Facebook, Witch-Hunts and the Stand for Human Rights

Heather Greene —  August 24, 2013 — 38 Comments

This past week we witnessed a crescendo of frustration and fury fly from the global Pagan community in the direction of a Facebook Fan Page called “Witches Must Die by Fire” and a Facebook Group called “Those Witches nd Wizzards [sic] should die by Fire by Force.”  The rally cries came by way of social media, blogs and email.  At this point, I would include the links but the “pages” were removed by Facebook around 4pm EST on Thursday, August 23 2013.

FB PageThese offending Facebook “pages” advocated for the extrication and burning of alleged witches and wizards throughout the world. Using a Christian fundamentalist context, the moderators repeatedly preached their gospel on the evils of witchcraft while celebrating all attempts to defeat it.  As proof of witchcraft’s existence, the Fan Page displayed a photo of a South African-Zimbabwe sensationalist rag called H Metro Zim with a headline that read something like “Woman gives birth to frogs…daily.”

Let’s first examine the pages themselves and who owned them? The answer is important because it contextualizes the accusations and religious zealotry. The Facebook Group, “Those Witches nd Wizzards [sic] should die by Fire by Force” appears to have been launched in February of 2013.  It was moderated solely or in part by a Botswanan Pastor named Anthony Matildah, whose own personal Facebook page seems to have also disappeared. The 247 member group communicated in both broken-English and native African dialects including Setswana.  Most of its members were from the sub-Saharan countries of Africa.

The Facebook Fan Page called “Witches Must Die by Fire” was launched on April 3, 2013 by someone of sub-Saharan African-descent. However, this person confessed to “not [having] been back to Africa in 20 years.” He or she communicated in perfect British English and in at least one other African dialect. Based on my own research, I believe the owner resides in the U.K. as did the majority of the users making up the Page’s 340 likes. In recent years, Scotland Yard has in fact noticed an increase in the number of Witch Hunt cases in the UK and a noticeable growth in popularity of U.K.-based African Christian Churches. It is entirely possible that the page owner was a Pastor or, at the very least, a devout follower.

sapralogoAt first everyone assumed that the two pages had the same owner(s); however, they in fact may have no connection.  Regardless, they were certainly aligned through intent and discourse.  Both advocated for faith-based violence and, in doing so, perpetuated a culture of fear rampant in sub-Saharan Africa. Damon Leff, Director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA), coordinator of the Petition to Stop WItch Hunts in South Africa and Founder of Touchstone Advocacy said:

[Witchcraft] accusations occur not only in small impoverished villages…. Accusations occur across economic and social status lines.  Accusations are frequently made by ordinary people, not necessarily Christians, and not necessarily as a result of Christian influence. Traditional African beliefs often drive accusations, where traditional healers do play their role by divining suspects of suspected witchcraft activity…No single African country has been immune to its fair share of witch-hunts. Many of these countries already have legislation that forbids accusations of witchcraft… However [this] legislation does not address or seek to correct the beliefs which motivate accusations.

As suggested by Leff and noted in a BBC article on the subject, witchcraft in these cases is defined by a supernatural practice with clear malicious intent. The beliefs are a fusion of fundamentalist Christianity and traditional African folk beliefs. Some pastors use the fear of witchcraft to extort money out of their congregation and have even convinced parents to abuse their own children. This witchcraft is a distorted product of theological extremism gone very, very wrong.

accusation

As such the witchcraft in these cases is not the same as the Witchcraft practiced within the spiritual or ethical framework of a Pagan or Nature-based religion or any other similar positive folk or healing practice. The verbal attacks made on these two Facebook pages were not anti-Pagan.  As best clarified by Circle Magazine Editor Florence Edwards-Miller, this distinction is not at all dissimilar to the Anti-Defamation League’s differentiation between anti-Semitism (a people) and anti-Judaism (a theology.) The Facebook pages attacked a people, not a theology.

However, as pointed out by Damon Leff:

Witch-hunters will never first ask if their victims are Pagan Witches before attacking, as they are unlikely to draw any distinction between one kind of witch or another, and so it is understandable that Witches everywhere should feel personally offended and threatened.

cog-joint-logoAnd, offended we were. Sometime in April “Witches and Wizzards” and “Witches Must Die By Fire,” began receiving counter posts and complaints from concerned Pagans.  However, the Fan Page went private from April to August during which interest waned.  When the Fan Page reappeared on the scene, an avalanche of protests began which included abuse complaints to Facebook, calls to media affiliates, petitions on Change.org, You Tube Videos and blog posts. Babette Petiot of “News & Liens Paienne” even contacted Interpol which is based in her home town of Lyon, France.

As word spread, Pagan organizations became involved. On August 20, Lady Liberty League issued an open letter to Facebook asking it to “revise [its] decision and disable these and all future pages calling for violent witch hunts anywhere.” On the same day, the Covenant of the Goddess responded by saying, it “cannot condone a public call for the death of any one person or group regardless of religious affiliation or lifestyle choice.”

Pagan FederationIn Russia, Pagan Federation co-coordinator Gwiddon said, “What is surprising to me is the reaction of Facebook staff that seems to be completely ignoring this issue, despite the repeated notifications from witches and pagans.” In the U.K., The Pagan Federation’s Mike Stygal agreed asking “why [should] Facebook allow pages that are clearly aimed at inciting hatred, violence and murder to continue to grace their social network?”

With 100s of complaints being turned away or ignored entirely, there was nothing to explain Facebook’s decision. On Tuesday I was able to reach Facebook’s Public Policy and Communication Department. After several exchanges, they promised to be in touch with an explanation. But the pages went down before I ever got a response. So I contacted Facebook again.  They confirmed that the pages were removed by them.  Then they offered this short explanation when I asked “What happened?”

With over one billion users worldwide, we always encourage our users to report content that they believe violates our policies here and it looks like we didn’t receive any violations [on these pages]…. It could be possible that users may have reported that they violated under different terms…”   

As the moderator of an international free-speech forum, Facebook handles two million abuse reports per week. As Emily Brazelton explains in her book Sticks and Stones, the Facebook system is mostly automated leaving reviewers only seconds to handle each complaint.  If two identical complaints are rejected, any future similar complaints are ignored. (Brazelton, Sticks and Stones, pg 268-269)

By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg)

By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg)

It may be that our voices were, at first, lost in that automated shuffle. However, in the end our mounting pressure broke through and Facebook took corrective actions to uphold its own policies. In reaction, the Covenant of the Goddess together with the Lady Liberty League responded with gratitude urging “the Pagan community to join [them] in expressing [their] thanks to Facebook for listening and making this positive change.” They added:

We hope Facebook will to continue to be a leader in the effort to address violence and hate wherever it festers.

This felt like a win for many of us who celebrated from behind our computer screens.  But was it really?  Should we even be celebrating? What are we celebrating? The notoriety of these pages took us, first world Pagans, to a place labeled “witchcraft” where our nature- spirituality, our ethics, our mythology and our beliefs intersect with something far more horrifying.  While these Facebook pages may not have been directed toward us, in viewing them we reached a point of liminality where distinctions between Witchcraft and witchcraft were no longer made.  That is scary.

Now that the pages are down, we can move beyond that surreal point back into the security of our own world. Unfortunately, the removal of these two Facebook pages created no comfort for those living in the affected regions of Africa or elsewhere. Should this week’s events be a wake-up call for Pagans and Witches worldwide to reconsider our relationship with the accused? Now that the “fire” is put out, should we re-evaluate our responsibility, as a People who claim the word Witch, to those people who are dying because of the word witch?

Never Again the Burning Times??

Courtesy of Flickr's emilydickinsonridesabmx

Courtesy of Flickr’s emilydickinsonridesabmx

Send to Kindle

Heather Greene

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She is currently National Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Strange Ranger

    As an experiment, I created a page called ‘Christians must die by fire.’ It was deleted within 24 hours, yet the ‘Witches must die by fire’ stayed up for several months. I reported it at least once daily, using every form of complaint Facebook allowed. So Facebook most definitely practices religious discrimination.

    • Freya UberHex

      Doesn’t surprise me! I’ve known many people who have conducted little “online social experiments” Such as your own. It seems that if you one of the religions that belong to the “Big 3″ get attacked, well… It seems they “jump right on it” However attack others like the heathen or pagan community
      It seems it takes a great deal of outrage for anyting to even be remotley done.

  • Morgan Sheridan

    One of the most horrific things in Africa about the treatment of alleged witches and so on is that women and children are the most frequently accused and the most frequently killed by fire… burned to death. If such a victim is lucky and they escape with their lives, they are separated from their families and loved ones and pretty much exiled while their lives remain at risk. So any page promoting “Witches must burn” is really promoting a hate crime of religious intolerance or gender intolerance. I’m glad to see how strongly the Lady Liberty League and COG responded to those pages and that Facebook finally gave in and removed them.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    Pagans who are concerned about human rights abuses due to witchcraft accusations may want to donate to the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (http://www.whrin.org/) or Stepping Stones Nigeria (http://www.steppingstonesnigeria.org/witchcraft.html), which deals specifically with witchcraft accusations against children.

  • g75401

    All good points. I’m not quite sure how to address the Africa problem since it seems to be more than just about “witches”. If allegedly “christian” pastors are using a fear of “witchcraft” to extort money from their parishioners, that’s not a “witch” problem. That’s a criminal problem and a problem of church hierarchy and authority. If the accused “witches” are mainly women and children, that’s not a “witch” problem, that’s a cultural one. There’s similar problems related to HIV transmission seen in Africa. Sexual practices in Africa actually enhance male to female transmission and many infected males really believe that raping infants is an HIV cure. If the accused “witches” in Africa were actually a easily defined group, it would be easier to maintain a “protective” presence, but it seems to me, “witch” in Africa is a catchall term used to justify all sorts of mayhem.

    • Luis Abbadie

      This is true actually, the Word is used as an excuse. But then, that is the case of all witch hunts, like the old British hunts having been an excuse to pursue Catholics.

  • KhalilaRedBird

    We rose in indignation, concern, and protest when triggered by the word “witches”, and we were successful in hauling this situation — a small symptom of a huge problem — into the light. I challenge all of us to be similarly indignant when other categories of good folk are similarly targeted.

    • KhalilaRedBird

      “handling”, not “hauling”. Sorry. No option to edit on this forum.

    • Kris Hughes

      So true. As a feminist, I frequently hear of pages advocating rape, domestic abuse of women and hate speech against women and girls. It is very difficult to get facebook to act against these, and the tend to reappear quite quickly. But put up a picture of a goddess, bare to the waist, and it stands a good chance of being taken down….

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    MSN.com has a story about a police crackdown on Pastafarians in Russia, with political and physical connivance of the Russian Orthodox Church. http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/08/24/20153441-humor-failure-in-russia-crackdown-on-pastafarians-shows-kremlin-church-ties?lite

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Sorry to obtrude a different matter into this discussion but my new computer doesn’t let me see which button to click to contact Jason directly..

    • Ambermoone

      Wow. Russia has been really classy with their civil rights lately, huh?

  • Tango

    When I complained about the page, “Hate page” was not listed as an option. Apparently they remove that option after a few complaints – perhaps after those rejected two they mention.

    I think that’s short sighted, since it takes more than a quick glance sometimes to know what is hate and what isn’t and if it is a hate page, it’ll get a number of complaints. It’s better to leave that option than to get many complaints under the wrong category, but I’ve noticed Facebook doesn’t care about reason or logic or helping users. They know they’re the only game in town, for now, and care more about their bottom line than doing a good thing.

    When my complaint was rejected, I responded and said, “If this were advocating burning people of your religion, would you still think it’s not a hate page? This page is advocating killing people who really exist in a painful way.”

    I don’t know if that made a difference or not.

    • http://www.miraselena.com/ Heather Greene

      I believe that everyone’s complaints made a difference. One Pagan said to me (paraphrased) “If everyone gives just one little drop of water one day we could make a river.”

    • Janalyn

      They said to me that ‘hate speech’ standards were not violated by these pages. If we had put it under the category of violence and threats, then maybe they would have taken notice. I wasn’t the only one they said this to about these pages not fulfilling their ‘standards’ of hate speech. I wrote them back and said, how can death threats and advocating murder not be hate speech? I never got a response back. It’s a shame we have to be ‘particular’ in our complaints about what is what. Hate speech when it construes death threats should be in the same fricken category.

  • Jill James

    Well written and entirely correct. Removing these two pages leaves who knows how many more. The disturbing fact remains, in real life and the virtual world ignorance fueled by hatred and justified by ‘religion’ breeds bloodbath. We may have won a battle but we are far from winning the war. Sending Waves of Blessings, Protection and Peace to all those who face this battle in real life.

    Namaste!

  • sacajungirl

    I work in the legal field and after reporting the page and receiving the notice that it did not violate their terms, I responded to their decision by pasting portions of the page that directly violated the terms and advised them that I work in the legal field and that in leaving the page up after it had been reported many times that they were exposing themselves to serious liability should something happen and to protect themselves, they should bring the page to the attention of their legal department immediately. Less than 12 hours later, I received an email from Facebook that they had revised their decision on my report and the page had been removed. I guess once they showed it to someone in legal, they decided it wasn’t worth the risk of leaving it up. I didn’t think responding to their decision would help, but I was going to do everything within my power even if I failed. So happy they revised their decision and that hate filled page is gone~!!!

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Is this a victory, or are we just forcing people with these views underground?

    How can this mentality be actually combated? removing a couple pages on one social site may seem like a step forward but, really, are we addressing a symptom rather than a cause?

    I think it is pretty evident that a lot of this hatred is perpetuated by ‘Western’ Christians (and their organisations). Rather than shutting down their voices, do we not need to be shutting down their actual operations and striving to educate the ignorant masses?

    In the UK, there is a legal ruling where a British citizen can be tried in the UK for crimes committed abroad, so long as the crime is on a list the government made (Violent crimes, such as murder and rape make up this list). Perhaps this would be relevant here?

    • Jessica Cielo

      Honestly we cant educate the people who think this way on the truth of other religions because in many cases even to speak or see another religion as an equal is a sin and punishable. This is why there are many christians and other religious peoples blind to the truth of opposing religions. They are taught to be blind to all but thier religion because all others are a falsehood and the work of evil. The only way to truly stop this is to make any form of religious attack, wether by words or physical, illega. Which would infringe upon freedoms of expression and also speech. I just try to counter the hate with love, and support my personnal beliefs whole heartedly without causing hurt to anyone else.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I don’t want to make the ability to speak their hate illegal. I want to stop the hate.

        Remove their ability to voice their hate and you make it far more difficult to see if the hate has gone.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Leoht, your first paragraph suggests the Facebook action went to far, and your second implies that it made no difference. Which is closer to your actual suspicions?One way to combat this mentality is to create safe social space in which hate is not welcome. You needn’t be a mystic (well, not much) to believe that as more space becomes safe, this affects the overall vibe.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I think that the Facebook action was appropriate. I merely think that the situation is far larger, and more serious, than a couple pages spouting hate.

        I also am a firm believer that simply silencing people will not change mind. Rather it will fuel resentment.

        • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

          I put some links to organizations that deal with human rights abuses related to witchcraft accusations in the comments below. You can donate.

        • Janalyn

          Leoht, I can see your point. Indeed, the problem is far greater than just a few ‘hate’ pages being taken down. But I was able to educate the people on my FB page as to the threats that still exist against Pagans and Witches in the modern world. Many of the people on my page are family and friends who are Christian. Did they have any idea this kind of persecution exists in today’s world? I don’t know. What I do know is that I was able to assist in some small way in my corner of a ‘river’ (thanks to someone mentioning the drops and river analogy before) to help others see that such hatred does need to be stopped. Education is the first step in that process. This in no way has stopped me from being out of the ‘broom closet’. In fact it has made me more determined to make my voice heard. It is the small steps that lead to the bigger leaps. Move forward and keep speaking up. When we see an injustice we keep moving up the ladder. Our problem is not knowing such things exist in other parts of the world. I found out through this scenario. Now I’m taking more of an interest in how I can help. That’s what we can do from this. My brother and his family are devout Christians, but they know I’m a Witch and we still love each other immensely. We don’t judge each other and we are able to bond together as a family. It took me a long time to come out to them, but they did not turn me away for doing so. That… gives me hope that there is still hope out there for all of us. :)

  • Sabina Magliocco

    Thank you for this lucid, cogent article. I especially appreciate your attention to the real targets of these pages: innocent victims of a mixture of indigenous and Pentecostal witchcraft beliefs in various African nations (as well as other parts of the world). If we want to truly be able to say “Never again the burning times,” we need to stand in solidarity with them, as we did in this case.

  • damonleff

    Thanks Heather, a good article.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I am glad to see this being questioned, both the original hateful FaceBook pages, the actual witch hunts, and what should be our part in the world community. As noted we do say never again the burning but it has never stopped, only ignored because most of the victims were in the third world. But it is the same witch hunt, just like the ones of the past, innocent people being harassed, beaten and killed for a phony crime. So the question is never again the burning, just a nice sentiment, or do we walk our walk as well?

    Nevertheless, I am glad to see how many Pagans, Pagan organizations, came together on this, as well as our Pagan media in several parts of the world. We are beginning to act a bit as a global community and in doing so, to see what power we do have to change what is happening in our world. Let continue to work to change what is bad, solve what can be solves, share our knowledge and talents, hopes and dreams to create the very world we claim to want.

  • thelettuceman

    Hilariously: http://www.examiner.com/article/right-wingers-on-facebook-going-dark-on-sunday

    My favorite excerpt: “In an open letter to Facebook set up on a website to promote this event, it says, “Conservative, Libertarian, Republican, Christian and similar groups seem to be held to a different standard than other users on Facebook. We have been unjustly punished for participating in the Facebook community.””

  • mcstix

    blow the whole world up to kingdom come then we will be in eden v2

  • American

    I can’t believe that those days have come around again. It proves that in 500 years nothing has really changed. Except for the fact that there is more of us ;)

  • TadhgMor

    I would point out at least “Witches Must Die By Fire” used explicitly anti-pagan language, directly referencing Wiccans in some of his last rants prior to the page being taken down. So it may not have begun directed towards modern paganism, but he certainly made the leap to it. He also used Islamophobic language, along with his Christian Truimphalist nonsense.

    It was extremely frustrating when your complaint was rejected in 30 seconds flat, but I assumed it was automated. I’m just glad Facebook finally got around to dealing with it.

  • Robyn

    i was glad fb did the right thing this time. unfortunately the jerk who started that page is back at it under a new name and even brags about being ‘up and running’ again. His pages are now called “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and ” Christians against Islamic terrorism”.
    Hopefully we can get those pages banned too.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I am almost tempted to say ‘keep this page’.

      It works as a source of evidence for how some Christians think.

  • Anya

    The same people behind that page has returned. The new page: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” has the same profile picture and timeline cover. The posts so far have been in the same manner as the recently deleted page mentioned in the article.

  • Antonella Ercolani

    OK NOW I AM P I S S E D O F F!!!!!!!! IT SEEMS WE HAVE TO CONTACT THE INTERPOL AGAIN SINCE FACEBOOK HAS NOT LEARNED WHAT HATE SPEECH AND INCITING TO VIOLENCE MEANS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THIS IS THE SAME GUY FROM AFRICA OR OF AFRICAN DESCENT WHERE THEY KILL WITCHES AND PEOPLE WHO THEY THINK ARE WITCHES INCLUDING ALBINOS AND OLD PEOPLE https://www.facebook.com/pages/Thou-shalt-not-suffer-a-witch-to-live/185152058330880

  • Starshadow666

    In the past three days I reported a page called something like “Hang all the Salem witchesss” and my report of abuse was denied. I appealed it. I don’t seem to find it now but I do find a CLOSED group called “Die Witches Die”with 12 members. Not knowing if it’s a hate group or a role playing group leaves me unwilling to report it as hate speech without knowing.

    But I am very dissatisfied. I do believe in free speech, however, free speech has consequences and FB isn’t the government (though they may want to be.) We have real hatred against pagans, witches, GLBT people and other minorities and people are dying because of it.

  • http://www.celestinetarot.com/ Celestine Angel

    It’s back, and Facebook is right back to ignoring reports again. What we need is for Facebook to officially recognize Paganism and all its branches and practices as deserving respect as religions, so that hate speech against us will garner the same immediate response as would hate speech against any other recognized religion.

    • Luna

      It really sucks, but Facebook is under no real obligation to recognize
      any religion, being a private entity, as legit or not legit. (Not to mention, none of us has a catalog of the entirety of all Paganism’s branches and practices; surely they won’t either.)

      What seems like the stronger stance is that they should stand by their own rules about “threats of violence”.

      What works even better is if there’s a mass exodus of users who loudly explain WHY they will no longer give their eyeballs to Facebook’s advertisers.