personal list of goals. "The relationship with my family has improved," he said. "I do not know if I can connect it to my ads."

You may never know for sure. "Truthful information is the most powerful weapon," said Jones optimistically. He compared his secret advertisements to the propaganda leaflets of British pilots dropped on the German trenches during the First World War. German soldiers were forbidden to read leaflets and to stop orders to hand them over to senior officers.

"They estimate that one in seven pamphlets was kept, someone held it illegally," he said. "I guess that would be their click rate."

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