Free speech, that revered American concept, is being stress tested in the internet age, and social media pages may be the lab in which it mutates, or evolves.
With emotions and partisanship at a fever pitch these days in these United States, running a Facebook community page is no enviable or easy task. It is complex and challenging, as illustrated by this select sampling of local forum administrators.
Whether you administer or post, the best advice may be: proceed with caution, and if in doubt incline towards what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
“A new digital space for people to gather and celebrate our amazing town(s)” was what Jenifer Ross had in mind when deciding to set up a Facebook page called 10591 – the zip code for Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow – in 2011. ‘I wanted to create a safe, micro-level posting wall for the residents of this zip code and neighboring communities — for barter, events, recommendations, jobs, local news and information.”
Ten years ago, in a more innocent Internet age, Ross simply added 300 of her friends to her new group and took it from there. There were no post approvals, member eligibility questions or systems to remove members who violated the page’s mission. But as the page took off, managing it became more difficult. So Ross, as the only administrator, invited others to help her.
10591 now numbers over 13,000 members and fulfills many of the hopes Ross had for it, but very recently it ran afoul of some of the problems besetting other Facebook communities – abuse and name-calling, accusations of racism and censorship, and a need to reset.
Ross has addressed the crisis via a Zoom meeting, inviting members to be part of the conversation about better, more transparent administration, and to join the panel of moderators which has now grown to four or five. “I am confident we can come together,” she said. “The page plays a vital role and I look forward to seeing it continue to do that.”
With a swelling membership of about 13,000, Facebook forum Chappaqua Moms – whose members reside in other towns as well — found itself mired in a disturbing controversy arising from the widely-seen 10-second TikTok video showing several Horace Greeley High School students who recorded themselves using the n-word inside the school’s cafeteria last February.
Administrator Georgia Frasch remembers the benefits of increasing the page’s membership. “As it grew, the group could be used for the good of the community – not just a place to find a plumber or a playdate – and I steered it towards charitable and philanthropic work.” During the pandemic, via its Go Fund Me page, Chappaqua Moms raised $163,000 and provided 7000 meals to frontline workers.
But when the race issue arose, “some people were very provocative, not accomplishing anything, and not observing the group’s rules.” Frasch felt she had to remove some members.
“I do give a lot of leeway, but not when people are being vicious. I’m happy for the site to be a bulletin board, for BLM demonstrations for example, but there won’t in the future be comments on such things.”
She went on to find a co-moderator and planned to overhaul the mission statement, eligibility and rules on content. However as of late June, the page went “on pause.” “Too much shaming, blaming, judging others, nastiness…” Frasch explained. “It got out of control and started to feel dangerous, as behind the cover of a computer screen, people felt emboldened to say things that they would never say to someone in person.”
This is one of the sites that sprang up after the Chappaqua Moms controversy, with the purpose of giving higher visibility to the issue of racism. It was started by Arleigh Venet, who commented, “It was only appropriate for us to join together under a common belief that a Facebook group of a town should be able to have discussions about racist incidents that happen in the town itself.”
The page currently has a diverse group of six moderators. One is Susan Rubin: “Facebook can be very polarizing and challenging, but also wonderful,” she said. “My role as a white woman is to step back and let young people do this work.” Chappaqua Stands Against Racism was launched in early June and has quickly grown to more than 600 members.
Noticias y Deportes Hudson Valley
This new page grew out of Noticias y Deportes Peekskill, a page for the Hispanic community to share and inform. Rene Merchan and Diana Loja are co-administrators, responding to a need for more local information, a single site for Latin/Hispanic community outreach.
“As immigrants, we appreciate that in America people have the right to express themselves, but posts need to be kept professional. No bad words,” said Loja.
“You don’t have to like everything people say but everyone is welcome and we are there for you,” she adds. Loja has not experienced any negativity or trolling, just a lot of appreciation both by members and by agencies that can use the site to bring information and assistance.
Jeanne Pedro of Tarrytown set up Rivertown Buzz on Facebook some five years ago. It has 3,500 members and is an easy-going site, not least because of Pedro’s management stylem which is firm but low–key.
“I only have one rule,” she said. “Be nice.” She attributes her avoidance of controversy to keeping the membership local and focused. In a recent statement to members, she wrote, “I run this page the way I think is right. And fair. I will always do my best to keep it that way. And I will always try to keep an open mind.”
Active in community affairs, Leslie Lawler saw a chance in 2015 to create a Facebook page to encourage more people to focus on quality of life issues. Thus was born Peekskill Community Network-The Original Forum.
Lawler’s page goes beyond discussion. Every November, members of the group participate in a “Share the Blessings” drive. Food Pantry items, Thanksgiving dishes, and coats and scarves are collected for local churches and charities.
The group created Peekskill Clean Routine, where residents clean up parks, streets, and other areas. They also resurrected the Peekskill Community-Wide Tag Sale in June and October.
If an animal is lost, the page alerts its members, who network to safely return the pets to their owners.
It can be difficult and delicate to manage the strongly-held opinions and beliefs that people hold dear to, especially during this time of converging crises, with Covid-19 coming up against an onrush of mass demonstrations fighting social injustice.
“Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited,” Lawler states. “Spirited, even heated discussions are healthy, but once the comments become hurtful, I close the thread for a while to allow cooler heads to prevail.”
During election season, she says, “Discussions can get heated in a heartbeat, so it is important to keep an eye on the comments to avoid personal attacks.”
If a member levels a personal attack, they are given a muted time-out for a day or two, during which they can see group comments but cannot post their own.
Still, Lawler does her best to allow people to be heard. “It’s a basic human need to have someone listen and pay attention to us,” she says.
Croton Cortlandt Parents
Community forums are nothing if not a mirror of the populace they serve.
What began as a typical Facebook group for parents to share recommendations and find services has turned into a platform emphatically supporting the Black Lives Matter message.
Jean Froner started Croton Cortlandt Parents in 2012, having recently moved to the area.
At first, she joined a local Google group, but, says Froner, “I had a desire to put faces with names. I just wanted to get to know everybody, and have people see who everybody was when we were having exchanges.”
When the site’s primary utility was helping people find babysitters or solicit dining suggestions, managing the discussions meant mostly moderate maintenance, deleting spam or addressing an issue someone might have with content on the page.
Witnessing the sudden burst of activism behind the Black Lives Matter movement, Froner was moved to use her social media megaphone in the fight against racism.
“I just felt like it was an important time to speak up and that is what prompted the shift in the conversations on the page,” she says.
Froner and her 2,500 members use the page to advertise rallies, share resources on how to raise socially responsible children, and post information on the nationwide BLM movement.
If someone expresses racist rhetoric or attacks others, Froner issues a warning. If the behavior continues, the person is banished from the group.
With the rallies and protests fueling emotions on all sides, Froner suddenly found herself blocking some people and removing posts, a new experience for her.
“I try to let people have their voices and their opinions and even express their anger, if it’s not counter-productive,” says Froner.
For tips on how to set up your own social media community forum, see “So You Wanna Be a Facebook Administrator?” accompanying the electronic version of this article at RiverJournalOnline.com.