In a disturbing move that could have worrying implications for wider ExJW and anti-cult activism, it appears that Facebook has just shut down a pivotal activist Facebook page.
The page in question is that of AvoidJW.
For those not familiar, AvoidJW is the pseudonym for an exJW activist who has collected and hosted online an extensive library of Watchtower publications, letters and internal documents. Many of these documents expose how Watchtower is failing to act on child abuse, is misleading the public about shunning, and demonstrate how financially and mentally controlling the organisation really is. In other words, the site is a vital tool for exposing human rights abuses.
Unsurprisingly, AvoidJW has become a pivotal resource for the ExJW community, and for legal and journalistic professionals who wish to cut past the wall of silence that Watchtower often throws up over issues like child abuse and shunning, and access information that sheds light on what is really going on behind the religion’s closed doors. His online presence spans his original website, his twitter account and his Facebook group.
At least it used to.
Facebook has shut him down.
Why is Facebook banning ExJW activists?
When I first heard of this, I thought that perhaps there was some copyright claim involved. Yet it appears that the reason Facebook has cited is not that of copyright violation,
Astonishingly, it appears that the group was shut down under the vague and sweeping generalisation of “hate speech.”
I spoke to AvoidJW to try and find out what had happened. Firstly he set out why he created the website and what his goals are with his online presence;
When I started AvoidJW in October 2014, I had no idea what the site was going to be. I just knew that people needed to “avoid” JWs if they wanted to have a happy life without having the religion interfere with their families. At that time, I didn’t even know there were secret documents in terms of guidelines, handbooks and policy letters. I just thought that the religion was harming people through over-reaching interference. It wasn’t until March 2015 that I discovered secret documents. It was then that I realised what direction I needed to go with the website: bring transparency to a highly secretive and extremely controlling organisation.
So hardly the profile or goals of a rage fuelled, screaming hate preacher. Moving on, I asked about the circumstances leading up to the ban. How was AvoidJW first notified by Facebook? Was there a phonecall? A web chat? A detailed email allowing him to respond? Astonishingly, no. He told me that Facebook pulled the plug on a vital ExJW resource with basically no warning and little explanation;
“Facebook just gave a broad statement saying it broke one or more of its terms of service. “It didn’t cite a specific reason when deleting the page but when they initially suspended the page the reason given was “hate speech.”
Hate Speech is a term usually reserved for people who actively call for the killing or abuse of others, such as extremist Islamist clerics who call for terror attacks, or race hate groups who call for exterminations and ethnic cleansing based on skin colour or racial background. I challenge anyone to look through the AvoidJW website and find anything close to that kind of rhetoric. In fact, you can even look through the Facebook group, which is still viewable via the Google cache.
It seems that an appeal to common sense should have resolved this issue, but what options are open to a Facebook group once they have been shut down without notice? AvoidJW explained his experience as follows;
The “appeal process” is a joke. You are told that to appeal, click this button. So you hit the “appeal” button at the bottom of the warning. When you do that, another message pops up. “You have appealed on [date]. We’ll take another look.” That’s as much of an “appeal” that you get.
Astonishingly, in their appeal review, Facebook confirmed the original decision to shut the page down over accusations of “Hate Speech. AvoidJW was not contacted for his side of the story, or to give information to assist the appeal. Everything took place behind closed doors without his input and, eight hours later, a vital resource for recovering cult victims and anti-cult activists was gone.
Was Watchtower involved?
The appeals process gave no transparency as to the source of the complaint, and no indication if Facebook was acting of its own accord or in response to complaints from a third party. AvoidJW, however, says he is fairly certain of what prompted this event:
Thankfully, AvoidJW has been able to set up a new group, with the collaboration of fellow activists at JWAwake, so his hard work and activism can continue on the social medial site. Nonetheless, the entire incident is very disturbing.
The irony is that, if anyone is committing online “hate speech” in this dispute, it’s Watchtower, with its calls for shunning of those who leave the faith, its demonisation of those who criticise its doctrines and its praise of genocide for non-believers at Armageddon.
Frankly, I don’t support Facebook banning either ExJW or Pro-Watchtower pages, and I don’t like the casual way accusations of “hate speech” are being casually thrown around nowadays, but the appalling lack of ethical clarity here is dreadful. Facebook appear to have become, either by lazy moderation or deliberate choice, Watchtower’s attack dog.
This is why I am such a strong advocate for free speech, barring actual direct incitement to violence. It’s very tempting to shut down speech or opinions you disagree with, or that you feel are dangerously wrongheaded, but the trend of censorship always has a way of backfiring, and this is a perfect example. Challenge speech you don’t agree with. Debate ideas you think are wrong. Expose and ridicule something you perceive to be “hate speech.” But when we give authorities the power to crush speech we dislike, sooner or later those authorities always come for our speech too.
Facebook has a huge amount of power in the matter of online free speech, and to see it slipping more and more into the role of a religious policeman is extremely disturbing.
Follow me on twitter @covertfade.
Follow JW Survey on twitter @jwsurveyorg.
Follow AvoidJW on twitter @avoidjw.