Five years ago, Andrea Sawyer was asked to be a moderator of the Provincetown Community Space (PCS) Facebook page by a friend who was giving up the position. Sawyer thought it might be fun. That’s not how she describes the role now.
The space currently has 14,422 members, of whom 60 are people labeled “conversation starters” — that is, they make posts that get attention. Sawyer and other Facebook moderators say taming arguments and personal attacks on the pages they manage has become a time-consuming and often disheartening job. They blame the current political climate, along with stress stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, for the change.
Administrators of two Eastham pages — Eastham Cape Cod, with 5,485 members, and Eastham Community Space, with 4,654 — did not respond to inquiries for this article. The administrator of the Truro Facebook page also did not respond. But though they described growing incivility in posts and comments, the Wellfleet and Provincetown administrators interviewed by the Independent mostly hold out hope for the platform as a place for positive interaction.
“PCS has always been, to me, our virtual community bulletin board — a place to find out about what’s happening in town, and discussions about everything from the blue chair to whose huge yacht is in the harbor,” Sawyer said. “It saddens me very much to see the level of rancor and incivility we have been experiencing recently. It didn’t used to be like this,” she added.
Moderators of both the PCS and Wellfleet Community Space (WCS), the most frequented page for that town with 5,780 members, said that one way they manage the tone is to prohibit political content altogether. While posting about local events and in some cases limited forms of advertising are permitted, overtly political posts, they said, are taken down as soon as they are seen. But moderators say they lack control over the debate that occurs in the comments on posts, which can veer toward the politicized or unrelated. John Wolf, a moderator of the WCS, said his strategy is to “encourage vigorous debate but no personal attacks, name-calling, or bullying.” Those, he said, are “against the rules of the page.”
Deleting posts and “blocking” people is an option for moderators dealing with participants who engage in bullying and personal attacks. People who are blocked from a Facebook page can no longer post there. Farrukh Najmi, another moderator of the WCS, said members of community groups usually are given a warning before being removed. Najmi believes those steps are effective. “People are typically very apologetic after having a post deleted and receiving a warning,” he said.
Sawyer said that not everyone is so understanding. She has been threatened online by people who were removed from the group, she said. And one woman who had insisted Sawyer intervene to reinstate her membership pursued her in person. “She approached me in a local shop, following me around, cornering me, gesturing wildly and yelling,” Sawyer said. Other customers were “aghast,” she said, and the clerk was ready to call the police.
A more common issue is that removing posts can lead to participant complaints that the pages are suppressing “free speech,” Sawyer said. (The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech applies only to government action to silence speech, not the acts of individuals or companies like Facebook, which are not required to publish anything they choose not to publish.)
Najmi said he sometimes finds it difficult to delete posts. “I’ve had to delete posts and comments that I wholly agree with,” he said, “in order to maintain the rules of the group.” Wolf sometimes feels as though he “can’t seem to please anybody” when trying to maintain order on the page.
“Although admins have always had to keep an eye on things, we could now literally spend all day doing it,” Sawyer said.
The 14,000-plus members of the Provincetown Community Space, in a town with fewer than 3,000 residents, would seem to show that Facebook is a primary source of local news. Yet a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that just 15 percent of adults in the U.S. said social media was their preferred way to get local news. (Only 13 percent in that same study said their preferred source was print.) Perhaps people are tuning in to PCS just to watch the fights.
“The deep divisiveness of our society, within us, is reflected in these community pages,” said Najmi. But he believes people are learning about online debate. “Opinions can change and no one is perfect,” he said. “We have to emphasize and normalize the concept of a growth mindset.”
Allie Birger’s summer fellowship with the Independent is supported by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.