Sep 8, 2020

During the pandemic, social media can be an information lifeline for rural communities

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By Adam Rayes

Like many school districts across the country, Morgan County, Colorado, has been working on a plan for the fall. So, some parents in the rural county have been turning to a Facebook group with more than 5,900 members to get and share information. This is exactly what Kristie Spotts Cobbley had in mind when she created the group in 2012.

“I kept thinking we need a place where the community can go and find information out,” she said.

Social media can be critical to informing, supporting and connecting small, rural communities. That’s especially true now, with the pandemic. Those groups have become a resource for some communities, as people look for information about COVID-19. They can also be very divisive.

Many posts in the Morgan County Bulletin Board Facebook group are by people asking questions or sharing information about COVID-19 restrictions, local politics and community resources. The local paper that covers the county’s biggest city used to have four reporters, but now it shares just one full-time reporter with another paper.

“Out here in rural America, sometimes we don’t get information as fast as they do in our urban counterparts,” said Nathan Troudt. He works on his family’s farm near the town of Wiggins and primarily uses Facebook groups to buy or sell farm equipment. But he sees a broader value in them. “So, I think it’s really important that we need to open up all mediums of communication so that we as rural citizens know what’s going on in our rural communities.”

These groups can provide a platform that wasn’t available before.

“If you use it properly you can convey valuable information. You can really, truly have discussion and discourse that helps,” said Roberto Gallardo. He’s helped rural areas across the country take advantage of social media as director of the Purdue University Center for Regional Development.

He said there are also downsides, and Cobbley, the Morgan County Facebook group’s administrator, is seeing those now with COVID-19.

“I think there is so much anger,” she said.

Before the pandemic, the Facebook group remained fairly civil, she said, even in election years. Now, a small number of posts provoke dozens of argumentative, vulgar comments, some with misleading or false information. Cobbley was a hands-off moderator before the pandemic, but said she’s decided she needs “to get control back over the group.”

In March she posted ground rules. That’s a vital part of moderating community-based social media, according to University of Nebraska Omaha professor Jeremy Lipschultz. He researches social media and has helped communities in rural Nebraska take advantage of it.

“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,” he said.

The moderating rules for the Morgan County Facebook group seemed to help, though Cobbley said she still has weeks when she doesn’t even want to look at the group.

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

Still, in mid-July Cobbley had to crack down on several threads about mask-wearing requirements that devolved into arguments laced with profanities.

Related links: Insight from Molly Wood

It’s hard to get numbers on how many people are joining new Facebook groups during this pandemic, but lots of stories from all over the country point to people gathering to figure out how to deal with school reopening, teachers getting together to share tips for remote learning, small businesses creating support networks for each other and, sadly, stories of groups devolving into such toxic discourse that their moderators closed them down.

I will say, I opened Facebook for the first time in over a year to try to search around and get a sense of how many community groups there might be and how many people are in them — a little light research — and I did almost immediately find a page in my area that had some updated information about my county and how some restrictions on hair salons had recently been eased. And now I have hope that I might be able to get a haircut soon, so that was actually kind of helpful. I didn’t read any of the comments, though.

The thing that’s frustrating is although Facebook makes it easy to create groups, and you kind of can assume that most people are on it, this is literally what the internet started as: a series of forums and chat groups and bulletin boards. It’s what people have done online since online started. And in some ways, the great lie about Facebook is that you can’t do this anywhere else. Have the groups, dump the engagement algorithms and the hypertargeted ads, and you know what you’ve got?

The World Wide Web.

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