Administrating chaos: what goes on behind the scenes of a Facebook forum

BALANCING ACT: Not only do administrators of Facebook pages have to manage the varied views of their members, they also have to make sure their content does not break the law.
BALANCING ACT: Not only do administrators of Facebook pages have to manage the varied views of their members, they also have to make sure their content does not break the law.

Following online forums about their hometown is a daily habit for thousands of central Victorians.

Most of the postcodes in the region have Facebook pages or groups dedicated to the goings-on in their neighbourhood. 

While posts that appear in these communities take mere moments to write, looking after these online spaces can be a full-time job for administrators, volunteers who open themselves up to public backlash and the law. 

After about two years in charge of Castlemaine-based Facebook group, Castlemania, administrators Meg Nightjar and Kestral Znox recently retired from their duties.

What was intended as a “platform for community good will and local business advertising” could become a source of stress, Ms Nightjar said, especially when debate turned to topics of significant community contention.  

She identified the opening of a Domino’s pizza outlet in Castlemaine and Mount Alexander Shire Council’s decision not to fly the rainbow flag during the the same-sex marriage postal survey as instances when tensions flared between users. 

Castlemania cover photo.

Castlemania cover photo.

“There have been many great connections made and witnessed through being in this role, and many times when stark differences of opinion have found common ground,” Ms Nightjar said.

“There have also been fallouts which can hurt a bit for a while.

“Members can get quite upset and we at times spend hours in consultation and mediation between people.”

Maree Traill spends at least one hour every day curating the Rochester Community Page, posting job advertisements, answering messages and perusing news website for stories relevant to her community.

She shared the role with another person from Rochester. 

Uses for the 3000-member community were many, she said, listing the reunion of pet owners with their missing animals and warning motorists to avoid road hazards among its successes.

In fact, the page grew out of a need to disperse information during the 2011 floods, during which time much of Rochester was inundated with water and hundreds of community members were displaced.   

“Social media, when used for good instead of evil, is amazing,” Ms Traill said.

She recalled another instance when a friend reported to her their truck was stolen. She posted a picture of the missing vehicle on the page and, within hours, someone had spotted the truck and contacted the police. The vehicle was recovered shortly after.

Still, she was occasionally the subject of perjorative language or violent threats.

“Last year [a disgruntled member] took it upon himself to say I should be shot in the head,” Ms Traill recalled. 

“I've got very thick skin so I just ignored it.” 

Former police officer and cyber safety expert Susan McLean said these pages often started with the best of intentions but nearly always disintegrated into name calling.

People felt uninhibited when at their computers, she said, believing there were fewer consequences for things said online.

Susan McLean. Picture: Simon O'Dwyer

Susan McLean. Picture: Simon O'Dwyer

But Ms McLean said that was not the case and reminded both administrators they too were culpable for illegal activity others posted on their page.

She said the case of David McRory, the Bendigo man who oversaw a Facebook page hosting sexually explicit and degrading posts about women and girls, should act as a warning.

The then 22-year-old Mr McRory received a community corrections order in 2012 for the crimes of using a carriage service to offend and publishing objectionable material online. 

Those responsible for racist or homophobic posts could be prosecuted under the Discrimination Act, while defamatory comments opened up administrators to civil action, Ms McLean said.

She recommended they put in place a set of rules that were strictly enforced and that users who defied the rules be reported and banned.  

“Don’t sit back and go ‘oh my god, that was horrible’,” Ms McLean said.

“This way, you’ll clean out those pages a whole lot quicker.”

Bendigo Have Your Say cover photo.

Bendigo Have Your Say cover photo.

With 25,000 members, Bendigo Have Your Say is perhaps the most populous of central Victoria’s Facebook forums, and its modus operandi was in stark contrast to Ms McLean’s advice. 

A post from administrator Molly Trezise pinned to the top of the group read: “Admin is not responsible for what you post and how people respond. 

“If you take offence easy to things you might want to remove yourself and join a placid page.”

Its cover photo boasts that the group is a daily recipient of legal threats, but creator Nathan Trezise that never eventuated. 

Speaking to the Bendigo Advertiser last year after he temporarily closed the page, Mr Trezise said the goal of a no-holds-barred discussion made moderation difficult.

A request for consumer greivances to be raised with a business before being posted to Bendigo Have Your Say was introduced after Mr Trezise’s own company became the subject of scrutiny.

In the case of Castlemania, the rules are stricter. 

Readers are asked to limit how many times they post to the page each month and are reminded that abuse of members or administrators will result in a ban from the group.

“If we can express ourselves with empathy and consideration, we will find this reflected back to us throughout the wider community,” the rules atop the group read.

Mr Znox, who wrote the rules during his tenure as administrator, said he often did not have to intervene in online discussion because other users did so on his behalf.

“Sometimes it appears as if the site may begin to maintain itself due to the fact that all who use it find it a much more pleasant experience, even during heated debates, when members strive to maintain civility,” he said.

Ms McLean agreed.

“Use them respectfully because they’re worthwhile and useful, but have a zero tolerence for bullying.”