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'Pure Negativity': Division Over Pandemic Creates Challenges, Opportunities In Rural Facebook Groups

Adam Rayes
Social media can be critical to informing, supporting and connecting smaller communities. But it can still be a divisive platform.

Soon after Walmart announced it would require customers to wear masks, someone posted an article about the announcement in a closed Facebook group called the Morgan County Bulletin Board. The post landed in the 5,600-member group like a bomb. The comment section quickly filled with people praising or slamming the decision. A few devolved into spiteful arguments featuring some misleading memes that claim masks are ineffective.

  The group’s administrator, Kristie Spotts Cobbley, used to take a very hands-off approach to moderating. Even in election years, the group remained civil, so she never felt the need to actively moderate. But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, she said the group has become ruthless. 

“I think there is so much anger,” she said. “Especially with the COVID right now and the way everybody is so divided.”

Morgan County has the second highest rate of coronavirus infections in the state. As the cases in this rural county on the Eastern Plains continue to grow, so does membership in the closed, county-wide Facebook group. In January, the group’s membership was around 2,000, Cobbley said. In the past two months alone, Facebook data shows 489 accounts joined the group.

“At first it was a lot of offering (help),” she said of the group’s behavior at the beginning of the pandemic. “And then I think people that just don’t believe in the pandemic or just don’t care, they have their own opinions, they got on and it was like a lot of anger towards anybody asking for help or offering help.”

So she’s decided she needs to “take control back.” Cobbley deleted the Walmart post, citing the “name calling and cussing on it.”  A few posts about Gov. Polis’ statewide mask mandate were made in the days that followed. She left them up, but closed off their comment sections.

“I mean most of us aren’t gonna change our political views on a Facebook page,” she said. She’s even lightly considered making a seperate group dedicated to letting people just go at it on political issues, but that’s not what she wants the Bulletin Board to be for.

She created the group in 2012 as an alternative to pages that were exclusively about buying and selling items.  

“The moderators of those groups were getting really mad at people asking questions.” Cobbley said. “And I kept thinking we need a place where the community can go and find information out.”

While the posts that become digital battlegrounds are the most noticeable, they are not the most common. Of the 1,088 posts made in the group between May 20 and July 18, most have been about sharing information, lost dogs, local businesses and nonprofits, safety, buying and selling items and, occasionally, shout outs to other members of the community for being especially kind or helpful. 

“There have been times people have come on to the page and needed help financially, foodwise, looking for homes and stuff like that and that’s when I saw that that page was at its best,” Cobbley said.

“Out here in rural America sometimes we don’t get information as fast as they do in our urban counterparts,” saidNathan Troudt. He lives in Morgan County but works at a meatpacking plant in Greeley and seasonally on his family’s farm. He primarily uses Facebook groups to buy or sell farm equipment. “So I think it’s really important that we need to open up all mediums of communication so that we as rural citizens know whats going on in our rural communities.”

“I think in rural America we need to connect not only with people in our own area but also our urban counterparts,” he said, referring to the group members who don’t actually live in the county. According to Facebook, about 153 of the group's members live in Denver.

Roberto Gallardo is director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development. He has helped rural communities across the country take advantage of social media and other tools of the digital age. 

“Overall it just allows people to come together and discuss,” he said. “Unfortunately many times it's not the quality that we would like, but the channel is there, the platform is there where before it wasn’t.”

Creating and managing not only Facebook groups but active Twitter accounts and other social media can be a big opportunity for local governments, Gallardo said. 

“I think it's important to remember that when well used, (social media) can be very powerful,” he said, adding that it can “just make the community more responsive and inclusive, really. But that’s the ideal side, right? There are a lot of ‘ifs’ and a lot of issues that can undermine that ideal situation.”

So how can moderators avoid that undermining?

“Overall, what I've seen works best is they have to know how to use the technology, the platform, and then once they do they need to make it very clear what the objective is but also put some ground rules upfront,” Gallardo said.

Those ground rules, he said, are important for ensuring that people don’t accuse moderators of bias for how they manage the group.  But this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. 

“You learn over time what works and what doesn’t,” Said Jermey Lipschultz. He is a distinguished professor at University of Nebraska Omaha working in the UNO Social Media Lab for Research and Engagement. “And again I think if you’re honest and transparent and you keep your audience in mind - and you’re fair with everybody, as fair as you can be, you’re not going to make everybody happy but I think it’ll work fairly well over time.”

Lipschultz and Gallardo worked together on theRural Futures Institute Projectwhich helped three rural Nebraskan communities create strategies to connect with citizens online. Both academics put a strong emphasis on local government involvement.

“When we began in Ashland (one of the communities in the RFI project) they were dealing with privately run message boards that were criticizing the public officials over some policies or perceived lack of transparency,” Lipschultze said. “What Roberto and I stressed early on in that case was ‘you’ve left a vacuum that’s being filled.”

“Social media listening is a fundamental aspect of this,” he said. “You can’t just push out and broadcast messages without having any sense of what is being said in your community. If there is a group such as this, you should engage with that group. You should be a part of it.”

Lipschultz says polarization has overrun a lot of social media interaction and can be particularly present in these groups - especially now with the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s not impossible to escape. Some groups, like the tourism-centric “Everything Estes Park” or “Breckenridge Neighbors & Friends,” are significantly less fiery while still occasionally discussing difficult topics. (Though an Everything Estes Park administrator made a post asking members to stick to the facts and keep their opinions to themselves when answering tourist questions about COVID-19 restrictions and mask requirements.) 

“I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment,” Lipschultz said. “But at the same time, freedom without any sense of responsibility is problematic. So if we can’t settle on norms of ethics and social responsibility  for what we do with (social media) data that we see and collect online it can present real challenges.”

Moderators have a big role in keeping conversation productive and accurate, he said. But they can’t do it alone; users have to practice media literacy and critical thinking skills, he said.

“It means that every one of us as a user of social media, as an audience member, has to really work hard at it,” he said. “We have to learn to deconstruct media messages and understand why something is posted and why its being posted in a certain way.”  

In early March, Kristina Spotts Cobbley, the administrator of the Morgan County Bulletin Board, created a post outlining her rules and pinned them to the top of the page.

The three short paragraphs were very different from the group's original mandate of “you guys can post anything you want.” In explaining these stricter rules, Cobbley said she was getting a lot of posts reported daily. She told users to message her if they have any questions about how she’s moderating.

She ended the post with, “Thank you all for sharing great information if it wasn't for you a lot of us wouldn't know what these communities have to offer.”

It’s all been taking quite a toll on her. Cobbley said she has weeks where she doesn’t even want to look at the group. But giving up on the Bulletin Board is not an option she plans to entertain. 

“I think it will always be around,” Cobbley said. “One way or another. It's not something I will ever shut down.”

Meanwhile, an hour northeast of Fort Morgan, a 9,600-member Facebook group serving Logan County called “I Care Sterling” closed itself off to any new posts or comments in May. Another group created a few years agowith the same name remains active.

“Unfortunately throughout the years some tried to turn the group into political debate, meme war, and just pure negativity,” moderator Kate Kenney said in a Facebook message.“That it began affecting our jobs, personal relationships, and even our children suffered from others negativity.”

On rare occasions, she said, some administrators received “veiled threats” for enforcing the group’s clearly stated rules. And it all got worse with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were very strict about no politics, religion or profanity. Running the group became a full time job because people couldn’t follow the rules,” she wrote. “With COVID and the current political climate, sometimes it was scary.”

Kenney said the group was created by a close friend, James Roger Merrell, who died in 2015. He wanted to help people and provide a space to discuss local issues, she said. 

“I am still proud of what the group accomplished,” Kenney said. She listed a few of the community causes the group supported, like the restoration of a local cemetery and “multiple fundraisers for sudden deaths and illness(es). Reunited I don’t even know how many lost pets.”

“In the end we had to choose our family over a local Facebook group and let a friend's dream go,” she said.


As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
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