If Satan hired a Russian troll farm, we would have little discussion of Mormon history, ancient or modern scripture, or church doctrine on the Internet. Instead, we would focus on past mistakes, the inadequacies of scripture, and flaws in church doctrine, as we lurched from one crisis, controversy, or moral panic to the next, never finding time for any but the most divisive issues.
If Satan had a troll farm, we would face regular calls to disavow various teachings, present and past leaders, and each other. Sock-puppet “conservatives” would pop up to scold us for using the word “Mormon,” label any doubter as an apostate, and generally do whatever they could to convince the casual observer that conservatives are essentially Mormon takfiris (but in fact, these “conservatives” would hate Zion and its teachings, not promote them).
If Satan had a troll farm, sock-puppet “progressives” would pop up to chide anyone who thought commandments should be obeyed and covenants should be honored as ignorant bigots, and generally do all they could to convince the casual observer that progressives despise the church and reject its teachings (when in fact these “progressives” would only care about race, class, gender, or sexuality to the extent that these issues generate controversy, and care about the people most directly affected only secondarily, or not at all).
The “progressive” and the “conservative” trolls would not be unable to find common ground, however. They would be united in their disdain for the church as an institution and in full agreement about the inadequacy of the prophet, who would be accused both of straying from the purity of Joseph and Brigham, and of failing (though lack of inspiration) to enact the obviously necessary reforms. The trolls would agree that the church was foundering, that vague doubts and fervent religious feelings are both good reasons to avoid attending church, and that anyone expressing even the most anodyne support for the church should be labeled as either blinded by hate, an organizational drone rather than a true follower of Jesus, or both. There would be Mormon-themed leak sites whose agenda was not truth and transparency, but the advancement of influence campaigns against the church. There would be whole communities devoted to reinforcing feelings of doubt and applauding disaffection as they savored the latest controversies and ridiculed church members not yet enlightened enough to apostatize. Of course the “progressive” and “conservative” trolls would not only deny that there was such a thing as trolls, they would call “anti-Mormon” and “apostate” false and hurtful labels that should be banned from civilized conversation altogether.
In short, if Satan had a Russian troll farm, the Mormon corner of the Internet would look much as it does today.
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Sometimes, we troll ourselves. We amplify our own divisions when we should pull together, we casually discard teachings that should unite us, we aim to outdo each other in throwing each other under the bus. I’m trying to do better, but I have been that guy. I try to ask myself, before posting something, if it could just as easily have been written by Boris Satanov, recently of St. Petersburg but now tweeting from the Ninth Bolgia. Maybe you could ask yourself if what the world really needs now is another let’s-complain-about-our-bishops open thread.
I don’t think it’s only us trolling ourselves, however. Thanks to the Senate reports, we know that real-life Russian trolls exploit real divisions and play to people’s willingness to believe the worst about their opponents. It’s just as easy to play on people’s reservations about church members, even among other church members. There’s unfortunately an audience ready to believe and retweet without question anything that might reflect badly on the church, and there really are people who loathe the church and cynically hide behind fake personas. Some claim to be active church members (who just happen to think that a video on an anti-Mormon YouTube channel is what’s needed to open our eyes). Others launch whole websites to “present information about Mormon topics” (we declined to add them to our blogroll as they requested, back in the day when blogrolls were a thing). We regularly get commenters who are outraged that we are not outraged, and upset that we are not fighting among ourselves over something they are certain we should find controversial. Lest I be accused of both-sidesism, I do think most trolling attempts play to “progressive” issues. Existing fault lines are easier to find, and trolls by their nature find it harder to mimic an authentic conservative voice. (I’d guess, though, that since Pres. Nelson’s remarks, it’s predominantly been trolls who have scolded anyone else online for use of the word “Mormon.”) An unhappy fact of online life is that an unknowable percentage of participants in any given conversation are not arguing in good faith.
But some days it feels like more than mere human wickedness. The rhetorical performances of Korihor’s greatest hits are too on-the-nose. The Nehor whisperers, trying too hard, deplore Gideon’s inflammatory tone. The doomsday statisticians brigade is just too eager to find evidence of a shrinking church. Overconfident, the Iron Rod imposters try to stoke unrest against the prophet among the devout. On the worst days, it feels like half the comments are written by bots hosted on a server farm in hell. (Hell, it turns out, resembles nothing so much as the online comments section of the Salt Lake Tribune.)