Provo Twitter: Together in the pews but fighting online

Comment sections online often contain rude responses and the occasional fight. Some say this is because of the lack of face-to-face interaction. (Photo illustration by Lisi Merkley)

Leer en español: Twitter de Provo: Unidos en las bancas pero luchando en línea

What is referred to as “Provo Twitter” on social media has become a battleground between members of the same religion: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On one side, a group who identifies as Deseret Nation, or #DezNat for short, tweet in support of conservative religious beliefs, often citing early apostles and prophets. The other side pushes for changes in the Church and sides frequently with LGBT members of the Church.

The two sides might belong to the same church and sit on the same pew every Sunday, but when it comes to sharing their beliefs on social media, no tweeter is safe.

Social media fights are not just reserved to these two groups, though. People on opposite sides of any issue can get involved.

Why do people fight on social media?

BYU professor Sarah Coyne said the lack of face-to-face interaction online makes commenters more comfortable with being rude to people with opposing views. “You have that barrier of the internet that you can use to often say things that you would never, ever, ever say to somebody’s face.”

Coyne also pointed to the fact that internet fights often break out between strangers. “You’re much more likely to say inflammatory or mean things to that person because there’s a very low level of investment in that particular relationship.”

While rude comments often come from strangers, friends and acquaintances can also start fights online. Coyne said she saw members of her own ward fight on social media after Sen. Mitt Romney’s decision to convict President Trump on one of two charges of impeachment in February. “I was shocked,” she said. “Both sides of the issue (said) the worst horrible things that they’d say about each other and each other’s families (that) you’d never say at a church activity.”

Coyne said she is also concerned about the growing political divide in the country — and especially among members of the Church. Social media is part of the reason for that increased polarization because people are less likely to take the time to understand another’s perspective or opinion on an issue and likely to try and defend their own opinion on social media.

Rosemary Card, owner of temple dress company Q.Noor, posts about church-related issues on both her personal and business accounts. She said she receives mostly positive feedback to her posts, but the few negative DMs and comments stick out more. “Rude DMs from people of your own faith can be difficult to process,” she said. “There is a desire to want to prove them wrong and fight back, but I have chosen to try to resist that.”

Coyne recommended people post a disclaimer along with their opinions to encourage friendly dialogue and ask those who disagree to reach out personally rather than leave rude comments. If people continue to be unkind, Coyne said to remove their comments or block them all together.

Card chooses to block people who are rude to her over social media for her own mental health. “It’s not a judgment on them. They can do whatever they want. Blocking is just a way I am able to protect and care for myself.”

Card said the mean DMs and comments sometimes make her hesitate before posting, but she doesn’t let those few rude people stop her. “I can take the heat.”

How social media arguments affect the Church

David Campbell teaches American politics at the University of Notre Dame and co-authored a book exploring Latter-Day Saints’ interactions with politics. He said these fights on social media don’t represent Church members as a whole but could contribute to some divide between church members through a spillover or second order effect.

“It’s easy to be misled and think ‘Wow all these Latter-Day Saints are just at each other’s throats because look at all these awful things they say to each other on Twitter,'” he said. “When in reality that’s a small slice, even though that small slice might in turn eventually have an effect on more subtly influencing opinion within church members.”

According to Campbell, most members agree on the basic teachings and doctrines of the Church but might have different opinions on certain things like racism in the church, LGBT matters and women’s roles. The debates and arguments on social media can influence where members stand on these issues and might help members feel more comfortable taking a stance because they see others voicing their opinions.

These discussions and arguments on the internet can lead to changes in the Church according to Campbell. He pointed to recent shifts in policies and teachings on race, women in the Church, LGBT matters and the Church’s history as examples. “We know there’s been a much greater reckoning of that within the Church in the last few years, and much of that actually has been driven by commentary made online that in turn has had an influence on people that might have the ear of the general authorities.”

Campbell said members shouldn’t be too worried about disagreements in the Church because it has a history of leaders not seeing eye-to-eye. In the 1960’s, Ezra Taft Benson and Hugh B. Brown disagreed about civil rights over the pulpit at General Conference, and in the 1920’s, general authorities publicly disagreed about prohibition. According to Campbell, the correlation era in the 1970’s created much of the unity among Church leaders that modern members see.

“You would expect a group of smart, engaged people who care about something to disagree with one another about it. That’s, I would say, what a healthy organization looks like,” Campbell said.

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