Last week or so I was fortunate enough to get a quick email interview together with Internet personality Drew Curtis of FARK.com, which I posted to both my blog and Flip The Media. One thing Drew touched upon was, as he put it, the “bogus media creation of the ‘wisdom of crowds’.” This was also brought up again during Hanson Hosein’s latest lecture in our COM529 Research 2.0 course. The question is, essentially, is the sharing, collaboration, and collective action facilitated by social media always focused upon achieving a wise purpose? As Drew put it, crowds are “stupid, horny, and hungry”. There is an echo of this sentiment in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody; he asks the question: who decides which cause is right? As old media gives way to new, this becomes an increasingly important question. Like your mother always told you, just because everyone else is doing it, or in this case saying it, doesn’t mean it’s right.
So, I come to a matter of personal importance, which I have been following closely since last week’s historic election. In California, bellwether state of the nation, the electorate voted roughly 52% to 48% to remove the rights of gays to marry in their state. Some proponents of Prop 8, a constitutional amendment, argued that they were protecting the traditional definition of marriage. Many of the “Yes on 8” supporters were of religious persuasion, and may have felt to ban gay marriage perhaps largely for religious reasons. Detractors of Prop 8, on the other hand, may have felt that the amendment was discriminatory towards gays and represented an affront to civil rights. It appears many of these detractors have pointed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, typically called “Mormons”, as a primary factor in the measure’s passing. I know that many individual members of the LDS church, acting as citizens, campaigned for and contributed, individually, sometimes large sums of cash to the “Yes on 8” cause. But, the legal entity that is “the church” did not. Notwithstanding, leaders of the church state that they exercised their rights in encouraging these activities from the pulpit. These efforts and the money raised, it’s alleged, directly led to the 53% win. I don’t wish to necessarily debate the rights or wrongs of such broad-based assumptions, of the ballot measure itself, the outcome, or the issues of religion or homosexuality in general here, but I do wish to highlight some of the interesting, and perhaps disconcerting things I have seen in the “crowd’s” response to the measure’s passing. Twitter, in particular, seems to be a social media tool contributing to the fervor and organization of the response from some of those individuals and groups that are opposed to the amendment, but there is no guarantee that what is found on Twitter is ever certifiable fact.
As I said, this is a matter of personal importance to me because I am a Mormon, or member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as a recent transplant from southern California to Seattle. Not only that, but while living in California I campaigned for the initiative’s passage while still in the state, and continued supporting my friends in their campaigning after I moved. Moreover, I used to work in a volunteer capacity for the Southern California Public Affairs Council of the LDS Church. I strongly support the leaders of my church. So, this all hits close to home for me. Will I lose friends for publicly stating these facts about myself? Perhaps, but my voice is probably going to fall on more deaf ears than it would if I was just a bystander offering mere observations – I speak from more of an insider’s perspective. If Shirky is right, and the web is about social capital, then I’ll take the hit to make the following points.
In observing instances of the query “mormon” on search.twitter.com since last week, there has been an almost steady stream of unfavorable comments being made about Mormons. Twitter is also being used to spread the word about protests being organized at LDS places of worship, as well as boycotts of Mormon-owned businesses, and links to websites with information about ways to respond to what the Mormons are allegedly guilty of doing in California. This is probably true of many other social media tools, networks, and message boards across the Internet. (And I know it’s true of FARK.com’s threads, where I have read a great deal of interesting opinions about the matter.) Across many US newspaper websites I am also observing comment threads attached to articles about Prop 8 that elicit generally the same unfavorability towards Mormons. I would link to samples, but they are pervasive – start at Google News and go from there. Rarely does one see a favorable comment about the church or its members, though occasionally some appear, often to defend against “bashing of the Mormons” – they point out that other groups besides the Mormons are also responsible for the amendment’s passage. Mormons have historically been the target of persecution, so this bashing is nothing new to us. Latter-day Saints are taught to “turn the other cheek” when it comes to these things. In fact, a fellow church member and friend shared with me via Facebook a story of the very thing taking place during a protest held at the North Seattle Stake Center this past Sunday. Some Mormons were hugging protestors, and wishing them well, and in this friend’s story she states she observed one protestor asking passersby where she could find a restroom. In response, Mormons offered for her to use the restroom inside the Stake Center, which she did. While I know that other LDS worship locations have had to close (or just happened to be closed, such as happens to be the case of LDS temples on every Sunday) due to the sizes and potential problems resultant from major crowds, this story is yet another example of what you might often get from “going after” a Mormon – a nearly doleful aplumb and assertion that you are loved no matter how many times you punch them in the gut. Granted, that’s not always true – low and behold Mormons are members of humanity at large, and humanity at large is prone to making terrible lapses of judgment. And, so, that gets at the question from the “No on 8” crowd: if the Mormons are so nice and so used to be persecuted, why are they all-the-sudden persecuting gays with this amendment? Well, if you ask a typical Mormon, he or she will probably disagree. I can’t speak for the lot of us, but I’d say the general consensus is “we’re not hating on gays”. Mormons just don’t believe it. Call us stupid, call us dissonant, but remember that everything is about perspective.
And so that is where I become concerned about the “wisdom” of the crowd this time, particularly on Twitter. Too many comments to mention have shared statements about Mormons or the LDS Church that are erroneous. Start with the assertion that all Mormons in California voted “yes”. Where’s the data? Mormons, like Jews, Catholics, or Atheists, voted yes, voted no, and didn’t vote, because they are all individual people capable of making individual choices. Or, another assertion is that Mormons were “commanded” to vote ‘yes’ – preachers might hold great sway over the behavior of their congregants, but there will never be an instance of a member of the LDS Church being expunged from the congregation for how she or he voted. The church can preach in favor of any measure’s passage (but not for individual political candidates or parties) and they unrelatedly may excommunicate a member for organizing with or actively supporting enemy organizations seeking to disable the church’s work, as would any private organization, business, club, or whatever, but LDS ecclesiastical leaders are instructed by church officials to never ask how a member voted on anything. And yet, you see these statements and others like it continuing to be passed on, often exagerrated in the passing. For instance, at first I was seeing the claim being made that the church itself donated $20 million to the “Yes” campaign, something like 25% of the money raised altogether. Later on, I see someone sharing that Mormons contributed 80% to the cause. So, which is it? Did the church as an institution donate the money, or did individual members happen to collectively contribute that much? And how much? The Secretary of State in California reports nothing more than approximately $2,000 donated directly in kind from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Or, we see reports of protesting at LDS temples on a Sunday. Mormons don’t “go to church” on Sundays at their temples. They attend meetinghouses at other locations on Sundays. One might presume that many, many people are getting their first exposure to the very concept of Mormons or mormonism through these protests and the organizing and information sharing taking place on-line, but so much of it is perhaps ill-informed. I observed some on Twitter were purporting that the Mormons are in Utah and they came to California to fight for the amendment’s passage. In fact, there are more Mormons living in California then there are in Utah. Utah does contain the headquarters of the church, yes, but the church is a worldwide organization with over 13 million members. There are more Mormons outside of the United States than there are in Utah alone. Now, just to give one last example, I have seen photos online from protests with some very interesting signs deployed. Occasionally you see placards claiming that the measure was unfair because Mormon men have many wives, while gays want just one spouse. That would have been true over one hundred years ago, before the church repealed its practice of polygamy. These are only a few examples of what I have observed in the crowd. I just hope that the crowd will find some time during this fervor to research a few important facts. If the debate is to carry forward, it might be wiser of the crowd to get to know their enemy first. Twitter is a highly effective tool for sharing information in near-real-time to the masses, but it’s clear that that power, the power of the crowd, can be abused.
CORRECTION FROM THE AUTHOR: An LDS friend of mine pointed out that there are in fact more members of the LDS Church in Utah than in California. Indeed, there are approximately 1.8 million members in Utah. Nonetheless, 800,000 Mormons in California is still a significant number. I apologize for the error – I actually believed myself before being corrected, but this is actually a great example of my being guilty of the very thing I’m expressing frustration over. But now I know, and knowing is half the battle.