Since mid-January, hours of phone conversations and reams of emails have crisscrossed America and the Atlantic as those of us on AAWA’s Advisory Board have plotted and tinkered to get this remarkable organization up on its feet.
Despite all of this, none of us could have been prepared for the roller-coaster ride that awaited us in the days that followed AAWA’s launch on April 3rd 2013.
There have been highs, and there have been lows! I will do my best to state candidly and factually what we did right and what we got wrong.
My fellow board members and I went into this with our eyes wide open, expecting to divide opinion and make mistakes – but it was always going to be impossible to predict the response to something that has never been done before to this extent.
AAWA’s video goes up
April 3rd was a very busy day as AAWA’s founders worked frantically behind the scenes to make sure everything would come together as smoothly as possible. We had pencilled in 1pm (New York time) as our official release time, and the board members “synchronized watches” so to speak. I had been up until 2am the previous morning putting the final frames of our introductory YouTube video together, so I was tired and exhausted – but exhilarated at the thought of what lay ahead.
Finally, a few minutes before 1pm struck, the video uploaded on YouTube more quickly than expected, and it was a crazy dash to get a forum post up on JWN (jehovahs-witness.net) as well as a corresponding post on JWsurvey. Other board members busily began spreading the word on Facebook, where excitement soon reached fever pitch. An official AAWA group was set up, and members began flooding in at an astonishing pace. The AAWA logo started to appear on people’s avatars as people embraced their new organization and its Mission Statement enthusiastically.
The video stirred emotions. People reported shedding a tear as they saw the heartfelt messages of Ex-JWs speaking in unison on behalf of all those who have left the mental grip of the Watchtower. The video sent out a powerful statement that Ex-JWs CAN overcome religious divides and work together under a common cause. In nine and a half minutes, it showed the world what AAWA is all about. As I write this, I am delighted to see that after nine days the video already has over 6,000 views, which doesn’t include all the mirrored versions that have spread across YouTube.
Volunteers flood in
A special page was set up on our website allowing volunteers to submit their details by means of a specially designed questionnaire. Before long, AAWA’s inbox began to fill with completed questionnaires from people in a total 17 countries, including such far-flung destinations as Uganda, Albania and Puerto Rico.
Of course, there were some glitches along the way. In our enthusiasm, we had forgotten to write clear instructions so that less computer-savvy volunteers would know how to fill in the forms. As a result, some forms came through blank, and we needed to contact these people and ask them to try again. Despite such glitches, the volunteer forms continue to flood in, and (at the last count) after nine days AAWA now has over 150 volunteer workers!
Of course, a workforce of that size cannot morph into a fully functioning organization overnight, and we are still working hard to get certain teams up and running. In the meantime, it is heart-warming to see the patience of those who have volunteered but have not yet been given specific roles or tasks. Everyone seems to instinctively understand that, if we are going to get this right, we need to be patient and do it properly – even if it takes time to structure the organization carefully with our long-term goals in mind.
At least for now the problem with volunteer forms seems to have been fixed. At Paul Grundy’s suggestion, AAWA’s Technical Team came to the rescue and installed a new interactive form on our volunteer page that is so far making the process of signing up to AAWA’s cause that little bit easier.
Fears over Facebook
One of the most stressful aspects of our launch was the confusion that arose over Facebook – a complex and foreboding site to even some of the more internet-savvy web surfers. To begin with, we were very excited to see our secret (invite-only) AAWA Facebook group filling at such a tremendous rate. A select group of AAWA’s friends who had been invited to set up the group by the board members added their own friends (about 50), but this soon snowballed. As new members joined, these recommended other friends to join, and so on. In just a few hours, AAWA’s Facebook group had swelled to over 1,300 members. The fear was – could some of these new members be faders who don’t want to be associated with our cause for fear of being “outed,” and were such ones in any danger?
To complicate matters still further, an over-excited Facebook-user took it upon himself to set up his own group in AAWA’s name that was less private than our official group – prompting yet more concerns over privacy. Once alerted to this situation, we contacted the individual involved and he kindly removed our name and logo from his page in cooperation with our request. Even though we acted quickly, the unthinkable question was pondered – might people have been harmed by all this?
The unfolding drama soon came to the attention of posters on jehovahs-witness.net (JWN) who, having already voiced their disagreement with other aspects of our organization, were now justifiably concerned at the possibility that individuals who are still Witnesses (or “faders”) might be being “outed” due to AAWA’s facebook activity. Before long, an official AAWA apology and explanation of what was going on was requested by members of JWN. The leader of our Technical Team responded by issuing a 1,700 word statement, including an apology from AAWA, to any who had been negatively affected by these events.
Despite our apology, complaints continued to gather pace. In particular, certain JWN posters demanded that we reveal the identity of the person who set up a false AAWA group on Facebook, and who had been adding members to this less-secure group without AAWA’s approval or knowledge. It was expressed by some that because this person had potentially breached the privacy of faders then his own privacy should also be breached.
On behalf of AAWA, I made it clear on JWN that we are against such practices as an organization, but that if aggrieved individuals who have been personally and negatively affected by any “outing” could contact us by email, we would cooperate fully with any such inquiries. After making this offer, only one email was received by our Technical Team – and it was from someone who just wanted the information without having been adversely affected personally.
Unsatisfied with this response, the forum then began demanding that AAWA take down its 1,300+ member secret group. The argument was that, because the privacy of the group members was supposedly in doubt, we were putting any potential faders within our group at risk of being outed and disfellowshipped. AAWA’s board investigated this claim, but soon discovered that because AAWA’s facebook group is set to “secret,” the identity of its members cannot be viewed by non-members. This means that if you are a fader, and you were mistakenly “joined” to this group by one of your friends without your knowledge, nobody would know about it but you and the other members who have themselves been joined.
In addition to its Facebook group, AAWA also has a Facebook page – but this is effectively just an advert that people can post messages on – it is not a group. You can only “like” it (not join it) – and nobody can force you to like something on Facebook against your will. At the time of writing this article, AAWA’s page has only 272 likes. Each one of these likes represents a Facebook user who now has AAWA’s logo advertised on the news feed of his or her page as something that he or she “likes.” However, as already expressed, such persons will have “liked” AAWA’s Facebook page because they chose to, and not because someone forced them to.
Of course, there is still a risk, albeit unlikely, that on joining (or being joined to) AAWA’s “secret” facebook group, an individual who is a Witness might be brought into contact with another member he or she knows who is also a Witness. However, (1) the other Witness would be in exactly the same predicament, and have no justifiable grounds to judge you when they are in the same position as you are, and (2) this is a risk that you run on all social media and forums when operating with a profile and divulging personal information, including forums like JWN (although admittedly the chances of instant recognition are reduced on JWN through the use of pseudonyms and non-personal avatars by the majority of users).
In any case, when considering these issues, we would always recommend that if someone is sensitive about their privacy (and the possibility of being “outed” as an “apostate”) it would really be best for them to not be using their true identity and personal information on Facebook to connect with like-minded ones in the Ex-JW community.
It is also important to stress that friends of those working directly with AAWA accounted for only about 50 out of those who were added to AAWA’s official group. The rest were referred into the group by other invitees during the “snowball” effect. So you see, the line soon becomes blurred as to whether, if someone gets added to a group without their consent, the blame lies with the persons (or company) who set up the group, or with the friend who invited them into it against their wishes.
Even so, to make doubly sure that AAWA group members are informed of all these privacy issues, Bo Juel Jensen, AAWA’s Head of Social Media, made a post on our Facebook group reminding members that they should leave if they have concerns over privacy without any ill feelings on our part. Some have heeded this instruction and left, and have subsequently been replaced by a roughly corresponding number who have joined, or been referred in.
AAWA has rightly expressed its most sincere apologies for any distress caused to those who were added to our group indiscriminately against their will, either by AAWA workers or friends of AAWA workers. One or two such individuals on JWN have complained of being “outed” by being added to AAWA’s group without their consent and therefore becoming visible to its members– and AAWA was deeply saddened to learn of this. However, as distressing as this is, one is only truly “outed” if one’s identity falls into the wrong hands.
To put it more plainly, in order to be “outed” on a secret group you must first be recognized by an individual also on that group who has the reason and/or desire to expose you, or to pass your details on to others. Without that being the case, if you leave the group quickly enough, you have actually experienced a “near miss” rather than having any actual harm inflicted against you. Panic and distress has been caused for which the person or persons responsible for adding you should accept responsibility and apologize, but without the element of “recognition,” the catastrophe of being “outed” has been averted.
With that in mind, as of today not a single person has contacted AAWA having suffered any negative pressure from Witnesses for being seen momentarily on our group. This is a huge relief to everyone at AAWA, but we are not resting on our laurels – lessons must be learned. Therefore, we will continue to be careful and take measures to ensure that members are only added according to our internal protocols. We will not be publicly revealing all of these protocols, because that would obviously make things easier for those who seek to enter our group with bad intentions. However, one of the things we are now doing is verifying by private message EVERYONE who requests to become a member of our group before adding them. In this way, it is impossible for someone to be added to our group without their knowledge. And of course, our group security settings are and always will be of the highest level offered by Facebook.
Amidst this series of events, it has been saddening to observe certain members of the Ex-JW community, particularly those on JWN, passionately attempting to ridicule us and undermine our efforts, even though (1) we have apologised for any mistakes on our part, (2) nobody seems to have actually been harmed, (3) no one is in the process of being harmed, and (4) we are essentially on their side, sharing the same objectives related to the Watchtower. Despite this, we won’t be allowing any undue negativity to distract us from our important work of setting up an organization that can pursue the Watchtower over its damaging policies, and render assistance to those in need.
Internet exposure begins
Facebook issues aside, AAWA’s launch has not been a complete PR disaster by any stretch! Even before the PR team is fully up and running, AAWA has caught the attentions of one website, ReligionNewsBlog.com, which focuses on cults and religions. Its article entitled “New organization takes on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watch Tower Society” nicely summed up who we are and what we’re about. In the process, it will have educated a few people about the Society by plainly stating, “At Apologetics Index (parent site of Religion News Blog), we consider the Watch Tower to be a cult — both theologically and sociologically.”
It is encouraging to know that without really trying we are already getting attention. Just imagine what we will be able to accomplish once our PR Team is up and running at full throttle! Already, AAWA’s Secretary Richard E. Kelly is in talks with outside PR companies with a view to enlisting their professional help in launching “Brand AAWA” and getting our message out there. The response so far has been one of great optimism and excitement regarding our marketability – so it will be fascinating to see where these talks lead us.
Our first receiver of help
Sometimes with all the excitement on Facebook etc, it is easy to lose track of what AAWA is about – making a difference. In particular, AAWA has set out in its Mission Statement to help those who are currently struggling from the organization’s mind control and cruel policies. With this in mind, you will be pleased to learn that AAWA has already helped its first Watchtower victim!
A few days ago, within a week of our launch, we were contacted via AAWA’s email address by a person who was struggling as a result of cruel treatment on the part of individuals within the person’s congregation who were acting under the influence of the Society’s ideological stance. With this person’s consent, their details were passed on to two AAWA Associates, who spent considerable time on the phone reassuring the person and giving advice. As a result, a friendship has been formed, along with an ongoing line of support. For obvious reasons I cannot reveal details of these discussions at this early stage because it would be a breach of confidentiality, but we are hoping that if the person is agreeable we might be able to feature him/her in an article in the not too distant future.
By the time you read this, you will probably have heard the news that Barbara Anderson has resigned her position as Vice President of AAWA’s Board of Directors for personal reasons. Though this news has come as a blow, Barbara did point out in her resignation that she would like to continue to help AAWA whenever called upon.
We are relieved to hear this, because it means that we can continue to benefit from her considerable wisdom and experience, which has played an important role in shaping AAWA’s direction over the past few weeks and months. We are also proud that Barbara, a true champion of truth and ambassador for our cause, will forever be associated with AAWA’s history as one of its founders.
AAWA’s launch has turned out to be a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, moments of excitement and of sober thought, and even frustration. But after coming through these last nine days, I can honestly say that AAWA’s directors are thrilled over-all with how things have gone. Yes, lessons have been learned and apologies have needed to be made – but at the same time an organization is starting to rise up and take shape. It’s a little lop-sided at the moment as certain teams get up and running before others, but we can be proud of it for what it is – a young organization, brimming with potential and enthusiastic individuals, whose sole mission is to take on the Watchtower and undo some of the harm it has done over many decades.
As we continue to grow and spread our wings, one of the most thrilling aspects of working with AAWA has been getting to know all the like-minded activists who have put individual beliefs and differences to one side and decided to work together towards a common cause. I know I speak for all of the Advisory Board in thanking all of you who have volunteered so far, and who will volunteer in the near future. Without you, we wouldn’t be able to make a difference – and believe me when I tell you that things are already starting to happen!
John Cedars, President of AAWA