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November 29, 2021
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#DezNat Twitter debates have unleashed vitriol. Now a BYU grad and prosecutor is under investigation

For a small number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Twitter has become a virtual battleground where users debate tenets of the faith, politics and culture. Some extremists have taken those clashes further — unleashing vitriol, harassing opponents and even calling for violence.

On Wednesday, The Guardian reported that Matthias Cicotte, an assistant attorney general in Alaska, is the owner of a Twitter account — associated with the hashtag #DezNat — which tweeted repeated racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynistic slurs or comments. The Alaska Department of Law is reviewing Cicotte’s online activities, The Juneau Empire reports. At the time of this story’s publication, Cicotte had not responded to several requests from the Deseret News to confirm his connection to the @JReubenCIark account.

#DezNat, short for “Deseret Nation,” is not affiliated with or supported by the Deseret News or its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in any way.

Many tweets associated with the hashtag mirror the hateful dialogue pervasive among followers of extremist movements. The @JReubenCIark account has targeted both Latter-day Saints and other individuals with vulgar messages, and some tweets called for “vigilante violence,” according to The Guardian. The Deseret News reviewed documents, allegedly compiled by a group called Utah Anti-Fascists, that claim to identify Cicotte as the user behind the @JReubenCIark account. At the time of publication, Utah Anti-Fascists had not responded to a request for comment.

According to a LinkedIn page associated with Cicotte’s name, he graduated from Brigham Young University’s law school in 2008 and worked as a clerk in the Utah County Attorney’s Office for nearly two years. He later served as a judicial clerk on the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.

The #DezNat hashtag has existed since 2018, when a Twitter user who goes by the pseudonym J.P. Bellum created #DezNat in response to criticism he saw on Twitter of the church and its leaders. #DezNat is a play on hashtags like #JazzNation and #RaiderNation, used by sports fans, and is meant to be “a rallying point and a symbol to the faithful and unapologetic,” Bellum explained in an online article published by the blog Teancum’s Javelin.

While Bellum contends #DezNat is not political, some followers use the hashtag to comment on current affairs. Others, however, simply post Latter-day Saint scriptures, share uplifting quotations and say they follow the hashtag purely for spiritual reasons. Still, a small but active group uses the hashtag to promote idioms and images associated with the alt-right and often criticize “Progressive Mormons” — a moniker that generally describes members of the church who have more liberal political or religious views.

The Deseret News found some posts by #DezNat users that degraded women, used sexually explicit and profane language to demean people and their ideas, contained racial slurs and mocked gay and transgender people. Some posts displayed violent imagery. Others called for church members who disagree with #DezNat users to be excommunicated from the church, fired from church employment or expelled from Brigham Young University.

The vitriol contrasts sharply from other movements on Latter-day Saint social media, like the annual #LightTheWorld Christmas campaign and last year’s Thanksgiving-time #GiveThanks campaign. A 2015 article in Forbes called the church “one of the most advanced large organizations in the world” in its use of social media.

In 2017, in response to white supremacist online activities, the church released an official statement. “It has been called to our attention that there are some among the various pro-white and white supremacy communities who assert that the Church is neutral toward or in support of their views,” the statement said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. … White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, has released additional statements in the past calling for understanding and compassion on issues of race, politics and same-sex marriage. President Russell M. Nelson has encouraged church members to use social media for good, and church leaders have repeatedly spoken out against racism and bigotry.

“Today, I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice,” said President Nelson, who Latter-day Saints sustain as a prophet, in a 2020 general conference address. “I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”

Infighting in the pews

While vitriol and profanity exist on every corner of the internet, on Twitter, many hateful exchanges are happening between people who identify themselves as members of the same faith.

Mean-spirited comments and name-calling go both ways between #DezNat followers and their opponents on Twitter, but the racist, sexist and homophobic themes of many #DezNat posts have set the hashtag apart.

The people who use #DezNat are few in number but very vocal. A #DezNat page on Facebook had just 124 followers in 2019 but now has more than 1,000. In recent months, several Twitter accounts associated with #DezNat went private or were deleted, possibly in response to a separate account that is releasing names of individuals it alleges are behind anonymous accounts.

“#DezNat may not be to everyone’s taste,” Bellum wrote in the blog post. “Those who use the hashtag can be combative, rude, crass, aggressive, even mean. However, one thing you will never have to worry about with #DezNat is that when the prophet speaks, we listen, and when he directs, we obey.”

Shelby Hintze, a producer at KSL and active Latter-day Saint on Twitter, says that if users really intended to follow the counsel of church leaders, they would treat others with love and kindness.

“I think it’s sad when anybody resorts to bullying or attacking people on the internet, especially when they are anonymous,” said Hintze. “In Sunday School, there isn’t someone hiding behind a picture of a former apostle telling you to kill yourself. But how is that acceptable on the internet?”

Anonymity on the internet can sometimes lead people to act less civilly than they would in person. Some #DezNat users say they have chosen to remain anonymous because members of the church have been harassed for sharing their religious beliefs. The Deseret News attempted to contact three individuals who were allegedly harassed for posting about their faith on Twitter. Two declined to speak on the record because they feared retaliation, and one did not respond to the request for an interview.

“More than anything, #DezNat is a banner waving in the midst of a battle. The battlefield is Twitter and beyond,” Bellum wrote in the blog post.

Other members of the church are trying to foster a more respectful dialogue. Richard Ostler, 60, is a member of the church who lives in Salt Lake City who said he felt spiritual promptings to reach out to struggling LGBTQ members through Twitter. In fact, one LGBTQ individual in South America sent him a picture of his baptism earlier this week, he said.

“All social media can be used for good, or it can be used for bad,” said Ostler. “It can be a positive tool and a vehicle to reach people.

“But as an individual, you’ve got to decide if social media is going to be a healthy space and if it’s going to help you or not,” Ostler added. “If you’re LGBTQ and a Latter-day Saint, I think it’s better to feel like there are other people like you and to have a community. Twitter might not be the best place for that, but it might be for some people.”

The rise of #DezNat

Though #DezNat has been around since the fall of 2018, the accounts using it have been around longer. Tinesha Zandamela noticed some of the same accounts that attacked her with racist commentary when she was running for Provo City Council in 2017 later started using the #DezNat hashtag.

A since-deleted tweet from the @JReubenCIark account said Zandamela, a Brigham Young University graduate, probably got into BYU because “BYU admissions would fall over itself to admit a black girl,” and that “she probably got a 24 ACT equivalent.”

In 2019, the @JReubenCIark account owner, allegedly Cicotte, told the Deseret News that #DezNat is “an oasis among Progmo (Progressive Mormon) church critics on Twitter” that has helped those faithful to the teachings of the restored gospel know they aren’t alone.

But others believe strict orthodoxy can also be used as a mask for personal prejudices.

J.P. Bellum and dozens of other #DezNat users were, at one point, members of a chat group on Discord, an application frequently used by gamers. The group was started in 2018, and posts were closed to the public, unlike Twitter. The chat application was a space where violent, racist, homophobic and sexist remarks were reportedly prevalent. Acts of violence and weapons were discussed.

“Those harassing the church and its members on Twitter would not be met with weakness and apologies,” Bellum said in his blog post.

The other side of social

While many #DezNat followers are still active on social media, people presumed to be behind the accounts are being exposed. Some are finding that “anonymity” is a shallow protection.

#DezNat isn’t the only hashtag that has surfaced among Latter-day Saints on Twitter, though. #TwitterStake stands for the community of church members who are active on the social media platform. #LdZion was created to be a more faith-centric alternative to #DezNat.

For all the cruelty that exists on social media, many have found communities on Twitter where they feel accepted and understood, and many Latter-day Saints have used channels to share spiritually uplifting material.

“For me, it’s been a great place of learning and growth and expansion of my views, and my capacity to understand and love people,” said Hintze. “I won’t say that’s the case for everyone.”

Erica Evans contributed to this report.

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