Let’s Discuss the Politics of ‘Closed’ Facebook Groups

photo-1417816491410-d61e1546e539

I get it. I get why people want to create “closed groups” on Facebook. “Secret groups.” It’s not hard to understand.

With a closed group, an administrator can control who’s let in and who’s kept out; how it’s done and what is shared. They can keep out the caustically antipathetic and avert the toxicity of trolls. All of which is desirable.

As someone who posts on sites like The Huffington Post, with one of the highest readership ratings of any media site in the world, I have heard — oh, have I heard! — from an array, a confluence, a literal horde of trolls over my writing career, and I mean to tell you, their hateful, hissing commentary can be soul killing. And trolling appears to be an equal-opportunity affliction, as I’ve been bombarded by everyone from gun nuts and political zealots, to angry moms and independent writers.

So, yes, removing that seething demographic’s inexhaustible urge to hijack meaningful conversation is a good thing. Though I do know some pugilistic, well-meaning writers who seem energized by virtually jousting with inarticulate, hateful poop-throwers, I’m not one of them… and my experience tells me most people aren’t. Hence, “closed groups,” with their ability to block trollism, have sprouted en masse, popular amongst those who want a safe space to engage with like-minded people to exchange ideas, information, articles, calls-to-action, etc.

But given that increase, inspired, no doubt, by the shit-storm we’ve just experienced in Election 2016, I do think it would be wise to rethink a few things, not only on the general protocol of any group, closed or otherwise, but the impact of particularly closed groups on public perception. I think these points bear some thought, especially considering what was just lost and what we are now facing.

1. Do NOT put someone in any group, closed or otherwise, without asking first. 

This is a big one, and though I’d have assumed it didn’t need to be said, it does. I have now been “put,” sometimes repeatedly, into various groups without my knowledge or permission, discovering said membership only after getting notification that I was in said group. BAD FORM.

When you do that to someone, regardless of your good intentions, you are not only being presumptuous, you’re now giving that person a task they didn’t ask for: if they choose not to be in said group, they now have to take the time to track it down and remove themselves. Which may seem minor, but it’s annoying and can potentially lead to someone else being miffed that that person doesn’t want to be in said group. Bottom line: it’s messy, it’s presumptuous, and it’s bad manners.

If you’ve discovered or are starting a group you think someone else might be interested in, ASK THEM FIRST. Very simple. Send them an invitation; let them be the one to decide if they want to join. And if they don’t, don’t take it personally. Realize that many people simply don’t want to be in groups; some are already in as many as they choose to be in; some may not want to participate in that group, or, if it’s a closed group, they may have different philosophies about those in general.

2. Allow members to participate as they see fit: 

I have now been in a few groups where administrators treat members almost like errant students: they’re obligated to engage in certain ways, with measurable degrees of visibility and involvement; there are to-do lists and even “homework.”

Typically I hop out of any group that turns voluntary participation into the dirge of academic obligation, because I don’t choose to, or have time to, participate in that way. We’re all adults; we do not need to be scolded, managed, or browbeaten into engaging in specific, mandated fashion. Again, it’s bad form, and it turns the positive experience of that group into something, well… less positive.

Don’t judge what members are getting out of it. If they’re there, they must be getting something. Trust your members. Which means, don’t “guilt” people into signing petitions, donating money, taking actions, sharing stories, “liking: other people’s posts, leaving reviews, etc. Coercion, however gentle, is counter-productive. We all learn, grow, change, and are inspired in individual ways. If you invite people into a group, unless they’re trolling — at which point, yes, they’re uninvited — allow them to participate as they choose. You never know what may be gained from their quiet engagement.

bethanylegg_unsplash

3. As for “closed/secret” groups, are they really the best way to make evolutionary, cultural change?  

I know I’m likely to get some heat for this one, but hear me out:

There are many valid reasons for closed groups: groups that allow abuse survivors to communicate privately; battered women, LGBT groups; any group where privacy is truly survival and mandatory.

But political groups? Really?

One of the biggest criticisms of Hillary Clinton over the entire election cycle, including the primary, was that people weren’t enthusiastic about her; they weren’t as “excited, thrilled, inspired,” as, say, Bernie supporters… and later, as Trump supporters. You remember that, don’t you? And it was strange, that perception, because, in fact, millions of men and women were deeply enthusiastic about her. And where were they, many of them? In “secret” groups, every day touting and cheering their support amongst each other. It was a literal spree of support in… secret groups. Out in the public forum? Not so much.

Back in March I wrote a piece titled, I Will If You Will: Why Clinton Supporters Need to Speak up More on Social Media, based on the fact that so many of them were oddly silent, seemingly cowed from public discourse on media, social or otherwise. And while the piece inspired a fair amount of dialogue, I continued to see more and more “closed/secret” Clinton groups pop up every day, with, still, less open discussion in public forums.

And I understand. Based on feedback I got after the article, it seems countless people, mainly women, were reticent to share their public support for Clinton because of backlash they were bound to receive: in work situations where people might take umbrage; within families where members would be incensed; amongst social media circles where trolls were all too active. Fear, and an unwillingness to set themselves up for that kind of negative response, led, then, to their participation in those many “secret/closed” Clinton support groups.

Certainly those groups provided upliftment and support to the members involved, and that was good. And maybe the group’s mission was just that, and didn’t include any intent or mission to change public perception of Clinton’s enthusiasm quotient, or build greater coalition for her campaign out in the public sphere. Clearly no group was obligated to meet that demand, but I have to wonder: did all the secrecy have an impact, a negative contribution, to the endless mantra that Clinton just didn’t have the same level of support as either Bernie or Trump?

I have no quantifiable statistics, but my gut says yes. The greater lack of public outspokenness amongst her many supporters did her no favors, and at the end of the day, the “silent majority” has never been more painfully evident than in an election where the more popular, more qualified candidate lost in the din of support for her opposition, whose supporters were always out, loud, and proud without any commensurate caution or hesitation.

Additionally, is it possible that all this echo chambering did/does little to help bridge gaps between different, even opposing groups? If we never hear from or engage with those on other sides, isn’t it possible we’re never going to find reasonable coalition again in this country? I’m not talking trolls — they get zero engagement from me and shouldn’t from anyone else. I’m talking about honest, thoughtful people who may have conflicting views as well as the ability to communicate sanely and without invectives and vitriol. They surely exist… don’t we want to engage with them… or at least try?

We liberals got this election so damn wrong on so many levels, I think it behooves us at this point to climb out of the bubble. I realize those with opposing or even just conflicting perspectives have to have the same willingness to put down pitchforks to meet us on the field (will they? won’t they?), but we gotta start somewhere. Someone needs to get out on the dance floor. Not everyone on the other side is a KKK member, a flaming white supremacist, a hate-mongering xenophobe, or a virulent alt-right bigot. Some are just less informed, have been more hurt by problems that exist in this country; have been misled by misinformation, or whose narrow concerns blinded them to the worst of the other side. They make up that BIG red blob in the middle and southern edges of our country. And many of them are on Facebook.

If there’s anything we’ve learned this go-around, it’s that we have to start paying less attention to our own biased media and flawed online polls (oh, how flawed they were!), and more to the people across the street. On the corner. In our hometowns. In those flyover states. In other Facebook groups.

Yes, closed group aficionados, I’m aware that “some of us need, want, demand a safe place to vent, share, speak, write, cry, scream, inspire, laugh, etc., without any pushback or even feedback from those who don’t share our worldview.” OK, but considering the paragraphs above, how about this?

Create the group. Leave it open; not “secret.” Create and post the mission statement. Define parameters: rules against trolling and ad hominem attacks, suggestions for participation, clear awareness of what kind of communication will get someone removed from the group, etc. Monitor conversations. Monitor comments. Monitor threads. Stay vigilant to bona fide trolls; block and delete without apology. And build a group, a circle, a conversation that is open, welcoming, and, hopefully, ultimately, illuminating to anyone open to illumination.

It’s how I’ve built and curated my own social media and, yes, it takes vigilance, but it works. It will be more work for administrators, it will take more vigilance from members to keep administrators aware of anyone breaking the trolling rules, but it might go a long way toward creating both a safe space and a public forum that allows the positive energy, thoughtful dialogue, and inspiring debates to more usefully and productively enter into and impact the pubic sphere.

We need that. If anything taught us that, it was Election 2016.

Table & chairs photograph by Jonny Clow @ Unsplash
Studying man photograph by Bethany Legg @ Unsplash

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Advertisements