Echo Chambers, Propaganda, and Agitation for Change in the LDS Church

[I realize that because I am a white Mormon man who holds the priesthood many women may feel that I can’t successfully understand or empathize with their experiences as women.  This article is not intended to invalidate their personal experiences and feelings. It is meant to illustrate a dynamic employed by agitators to promote their causes in the media.]

One side-effect of having LDS church member Mitt Romney as a major contender for the presidency of the United States and the resulting media and public attention it brings is that it emboldens LDS dissidents and agitators to attempt to push for changes in the church. They know that the church is under the microscope right now and they take advantage of the extra attention because they believe that the church’s public relations sensitivities make disciplinary action or push-back less likely. So it is no surprise that we see increased agitation on issues like women’s roles in the church, homosexuality, and financial transparency.

It’s important that people become careful consumers of information and the techniques these groups are using to artificially give their causes the appearance of widespread support, when in reality they often represent a small, interconnected agenda-driven group using blogs and media coordination to build disproportionate buzz and influence to manipulate perceptions.

As a broader example of perception manipulation, recent Gallup studies have asked people in the U. S. what percentage of the population they believe is gay or lesbian and found that, on average, adults believe that 25 percent of Americans are homosexual. In reality, fewer than 5 percent Americans identify as gay or lesbian and it is possibly less than 2 percent. Only 4 percent of adults correctly estimated the number.

Decades ago the number of homosexuals was inflated for propaganda reasons. And in the intervening years, television programs and movies artificially make it seem like it is far more common than reality. Mainstream media and Hollywood create an amplifying echo chamber to influence people’s assumptions. People make decisions and build their views based upon these distorted, exaggerated perceptions.

A similar technique was used with abortion. Before it was legalized nationally by Roe v Wade, proponents of legalized abortion often claimed that between 5,000 and 10,000 women died every year because of illegal abortions. In reality, the numbers at the time showed that fewer than 250 deaths had been reported and, even attempting to account for under-reporting because of illegality, the number was likely fewer than 1,000.

Bernard Nathanson, who was the key witness on this point in Roe v Wade and has since turned anti-abortion has written:

“…we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always ‘5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.’ I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the ‘morality’ of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?” (Aborting America, 1979)

So, having looked at these examples, let’s look at a recent example of how agitators use amplifying echo chambers and questionable statistics to manipulate perceptions and push an agenda in the LDS church. I want to emphasize that I do not believe that they are doing this cynically. As with Nathanson’s description above, I think that they are certain of the morality of their cause and that it allows them to become victims of their own amplifying echo chamber.

Recently, Sister Neylan McBaine gave a presentation at the annual LDS FAIR conference in which she discussed changes that she believes that the LDS church needs to make regarding women’s roles in the church. It has since received quite a lot of attention.

Sister McBaine describes herself as a marketer, not an academic. She worked on the Church’s widely celebrated “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign. Her concern is that “what we say we do in regards to our women, what we actually do, and what the Lord says we should do … be in triangulated harmony with each other” from the perspective of a marketing professional.

She says that her research shows that there “is a tremendous amount of pain among our women regarding how they can or cannot contribute to the governance of our ecclesiastical organization.” She refers to a considerable “breadth and volume” of articles sampled from a “wide range of sources and philosophies” to support this assertion. She cites “statements, recently gathered across a variety of forums.” And she insists that the pain she observes is widespread among women in the church and not just “relegated to the extremist academics or feisty feminist bloggers.”

A closer look at her sources, however, shows that they are not at all wide-ranging and varied.  Most of her data is either anecdotal or is nearly exclusively drawn from a small, vocal, non-random, interconnected group of like-minded Mormon feminists and dissidents. There is no way to determine how wide spread the pain she describes really is among women in the church based on the biased sources she cites.

To demonstrate that this is in fact the case, let’s take a close look at her claims.

Before I dive into the details, I need to say that I am personally in favor of addressing bias against women in Mormon culture and that there are changes that Sister McBaine proposes that I agree with to a great extent.  However, I believe that such proposals should be addressed privately to the leaders of the church and not pushed through public agitation.

When she describes the “wide range of sources and philosophies” and the “breadth” of the articles she studied, the only sources she specifically names are the blogs By Common Consent, A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman, Feminist Mormon Housewives, and Times and Seasons. All of the sources but one are well known “bloggernacle” blogs with reputations for feminism and long-standing disagreements with the church on the topic of women’s roles. Some of the most vocal agitators on the topic have blogged and participated actively at all of these blogs over the last 8 or 9 years. The one exception is A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman, which is the only source she names that represents a more traditional LDS woman’s point of view. And later on in her presentation, Sister McBaine singles that blog out for criticism. Contrary to her assertion, the bloggernacle represents a very narrow range of sources and philosophies. The bloggernacle is the amplifying echo chamber of inter-linking, largely like-minded liberal LDS bloggers.

Next, Sister McBaine quotes several individual statements that she says represent the widespread pain among Mormon women. If we look at the footnotes for the sources of the quotes, we find that, of the four quotes offered, two of them are taken from the “Understanding Mormon Disbelief” survey (which we will discuss in more depth in a moment), one is from an unattributed private correspondence, and one is cited from the book Women in Eternity, Women in Zion by Valerie Hudson and Alma Don Sorenson, which in the book is also unattributed.

Like in the Nathanson quote above, this is an emphasis on the drama of individual cases. Does this drama really represent the experience of most Mormon women? It’s anecdotal.  There is no way to tell. Even if most women have wrestled with these kinds of questions (and I believe that they have) is it an ongoing source of pain? Or is it something that they have already confronted and reconciled to their satisfaction which no longer vexes them? We have no way to know based these anecdotes and non-random samples.

Which brings us to the “Understanding Mormon Disbelief” study. Sister McBaine’s presentation relies very heavily on this survey. She says that “survey data support the conclusion that tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of women each year are unable to maintain their church activity because they cannot internally reconcile their position within the church organization.”

The survey was sponsored and conducted by the Mormon Research Foundation, which is one of the many projects of John Dehlin, a Mormon dissident whose public disagreement with various church’s positions and efforts to organize like-minded dissidents are well known among Mormons on the Internet.  It specifically sought out people who once believed in the LDS church but who no longer believe. The survey itself acknowledges that the respondents were contacted by posting a link to the survey “on several sites associated with the ‘Bloggernacle’, or LDS themed blogs, as well as through social media.” 3086 people’s responses were included. Of the 3,086, 42%, or approximately 1296, were women and 44%, or about 1358, still attend church.

In other words, this was a self-selected poll of self-identified former members of the LDS church, who were contacted through the same narrow group of blogs that Sister McBaine used as sources for her “wide ranging” reading. The survey openly admits that it was not a random sample and they make “no claim of representativeness or statistical significance in the sample. This survey is representative of the respondents only.”

We cannot claim that a survey of about 3,000 self-selected former Mormons, sponsored by known LDS dissidents, gathered from the liberal leaning LDS blogs, only 1300 of whom were women represents the sentiment of faithful, mainstream, LDS women in general. In other words, the survey was conducted in the same amplifying echo chamber.

It is hard to see how anyone can conclude that “tens, if not hundreds of thousands” of women leave church activity every year specifically over the issues with which Sister McBaine is concerned based solely on this questionable survey. I mean think about that: tens or even hundreds of thousands every year! That’s an extraordinary claim from a sample of about 726 self-selected former members who are women and no longer attend church (3086 x 0.42 women x 0.56 inactive = 725.83). And of those who no longer attend church, there is no indication that they all left the church in the last year. For all we know many have been out for decades. Extraordinary claims need far better support than that.

Sister McBaine also says that she conducted her own survey, but she provides no details, and admits that it consisted of a sample of her friends (also non-random).

In addition to these questionable surveys, she also cites a lot of anecdotal experience working on her Mormon Women Project. She explains how she spearheaded “a podcast series … in which the founders of a wide spectrum of Mormon women’s organizations—including Segullah, Feminist Mormon Housewives, LDS Wave and The Power of Moms—met monthly to share our feelings and experiences about being women in the Church.”

Again, she describes it as a “wide spectrum,” but the actual organizations she lists represent a rather narrow spectrum of interconnected sources. While the organizations themselves may be different, the individual participants in the podcast were largely the same people from the liberal blogging community. Some of the people at LDS Wave are bloggers at Feminist Mormon Housewives (some using pseudonyms). Other participants have been bloggers at the Times and Seasons and By Common Consent blogs. It doesn’t matter how varied the organizations are if it is really all just the same people. In other words, this is the same old amplifying echo chamber.

Toward the end of Sister McBaine’s presentation, she declares, “Having established the magnitude of this crisis and having struck at some of the roots of the pain, I’d like to turn now to what we can do to alleviate this pain.” (emphasis added) But it is clear that she has not in fact established the magnitude of the crisis. Most of her data is drawn from the same self-reinforcing echo chamber. Perhaps there is wide spread pain among LDS women about these issues. But we don’t know. We simply can’t reliably determine the magnitude of the crisis from her biased evidence. And the magnitude of the crisis is an important consideration in determining what should be done.

On the other hand, the respected Pew Research Center’s study on Mormons in America offers some counter-evidence. According to their survey of Mormons on the topic of gender roles in the church:

The survey finds little support for the notion that women should be eligible for the Mormon priesthood. … One-in-ten Mormons (11%) believe that women should be ordained to the priesthood of their church, whereas 87% think the priesthood should be open only to males. Large majorities of both men and women express this view, but Mormon women are somewhat more likely than Mormon men to say the priesthood should be open only to males (90% vs. 84%). The belief that women should be ordained to the priesthood is less common among those who have the highest levels of religious commitment than among those with lower levels of commitment. Even among this latter group, however, nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say women should not be eligible for the priesthood.

Admittedly, there are weaknesses in this survey. (And in reality God determines who holds his priesthood, not statistics) It is hard to draw any conclusions about whether women feel pain about this arrangement, even if they do faithfully submit to the church’s current organization. But the survey at least attempts to get a broad, representative sample of LDS women.

As I mentioned, I do believe that most LDS women have wrestled with these issues. Knowing that this has been an issue for women at all, even if they are at peace about it, is an important consideration. But it is one thing to have wrestled and come to an agreeable conclusion so that they are no longer wrestling, and another to continually wrestle without resolution which is the group that the Mormon Research survey is measuring. There is also the important question of whether most of the women who struggle believe that public agitation is the proper way to seek changes to address that pain.

There is always the question of whether the act of trying to measure concerns among LDS women isn’t really creating concerns among LDS women. There is a fine line between measuring existing concern and sowing seeds of concern by the very questions asked.

Returning to the role of the amplifying echo chamber in agitation for change, Sister McBaine’s presentation was subsequently promoted throughout the same LDS blogs that she relied upon in the presentation, creating a positive feedback loop that amplifies the liberal, questioning views they promote.

Once the buzz has been built in the blogs the mainstream media pick it up and make a story of it.

Peggy Fletcher Stack, the religion writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, was one of the original founders and long time editor of the LDS dissident magazine Sunstone and has long standing sympathies with the kinds of issues often raised among LDS bloggers. She frequently uses individuals from the same LDS “bloggernacle” blogs as sources for her stories and mines the blogs for fodder for new articles.

Take for example this article recently published by Stack, Mormon women seeking middle ground to greater equality, where she clearly cites Sister McBaine’s presentation and subsequent buzz in the bloggernacle as a reason why this is a story. In addition to quoting Sister McBaine, she quotes extensively from bloggernacle personalities including many who have blogged at By Common Consent, Feminist Mormon Housewives, Times and Seasons, and from LDS Wave (which was founded by a Feminist Mormon Housewives blogger). They are almost all from the same self-reinforcing echo chamber that Sister McBaine used as sources.

Also notice that Stack starts off her article talking about a “growing group of women” who “are not pushing for ordination, but they crave a more engaged and visible role for women” in the church. But by the end she is describing a “large middle group” pushing for the priesthood to be “expanded to accommodate greater involvement and visibility for women.”

That’s a bit of sleight of hand.  We don’t really know how “large” this group really is in proportion to the total number of LDS women, or how much growth “growing” means, or how many women in the church agree with them. Based on the sources she cites, it appears to be the same, interconnected group of people from liberal LDS Blogs.

And once it has appeared in a reputable mainstream source like the Tribune, it can be picked up by other mainstream media sources who are looking for another Mormon angle for a story related to the candidacy of Mitt Romney.

Now those same blogs will likely talk about the Tribune article or another one inspired by it, and cite it as evidence of the growing group of women in the church who feel as they do.  But it is really just circular, biased, self-referential propaganda in the echo chamber.

Note that in the footnotes of her presentation Sister McBaine says that some of her suggested changes “are from a forthcoming pamphlet from LDS WAVE called, ‘Increasing Women’s Contributions’ ” which she says members of the WAVE organization shared with her.  As an apparent addendum to the follow up coverage to Sister Mcbaine’s presentation in the Tribune, the Tribune published a list of suggested changes from “Mormon feminists” which appears to be taken from the same pamphlet mentioned.  That implies a level of coordination that is not forthrightly disclosed or implied in either the actual text of the presentation as it was delivered orally at the FAIR conference, nor in the Tribune article itself which presented all of the quoted individuals as if they were atomic and unrelated.

And that is how agenda-driven agitators in the church use echo chambers to amplify the propaganda for change in the church and make it look and feel like it has much more support than it probably really does.

Perhaps I am wrong and Sister McBaine has solid, substantial evidence of her claims.  But in my experience people usually marshal the best evidence they have to support their claims when they make their case in an important venue, as she did at the FAIR conference. If Sister McBaine has it, she certainly didn’t use it. Which makes me think she doesn’t have it.

Let me emphasize that I believe that Sister McBaine is a good, faithful member of the church with good intentions. She has admirable concern for the women of the church and I agree with her in many ways. She has simply not shown enough good data to support her contentions. I believe she simply has been caught in the bloggernacle echo chamber and her perceptions have been skewed by the company she keeps. And I believe she has fallen into the trap of public agitation instead of private consultation with the leaders of the church (which is the undercurrent of much of the LDS blogging phenomenon). But it is an honest mistake and not a malicious one.

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