A recent article from salon.com suggests that religion may not survive the Internet. This may already be the case with Jehovah’s Witnesses. A new report published by JW Survey compares the 2012 worldwide membership statistics against Internet saturation. Countries with high Internet availability are slowing in religious growth compared to other less developed areas.
It used to be much easier for a high-control religion to keep embarrassing and negative information from members and potential recruits. The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, the mother organization for Jehovah’s Witnesses, has been quick to use copyright laws to remove secret information from the Internet. For example, in 2010 when the secret manual used by congregation elders leaked online, Watchtower Legal issued a flood of DMCA takedown orders to have it removed.
A more recent and disturbing example is an October 2012 letter sent to congregation elders updating their policy in dealing with accused child molesters in their ranks. A concerned whistleblower elder leaked the information to the Internet and it was posted with commentary on JW Survey. The letter contained shocking statements like, “It cannot be said in every case that one who has sexually abused a child could never qualify for … service in the congregation.” Again the Watchtower’s legal department sprung to action, citing copyright infringement which lead to a temporary takedown of the popular website.
Perhaps more surprising is the lengths that the Watchtower will go to remove its publicly available information from unofficial sources. From its inception, the religion has been geared toward the public distribution of its printed message, which it believes is the fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecy that the “good news of the kingdom” would be spread throughout the earth. It may be assumed that a religion that seems greatly concerned that its message be widely available would be grateful for exposure on popular Internet sites like YouTube. However this is not the case.
In 2012 attendees of the Watchtower’s worldwide conventions were provided a free animated children’s video. One segment contained the story of a young Jehovah’s Witness child who brings home an action figure given to him from a schoolmate. The mother quickly determines that the action figure uses “magic” and guilts the child into throwing it away. Within the carefully conditioned Jehovah’s Witness community the video hardly provoked a response, but to outsiders it was seen as an example of cruel emotional manipulation and indoctrination The video was uploaded to YouTube and viewed by thousands before it suffered a quick takedown by the Jehovah’s Witness lawyers.
The Watchtower’s use of the strong arm of copyright law has gone beyond this. In 2005 it sued an ex-member who set up a website only offering short, if embarrassing, quotations from their publicly available literature. The religion asked for $100,000 in damages. Lacking the resources to defend himself against the wealthy religion’s in-house legal team, the owner was forced to remove the critical website.
For organizations like the Watchtower, absolute control of their message is paramount. It will not even allow its own adherents to spread their “good news” online. The November 1997 Our Kingdom Ministry (an internal bulletin) mandates: “There is no need for any individual to prepare Internet pages about Jehovah’s Witnesses, our activities, or our beliefs. Our official site (www.watchtower.org) presents accurate information for any who want it.”
While the Watchtower has had some success in stymying the release of damaging information on the Internet, it has not been able to stop it all. Such things as doctrinal flip-flops and past false end-of-the-world predictions are readily available to questioning Witnesses and potential recruits.
Prior to the Internet, the Watchtower tried to downplay its culpability in predicting the end of the world in 1975. It blamed some of the members for unwise speculations. However, quotes from the literature pointing to the year in various ways are available online. For example a 1969 issue of the Awake! magazine urges young Witnesses: “If you are a young person, you also need to face the fact that you will never grow old in this present system of things. Why not? Because all the evidence in fulfillment of Bible prophecy indicates that this corrupt system is due to end in a few years.” Another YouTube video offers a public talk given by a Watchtower representative in 1968 who urges a crowd of thousands to “stay alive until ‘75”.
Another threat the Internet poses to the Watchtower, is that it allows the free exchange of ideas among Witnesses keen on examining the truthfulness of their religious teachings. About this their leadership warns, “a few associates of our organization have formed groups to do independent research on Bible-related subjects. Some have pursued an independent group study of Biblical Hebrew and Greek so as to analyze the accuracy of the New World Translation. … ‘The faithful and discreet slave’ does not endorse any literature, meetings, or Web sites that are not produced or organized under its oversite.” (Kingdom Ministry, September 2007)
Despite stern warnings, web forums, such as jehovahs-witness.net, have provided a safe haven for active Jehovah’s Witnesses to exchange in free communication with each other, and even ex-members. On the Internet, doctrines, policies, and pertinent news is openly discussed in way that could never happen in a Kingdom Hall. This circumvents one of the high-control group’s most effective tools in quaffing free thought, the harsh, ritual shunning of ex-members.
Prior to the Internet, disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witnesses, often faded away into obscurity. Their friends and family in the religion were forbidden to speak to them. Disfellowshipped ones had little means to network with each other, let alone current Jehovah’s Witnesses. Web sites like Jehovah’s Witness Recovery offer ex-members an opportunity to connect with others for support and healing. Popular social networking sites like Facebook help Jehovah’s Witnesses to stay in touch with disfellowshipped family members, much to the leadership’s consternation.
High control religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses have good reason to fear the Internet. By its nature, it bypasses the restriction on information and secrecy that allows cults to obtain and retain members. It seems that the Watchtower recognizes this threat. In a 2012 brochure intended to educate the public about Jehovah’s Witnesses, they warn: “Some websites have been set up by opposers to spread false information about Jehovah’s Witnesses. … We should avoid them.” However as the evidence suggests, the public, or even its own members, are not heeding the religion’s warnings. As Internet availability grows, becoming accessible to all, the future looks grim for the Jehovah’s Witness religion.