Why do Church leaders dislike the internet?

In Elder Ballard’s recent address to CES teachers, he warned his audience several times of the dangers of the internet to their students. For example, he admonished teachers to

Teach [students] about the challenges they face when relying upon the Internet to answer questions of eternal significance. Remind them that James did not say, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him Google!”

Wise people do not rely on the Internet to diagnose and treat emotional, mental, and physical health challenges, especially life-threatening challenges. Instead, they seek out health experts, those trained and licensed by recognized medical and state boards.

james did not say ask of googleWhy do Church leaders not want young people looking for for answers on the internet? One often-cited answer to this question is that they don’t like the information students might find–information that will likely contradict the carefully curated view of the Church and its history that is typically taught at Church and in seminary and institute classes. For example, students may learn that perhaps Joseph and Emma’s marriage wasn’t quite so idyllic as it is often portrayed, what with him marrying many other wives, typically behind Emma’s back.

Elder Ballard specifically mentions this problem of negative information in his address. He says that CES teachers should introduce students to faith-promoting approaches to controversial topics so that students will measure any more negative interpretations that they encounter later against what they heard first from their teachers.

I think Church leaders are concerned with more than just information when it comes to the internet, though. There are two other things that people also find there that I suspect they also dislike: validation and voice.

Validation. My sister and co-blogger Kiskilili resigned from the Church about a decade ago. She felt that she couldn’t reconcile the sexism of the Church, and particularly of the temple, and by implication of God, with the idea of God being loving or the Church being good. While still a member, she met with several of her bishops so they could try to help resolve her concerns. In about 2004, one of her bishops told her that he didn’t know what was wrong with her because he didn’t know anyone else who shared her concerns. And, I think it’s important to point out, this happened in the Boston area, hotbed of Mormon feminism, where Exponent II had been launched thirty years before.

Although this happened in the internet era, this is probably a typical response of a local leader to a Church member expressing a concern: you’re the only one. It was a lot more difficult for members who had concerns about the Church to find anyone else who shared their concerns. This arrangement worked to the advantage of Church leaders, whose job of managing issues raised by Church members was simplified by being able to keep people who shared the same concern apart, which in turn made it easier to convince anyone with concerns that they were idiosyncratic, and never related to some larger pattern.

The internet has largely destroyed this arrangement (although as Kiskilili’s experience shows, the change hasn’t happened all at once). Members with concerns about an issue in the Church have a much easier time finding others who share their concern today than they did in the 1980s or before. Witness the response to the introduction of the exclusion policies last November. If this had happened in the pre-internet era (even assuming the information on the policies had been quickly distributed), perhaps a lot of bishops would have each met with a member or two from their wards and told them that their feelings about the policies were unique, and that everyone else thought the policies were fine, so they should just get in line. Instead, what we got was a big online outcry, where people who didn’t like the policies had their concerns validated by others who had a similar response, regardless of where they lived or what wards they attended. Church leaders had to put together a hasty response, and then a clarification a week later. That people were able to gather online and share concerns to force this response was clearly a point of frustration in Michael Otterson’s piece of the Church’s response.

I think it’s this worry about people finding validation for their concerns among other Mormons online that motivates the boundary that GAs and PA people have mentioned repeatedly, where they say it’s okay to have questions or concerns about the Church, but it’s just not okay to share them. Church leaders don’t want members finding validation for their issues, and they’re particularly worried about this happening online, where validation can be so easy to find.

Voice. The Church is designed to prevent feedback from rank-and-file members from reaching the decision-makers at the top. Oh, sure, letters from members are sometimes quoted in Conference, or stories of ordinary members are told, but these are clearly carefully selected to make a particular point. It’s obvious that these letters and stories aren’t providing feedback, but rather they are selected precisely because they do not do so. There is also a letter from the First Presidency that’s read in sacrament meeting every year that helpfully reminds members not to try to contact GAs directly, because any concern they might have can be resolved at the stake level. Communication is supposed to be a one-way street: Church leaders talk to members; members do not talk to Church leaders.

The internet, on the other hand, provides endless opportunities for people to express themselves. Many posted items, whether news articles or images or videos, have a comments section. People can use Facebook or Twitter or other social media to express themselves. They can write on blogs or produce podcasts or videos. Big companies and powerful politicians have forms and email addresses that allow people to contact them (although of course such communication is likely to be filtered by low-level employees or staffers). The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan said, and the message of the internet medium is that everyone can join the conversation.

The voice that the internet provides to ordinary people goes very much against the top-down ethos of the Church. Tellingly, although there is a feedback form on lds.org, the form carefully points out that it’s only for feedback about the website itself. Along similar lines, the Church’s guidelines for using social media encourage members to use it only “so long as it supports the mission of the Church, improves relationships, and facilitates revelation among children of our Heavenly Father.” The approach the Church takes is very much like the point Bruce R. McConkie famously made to Eugene England about Church doctrine: “It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent.” Members are not expected to have our own voices online unless we use them to amplify GAs’ voices.

It’s definitely some of the information that’s available online that Church leaders don’t like. But it’s also the validation and voice members can find there that leaders don’t like. What do you think? Are there any other reasons I’ve missed?

27 thoughts on “Why do Church leaders dislike the internet?

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    Information control and spin. Their motives don’t bear examination, and the facts undermine their proffered narrative which justifies their claims to power.

    Same reason governments attempt information control.

    Same reason parents attempt information control.

    It’s all about the Führerprinzip.

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    I think there are also the non-specific to the church reasons – it is really easy to waste time on the internet in general. There are almost always better ways to spend time than browsing around random sites. Not that it doesn’t serve a purpose, but I think we are wise to be deliberate in how we use the internet, church-related or not.

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    #4 You’re absolutely right, but this was a missed opportunity for Elder Ballard to present the need for deliberate use and assessment of the Internet instead of handwaving it all away.

    I’ve heard many people use the argument (and logical fallacy) detailed by Ziff: “Everyone I know is okay with this, you seem to be the only person offended.” I feel like this is unkind at best and harmful at its worst–and introducing a line of thought that allows leaders or members to dismiss others’ concerns simply because they’re based on information obtained online doesn’t help.

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    From OP quote of Ballard: “Wise people do not rely on the Internet to diagnose and treat emotional, mental, and physical health challenges, especially life-threatening challenges. Instead, they seek out health experts, those trained and licensed by recognized medical and state boards.”

    Where do they think people “seek out health experts et al?” For many of us, it is the internet! We email our friends and family, we ask for help via social media, we Google everything including what our doctors and therapists suggest.

    I use the internet to find serious, thoughtful, expert answers all the time. Yes, I need to use critical thinking skills, but I would need to do that with regard to any info source.

    From Ellie: “There are almost always better ways to spend time than browsing around random sites.”

    This is true of lots of things. There are almost always better ways to spend time than cruising main street in my car, but that doesn’t mean the car is the problem.

    Re: Why LDS leaders don’t like the internet

    Agree with your points re: info, validation, and voice. I also think scale is an issue. The internet connects me easily to so many different places and people around the world. The places Mormonism works best is in the beloved community of a well-functioning ward. It doesn’t scale particularly well as it prioritizing making the world like Provo (exaggeration on my part) vs. incorporating riches (of talents, ways of thinking, culture, etc.) from everywhere it goes.

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    Another factor is the more generic one: They’re really, really old, and most old people simply don’t understand the internet. I once tried to teach my mother how to send an email. I wrote every minute step down on a piece of paper; all she had to do was follow each step. She couldn’t do it. Not even close. There are exceptions of course. But if you ever look at the Apostles’ twitter feeds, I think you’ll find that supports my point. It’s generational; they simply don’t get it.

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    I’m always confused, and a little bit bothered, when letters from anonymous members are quoted in GC. Aren’t they inadvertently reinforcing behavior that is explicitly off-limits? Are letters kosher if they are written by somebody with a personal connection to a GA? Or are these letters simply fictitious?

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    Ziff,

    I hadn’t really thought about those reasons–mainly I thought they didn’t like time wasting or porn–but the issues of validation and voice seem to make sense.

    I think that the loss of information control is a real shock to church leaders. They grew up and lived 50-70 years within a leadership culture where information could be and was controlled by leaders (obstensibly to keep members safe). I imagine it is bewildering to lose that control, so they try to reach back to the old times.

    Unfortunately or fortunately, the information toothpaste is out of the tube and there’s no putting it back in.

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    AuntM, Yeah, Elder Ballard was being a little tone deaf on the use of the internet for most problem solving. It is not the sole resource, but most people use it for a wide variety of problems they may encounter. There are even better translations of (parts) of the bible available on the internet than what we have in our standard works.

    I do think that a lot of people are going off-track on the no letters to GA policy. Members are free to write all sorts of letters to church leaders. Those that are seeking a response that would be in the realm of pastoral care will be sent to their local leaders who can better serve the individual. This is at times heavy handed and in certain narrow cases may not be the best way to handle the issue raised. Of course, I live in the US and know some higher ups out in Utah, so I could reasonably expect a personal response, if I had occasion to contact them.

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    In most respects the church leaders very interested in preserving the status quo. (That could be seen in a derogatory sense, but it can also be a simple fact that they believe the current doctrine, structure, and practices of the church is inspired and should be free from outside influence.) In that mindset, the Internet is possibly the most disruptive force of our time. The Internet is destroying chain bookstores, bankrupting newspapers with monopolies, changing entire economies by moving jobs overseas, and even bringing down governments as seen in the Arab spring. If course, this is caused in part by the same voice and validation described in the OP, but also much more. Perhaps they recognize the disruptive powers if the Internet and they want to keep it in check.

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    I also wonder if they have their cause and effect backwards. They see that people who leave or openly question the church spend a lot of time on the internet talking/reading about the church. The assumption is that the internet caused their leaving/questioning. I think it is more likely that their leaving/questioning encouraged them to spend time on the internet talking/reading about the church (although I’m sure there is a little bit of both going on.)

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    Kevin, I think you’re right. If you look at the age of the Apostles, most of them grew up before computers became a household item, or they worked in executive positions where they had secretaries to deal with their correspondence. Remember Elder Oaks’s story about trying to find a ribbon for his manual typewriter? That was telling in a way he probably didn’t intend or even recognize. But even the younger ones, who probably are somewhat computer literate, are so so so busy that they likely have no time to surf the web and therefore don’t understand or trust it much. They are partly out of touch because of their age, partly because of the immense administrative burden the institution places on them. If they do anything with a computer (or a tablet or a smart phone), it’s probably to check and answer emails and texts. A few years ago one of the Apostles told me his correspondence burden was so heavy that it was making both him and his secretary physically ill.

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    Ziff, I agree. Elder Ballard’s talk and the added information that is already in the CES curriculum this year are a great first step. BUT, it is quite disingenuous for the powers that be to publish the Essays and talk about inoculating the youth with better information (not complete, but better) regarding some controversial topics and then add all sorts of provisos and cautions [“And, if necessary, we should ask those with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help.” and, “before you send them into the world, inoculate your students by providing faithful, thoughtful, and accurate interpretation of gospel doctrine, the scriptures, our history, and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood.”].

    That is because the Church still definitely wants to control identifying the proper and appropriate sources and interpretations. I suspect that most of the GAs are not as accurately informed of many problems in our history and doctrine as are those of us that make a concerted effort via the pesky Internet.

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    I also agree that Kevin’s point about the age factor. I live in a ward where the average age is about 70. A significant portion of the RS sisters do not use internet or email. Period. I’m also a family history consultant. It’s not unusual to have a patron come in and request that you do all the typing for them on the computer. Those that are comfortable often expect that a single website will have all the information they need, which isn’t realistic. They don’t feel comfortable using help functions or jumping on search engines to find answers – they’d prefer you to tell them the answer (they don’t care that you just used Google in front of them to find the answer).

    Older people with problems generally tend to turn right away to those they see as experts. Younger people (or anyone comfortable doing searches on the internet) tend to seek education and solutions on their own (youtube, google, etc.), and only go to those they see as experts if they’re convinced it’s necessary.

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    “Older people with problems generally tend to turn right away to those they see as experts. Younger people (or anyone comfortable doing searches on the internet) tend to seek education and solutions on their own (youtube, google, etc.), and only go to those they see as experts if they’re convinced it’s necessary.”

    When I was in graduate school for library science, my least-favorite class was information seeking behavior. However, it turned out to be the most useful! Your division is absolutely true–asking people vs. looking it up–though it might not always fall in generational lines. I tend to look up first, but I didn’t have online access until at least high school.

    We’re basically at peak connection so far right now, yet it’s interesting to think that some forms of connection have been available for over 30 years. While I wish institutions could become more nimble in response, I suspect in reality we’re still in for a long transition time as large historical changes tend to involve.

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    I personally work at a very large company where on the company home page there is a “Feedback” button. When employees submit feedback, it is monitored closely and things change because of it. Senior leaders in our organization take a personal interest in feedback. One department publishes a weekly “You spoke… we listened!” email where specific items of feedback are addressed. The Church seriously needs this.

    For example, my wife has been complaining since she was endowed some 17 years ago, that her garments don’t fit. If there had been a “Feedback” button that’s monitored (actually not just monitored but where it’s analyzed and reported on) garments would have changed years ago. Instead, my wife ends up laughing at the Ensign press release, “The latest design makes use of a new sizing system based on actual body measurements in inches.” Her response, “What were they using before?!? Elephants?”

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    It is strange that the Bretheren discourage looking on the internet for information but at the same time refuse to provide information themselves.

    None of the conference speakers saw fit to explain or justify the policy on gay marriage, but many thought anyone questioning was influenced by the wicked world, or this time the spacious building.

    We refuse to talk about it, and you can’t ask us, but don’t look elsewhere. The official church lessons and magazines were my only source of information about the church for most of my life, and it turns out, when they could control the message, they were less than honest, now they no longer control the message, they still act like they can.

    I can not see the church progressing until there is a generational change in the leadership, which I think will require a retirement age for Apostles. I think Uchtdorf as Prophet for at least 5years and retirement at 80 then reduced to70, though not sure if Bedinar would be converted by the5years of Uchtdorf.

    If not we have problems for the forseeable future.

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    The internet is democratic. It allows everyone to participate in the conversation, to challenge each other’s ideas, and vote with their page views, comments, and likes on the most popular ideas. It distrusts authority, submitting even the most venerated experts to fact checking. While far from perfect, it does often allow the best ideas to rise to the top. It doesn’t care as much about the source.

    The church, by contrast, is authoritarian. God reveals His word to His prophet, who in turn reveals it to His people. Information is top down, and the most important question about information is, what is its source? How often have you heard, is this church approved? Does it come from the Church’s website? Did the prophet say that, or endorse that? So a democratic communication medium like the internet undermines this authoritarian structure, allowing ordinary people to share their views, to question what the prophet said at general conference, etc. There’s a reason lots of authoritarian governments seek to tightly control the internet.

    There seem to be two approaches in the church to the internet. The first is to try to diminish its anti-authoritarian tendencies. They do this by discouraging members from looking up information on the internet about the church. They use search engine optimization to try to ensure that their own information comes up first in online searches. The second is to try to harness the democratic tendencies of the internet to their advantage. I think mormon.org is the best example of this, where members submit the content. They even encourage members to write their own views on individual topics like polygamy, even if they are doctrinally dubious. As long as they are not too negative, they are allowed to remain on the website, making it a wiki-type project and one of the best repositories of Mormon doctrine. They also have asked members to engage in conversations about the church through social media, with mixed results. I think the first approach, trying to control information and discourage free internet use, is the more attractive one to the leadership. I can’t remember the last time anyone talked about mormon.org.

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    That’s kind of a bleak picture you’re painting, Ziff, but alas, an accurate one. Leaders no doubt view the Internet as a positive thing if used as a tool to promote their agenda (more kindly: to further the mission of the Church) but as a negative thing or a threat if it shares information with Mormons or investigators that leaders would prefer not be shared. Unfortunately, the Internet is great at information sharing and not very good at promoting the traditional LDS agenda. The situation that always comes to my mind is that a curious and sincere investigator who meets a pair of LDS missionaries can learn more about LDS history and doctrine on any particular point in three days of sporadic Googling (before a second visit) than our teenage missionaries have received in years and years of LDS classes.

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    The Internet is the Tree of Knowledge. I have partaken of its fruit, and I will not go back. My life is much richer now that I have access to information, and I am a better person now that I can make my own informed choices.

    P.S. I use the Internet all the time to supplement the care and information I get from medical providers. What a ridiculous statement, E Ballard!

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    I did a sharing time in Primary about this. I talked about how amazing the internet is about getting information. We then asked Siri if God exists.
    I think it is important that in this world of INSTANT answers just by asking Google/Siri, kids need to know that sometimes you can’t find answers right away. These kids have NO CONCEPT of life when if you didn’t know the answer you just had to live with not knowledge. I think faith is harder for them because of this. I spent my childhood having passing questions but being content with either not knowing the answer, making huge efforts to find out the answer later if I made a special effort. I could wonder about something (is that the same actor as was in that other movie?) and live with the uncertainty of possibly never knowing the answer to that question.
    Sometimes the internet isn’t the place for certain answers. Siri can’t tell you whether God exists.
    I like to balance it. Obviously, I research on the internet about a medical issue, but go to my doctor to get a diagnosis and medical advice, and then use the internet for further questions and knowledge. I use both.
    In my 18 year old (she is brilliant and loves learning) she really relies on the internet for knowledge accumulation in general. Reddit, for instance. She reads enough that she is getting some nuanced information about things, so it isn’t all bad……. But it isn’t the same and I would prefer she also discuss things in real life with real people when she wants to learn. There is the real risk of too much exposure knowledge accumulation in memes only.

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    jks: “But it isn’t the same and I would prefer she also discuss things in real life with real people when she wants to learn.”

    I think this is a good example of the difference between leaders and some folks. Leaders frame internet-based info seeking/sharing and relationships as less “real” than in-person. For many of us, our online life is very real – real friendships, real dialogue, real learning. It’s different than in-person relationships/activities, but NOT less “real.”

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    The church wants to control the interpretation of facts, and that’s easy to do with a correlated curriculum, correlated materials, and a punitive culture that will punish anyone who goes off-script regularly. Ah, God bless the internets.

    Instead of blaming the net, leaders ought to be asking themselves these questions:

    1) What are members getting/needing from their time online that they cannot get at church?

    2) Why do leaders think members are too dumb/incompetent to handle the net?

    3) If church leaders really understand the issues, why can’t/won’t they just do some straight-talking about them?

    The irony of the church trying to control info and the interpretation of info is that they are creating demand for all things unapproved. Hello, black market.

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    Today in quorum the TFOT lesson was “choose the light” by Elder Vern Stanhill. In his talk he gives this lovely anti-internet lesson:
    Is it wise to place our eternal well-being in the hands of strangers? Is it wise to claim enlightenment from those who have no light to give or who may have private agendas hidden from us? These anonymous individuals, if presented to us honestly, would never be given a moment of our time, but because they exploit social media, hidden from scrutiny, they receive undeserved credibility.

    It made me think of you, Ziff. As an anonymous individual, presented to me honestly, you certainly deserve attention.

    I spoke up of course, challenging the other quorum members to not be afraid of reading things that challenge their worldview. As usual I was met with quick rebuttal, being warned that too much reading challenging stuff on the internet could lead to inactivity or apostasy (which to be honest is certainly a possibility).

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    Thanks for speaking up for me, MTodd! I’m sorry you got shot down. I’m sure Elder Stanhill is right, at least about me, at least in the (implied) point that I probably wouldn’t say quite what I say if I weren’t using a pseudonym. But I think that’s probably not a point in his favor that he’s able to use the threat of church discipline as a weapon to keep people quiet. It sounds kind of like he’s lamenting that this doesn’t work so well online.

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