Before the invention of the household telephone in the late 19th Century, communication between community members relied largely on face-to-face discussions and written correspondence.
Fast-forward 100-plus years and we are in the age of technology, including widespread use of mobile phones. It’s an era of exponential change in how we communicate. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are barely 12 years old. Society and lawmakers scrambled to keep up.
People around the world and within our own communities are connecting like never before and much, but not all, of it is positive. Social media can exacerbate fractures within communities, especially around divisive issues, such as how to respond to homelessness and addiction.
In Maple Ridge, there are upwards of a dozen large, active neighbourhood and political Facebook groups, and most of them are engaged in community building.
The first of the local groups, Hammond Neighbours was founded in March 2012 by James Rowley. A yardstick of success Rowley applies to his 4,000 member Facebook group is “the diversity of its membership and the number of members who feel comfortable commenting.”
Recognizing a need for better Facebook group structures, Rowley organized an in-person Community Facebook Groups Workshop in 2017 as a way for Facebook group administrators to share best practices.
Social media coach and editor Sean Smith provided advice to the 15 participants. As a result of this collaboration, Rowley and others updated their practices and group guidelines.
Rowley sees ‘fake news’ as a significant threat and no longer allows group members to back up their opinions with links from “conspiracy websites pretending to be legit.”
“Even an editorial from a mainstream newspaper is better than a pseudo-scientific journal because it is clearly an opinion piece,” he explains. “This is a global problem leading to measles outbreaks, climate denial, a resurgence of white supremacist ideas and more. Group admins do nobody any favours by standing aside and letting the [stuff] fly in the name of free speech.”
Moderating a Facebook group requires significant volunteer time. I know, because in 2013 I founded Maple Ridge Council Watch. The idea was to provide a non-partisan space – a virtual town square – for discussion and debate around local government issues.
Sean Orcutt founded Albion Neighbours in 2014 and it’s currently the largest local Facebook group with more than 8,000 members.
Orcutt echoes concerns about the social media platform: “At some point, some unscrupulous people realized Facebook could also be used to influence everyone’s opinions.”
Along the way, Orcutt has learned a lot.
“Shortly after the group opened, we had problems with people reporting crime and things of that nature. They quickly spiraled into very inappropriate conversations. Profanity, vigilante justice, threats, inciting violence.”
These days, he requires a police report number for any crime post.
Misinformation and manipulation often come from anonymous profiles. It’s possible for a single user to have multiple accounts under multiple made-up names. Though it can be surprising what some people will post under their own names. Experts point to the sense of anonymity when alone with a keyboard and an Internet connection, and also the lack of immediate human feedback such as facial expressions.
A disturbing trend is to treat social media discussions as entertainment.
“Don’t feed the trolls” is advice to ignore those whose only interest is provoking a negative reaction. In public meetings, that kind of disruptor is quickly shown the door. But online they’ve gained some traction.
Facebook is taking tentative steps toward tightening its community standards, eliminating extremists groups, and reducing illegal political manipulation.
Social media can act as an amplifier if we’re not careful.
In Maple Ridge groups, the current debates around homelessness, addiction and supportive housing have some community members labeling each other as “haters” and “enablers.” It’s difficult, at times, to see a path that will bring us back together as a community. And to be clear, I consider everyone who lives here part of our community, no matter when they arrived, where they arrived from, or where they live.
Sarah Hossack-Redden is a community support worker and participates in a number of local Facebook groups. However, the level of anger and lack of interest in finding solutions has prompted her to recently leave several.
Hossack-Redden understands the frustrations around the homeless camp, needles and out-of-town political activists and feels many people with concerns are open-minded and interested in listening to factual information.
She also “loves how community members have gotten together to provide services to the homeless and most of the connections have started over social media”.
Creating non-toxic spaces for community members to connect, debate and discuss issues and brainstorm solutions has the potential to strengthen our community.
Hossack-Redden speaks for many: “What I’d like to see change is for people to stop saying things over social media that wouldn’t be acceptable in real life, face-to-face.”
Katherine Wagner is a member of the
Citizens’ Task Force on Transparency, a
former school trustee and member
of Golden Ears Writers.