Feb 4, 2024

How followers of TB Joshua’s megachurch are attempting to silence his victims

YouTube and Apple have acted on our reports of abusive content, but other major platforms have remained silent

Open Democracy

Madeleine JaneKhatondi Soita Wepukhulu

1 February 2024

Followers of the global evangelical megachurch whose founder TB Joshua was accused of grooming and sexually abusing members have launched a wave of counter attacks against his victims, denouncing them as "blasphemous", "mentally ill" and "perverted".

The campaign spreading across YouTube, TikTok, Facebook and other platforms is part of a long and widespread pattern of abusive content broadcast by the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) and its followers that appears to violate the social media platforms' terms, an investigation by openDemocracy can reveal.

In 2021, openDemocracy's reporting led to YouTube suspending SCOAN's main channel for violating its user guidelines due to broadcasts of anti-LGBTIQ hate speech. As a result, the ministry lost the ability to broadcast to its 1.8 million subscribers.

But when Joshua died, his wife and successor, Evelyn Joshua, launched a new YouTube channel, and SCOAN's media juggernaut continued. That is, until this week, when YouTube took down SCOAN's channel, Emmanuel TV. It came after openDemocracy identified and reported the channel for publishing medical misinformation and hate speech against people with disabilities. We also reported more than 60 abusive videos about Joshua's accusers, published on fan channels across different platforms, that were in violation of their terms of service. openDemocracy's findings show these fan channels bullied and harassed Joshua's accusers and discriminated against sexual minorities (some of Joshua's accusers are queer).

In an emailed statement, YouTube said: "The flagged channel was terminated for violating our hate speech policies." SCOAN has not responded to a request for comment.

Apple, which has requirements of app developers it hosts on its App Store, is investigating the Emmanuel TV app after openDemocracy reported the abusive content.

Our analysis of over 100 pieces of content posted between 2022 and January 2024 shows that SCOAN, offspring ministries and other supporters of Joshua continue to spread discriminatory content and hate speech and medical misinformation, as well as engaging in cyberbullying of ex-members. The abusive content across platforms including YouTube, Facebook and TikTok soared earlier this month with the broadcast of a documentary by the BBC in partnership with openDemocracy. It has targeted whistleblowers who have gone on the record with allegations of sexual and psychological torture, financial fraud and criminal negligence by Joshua.

YouTube accounts promoting SCOAN have broadcast and shared archival video footage depicting several of these whistleblowers' experiences at the church. These videos, filmed originally by the church's Emmanuel TV media department, show some of the women who participated in the investigative documentary undergoing humiliating rituals, and confessing to alleged moral wrongdoing.

The intention behind sharing these clips appears to have been to discredit the survivors. Those who spoke with openDemocracy said SCOAN habitually employed psychological manipulation, near starvation and isolation against members and that the church videotaped "confessions" as a sort of blackmail. Survivors said these clips were kept to threaten ex-disciples with exposure or reputational damage if they ever decided to make their experiences public.

"The idea was to have so much humiliation filmed on tape that you are both aware of it," said Ajoke, one of Joshua's daughters, in an interview with openDemocracy.

"You fear it so much and are constantly shamed by it. So much so that it's like your voice has been shut down by it," she added.

YouTube, TikTok and Facebook all have policies against cyberbullying and harassment. YouTube, owned by Google, goes furthest, specifically forbidding harassment against survivors of sexual violence.

Meta (which owns Facebook) and TikTok acknowledged our enquiries but did not otherwise respond.

Despite these policies, abusive content about the women who are speaking out against TB Joshua includes the following:

  • In a video shared on 9 January on a Facebook group dedicated to Joshua's legacy, a supporter of SCOAN suggested a queer survivor who had accused Joshua of sexual assault was also engaging in "perverted things". The video was originally made and posted on YouTube two weeks ago by US televangelist and YouTuber Daniel Adams on his monetised account @TheSupernaturalLifeDanielAdams, and has been viewed more than 50,000 times and reposted to Facebook, where it has been viewed over 100,000 times.
  • On TikTok, accounts such as GOCOAN @Fglesari, which is dedicated to posting SCOAN content, have spread medical disinformation, defamatory content and abuse to hundreds of thousands of followers. Videos with millions of views have described the survivors as "mentally ill" and "blasphemous". One video posted on 10 January by the account TB Joshua Teachings shows a woman who is supposedly possessed by a "serpent from darkness kingdom" that "entered" the survivors and "used" them to "blaspheme" against Joshua.
  • TikTok's terms prohibit "language or behaviour that harasses, humiliates, threatens" or contains "toxicity and trolling." Yet homophobia and misinformation about gender and sexuality is the staple of SCOAN and TB Joshua's content. Another video titled "TRANSVESTITE TRANSFORMED!!!" posted in January 2018 by the TB Joshua Ministries Facebook page to its 6.5 million followers, for example, appears to breach the platform's policy on hate speech against sexual minorities. The video claims a transgender woman was "healed" when TB Joshua touched them during a crusade in Paraguay and has been viewed over 480,000 times. Coded homophobic language like "spirit of man" and "spirit of woman" is also repeatedly used across platforms to associate homosexuality and transgender identities with demonic possession.

On apps, the abuse continues

Even before the documentary aired in January, abusive content had been normalised on SCOAN's Emmanuel TV app.

In the 2000s, Emmanuel TV, the name of the church's media ministry, helped make TB Joshua the biggest televangelist in Africa. It was the church's main YouTube channel that the social media company deplatformed in 2021 for violations of terms.

Since then, the church has developed apps that are hosted on both the Apple and Google Play stores, and via Amazon and Roku. The content, however, hasn't changed much from the type that violated YouTube guidelines.

The user experience on the Emmanuel app appears to differ slightly on the versions hosted by the Apple or Google stores for different devices.

A video titled "Satan Turned Me GAY; Jesus Made Me STRAIGHT!" seen on the Apple app store version, shows Joshua calling a man out of the congregation who has "a spirit of man", for "deliverance". A dramatic scene follows – Joshua shouts: "Out! Out!" as the man clutches at his throat, appears to struggle for breath, and collapses. A week later, the same man purports to have been healed, and tells the congregation that he was allegedly raped by another man when he was a boy, leading to his "natural urges" being "replaced" with homosexual affection. In the same video, Joshua pushes back at a report that the man is "gay", saying: "We are not calling that name here, we call it spirit of man."

Meanwhile, written posts and videos found on the Emmanuel TV app from the Google Play store include claims that people were healed from cancer and HIV/AIDS after taking "living water" and other times "morning water" provided by SCOAN. A HIV/AIDS patient claimed they tested negative after a visit to the church's altar and drinking the living water. A woman with breast cancer who was on medication prescribed by a doctor was allegedly restored to full health after being introduced to morning water on Emmanuel TV, offering her "instant healing".

Google Play store has policies against health misinformation, forbidding health claims that "contradict existing medical consensus, or can cause harm to users".

Apple's app store tells app developers to "remind users to check with a doctor in addition to using the app and before making medical decisions".

Google did not respond to a request for comment. An Apple spokesperson told openDemocracy: "Our team is currently investigating the Emmanuel TV app, and will take appropriate action once the investigation is completed."

Confessions, made for TV, as a weapon

Before the era of big tech social platforms, Joshua was the first African televangelist to have a satellite TV station, which helped circulate purported miracles he alleged that God performed through him.

One of the reasons that Joshua's ministry left Nigerian cable TV for the satellite and digital world was that some of his content, including so-called miraculous cures of sick people and claims of resurrecting the dead, violated the Nigerian National Broadcasting Commission's policies on "unverified miracles". But it also helped bring in a new audience.

"He became more fluid and understanding to allow more people the liberty to use social media," said Ajoke, TB Joshua's daughter who left the church in 2015. "He had banked on that to amass more following and to create a system where they have a wider outreach. It was a very deliberate, very controlled system."

Video archives from the church's TV station became a tool in the social media backlash orchestrated by SCOAN supporters once allegations of abuse by TB Joshua started trending in the wake of the BBC/openDemocracy documentary.

One of these resurfaced video clips targets Bisola Johnson, one of the contributors in the documentary, and has amassed millions of views on TikTok, and thousands of views on YouTube and Facebook. It states, without evidence, that Bisola has mental health issues. On TikTok, accounts such as @ladypofficial shared videos calling for her arrest or issuing threats.

Bisola left SCOAN in 2007 and began speaking out about her experience the next year. The most widely shared video shows her crying and grovelling before Joshua, begging for forgiveness for an alleged moral transgression. Another clip shows her "confessing" to demon possession, mental illness and arson. Since this was before YouTube, the tape was distributed for free on the streets of Lagos and former disciples remember boxes of them being sent for distribution to the various SCOAN branches. Over the years, the video has been uploaded to YouTube over and over again. These harassment campaigns create physical danger for those targeted. In June 2013, Bisola was beaten so badly while waiting at a bus stop that she had to go to the hospital. "I was drenched in my own blood," she told openDemocracy.

Following the release of the documentary, Bisola has been subjected to renewed abuse and threats, including one message that said: "I am coming for you. Raise money to bury your casket, because you will regret this lies you during in your grave soon [sic]."

SCOAN follower accounts also targeted Ajoke, using videos taken when she was a minor. In one clip first circulated by YouTube account @WatchedTbJoshua, Joshua says he is disciplining Ajoke for allegedly being sexually promiscuous and stealing church funds. The video has been viewed over half a million times since it was posted on YouTube a fortnight ago, and has been reposted to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and elsewhere.

Ajoke says the scene was humiliating then as much as it is now.

"See the effort that has been put into the assassination of a person's character, and you almost know this is something I should dread," said Ajoke. "You almost live with that fear in your head for your whole life."

Reporting mechanisms on tech platforms have been widely criticised as insufficient and ineffective, especially poor moderation tools and resources for content that is in non-English languages and is local-context specific.

In the case of the online campaign against the SCOAN whistleblowers, some of the abusive content uses derogatory terms in Nigerian pidgin or slang used in parts of West Africa.

The defamatory language may not be caught by English-speaking content moderators, or executives of social media companies based in Silicon Valley. But the effect on those targeted is enormous.

Despite the cost of speaking out, neither Bisola nor Ajoke regret participating in the unmasking of their former abuser. "I encourage everyone to break that African culture of silence and secrecy. The more you speak out, [the more] you have won against your tormentor," Bisola said.

Ajoke shared similar thoughts, and fears SCOAN might publish "confessions" of her, in an attempt to discredit her.

"My yearning for justice, my yearning for a system that works not just for myself but for other people, is greater than that tag of shame or that feeling of fear," she said.

With a shrug, she added: "You have to stand up."

Want Facebook and TikTok to remove this abusive content? If so, you can message them here telling them to do just that. It could make a huge difference.

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