Honey, the neighbors are bullying us on Facebook again
Honey, the neighbors are bullying us on Facebook again
Patrick* wasn’t getting much homework done. He was trying to, but mostly he was just sitting in his bedroom, blood pressure spiking with nerves every time his phone vibrated. If the notification was yet another rude comment in the Facebook group for his hometown of Brookline, New Hampshire, he would have to comment back right away. One guy had indirectly called him a terrorist. The mother of one of his friends, a woman who had chaperoned his elementary school field trips and given him fruit roll ups as a kid, was chewing him out over second amendment rights. The moderator of the group privately messaged him, “I think you can probably handle yourself, but just in case, don’t feel like you have to respond to any of those people or defend yourself in any way.”
It was March 2017, a month after the deadly high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and Patrick was catching heat in the Hollis Brookline Community Facebook group over a 17-minute school walkout that he, as student body president, had helped plan. One of many walkouts that were taking place across the country on the same day, the purpose was to show solidarity with the Parkland students and shine a light on the issue of rampant school shootings in America. But in a series of eight posts and more than 1,600 comments, the community used the event as an opportunity to argue over gun rights and attack each other’s political views. Patrick, who was a still a minor at the time, was personally targeted for his involvement in the protest.
Driving through the small towns of Hollis and Brookline, New Hampshire, you wouldn’t think they were places where some residents spend hours arguing and starting fights from behind their keyboards. With a combined population of a little over 13,000, Hollis and Brookline look like quintessential American small towns, real life Stars Hollows or Dawson’s Creeks. But behind the front doors of the colonial homes, people are fighting – on Facebook.
Social media provides a certain level of anonymity. You might have no idea who the random person you’re sparring with online actually is and you would never even know if you saw them on the street. But in a private Facebook group like the 8.5k member Hollis Brookline Community group, there’s a high chance that members know each other, or at least know of each other. You obviously won’t know everyone, but the majority of the members are people who live in the two towns. What happens when the person you called a brainwashed liberal or conservative the other day is in line behind you at Dunkin’ Donuts? Or when you find out that their kid and your kid are friends?
Every corner of the internet has its controversy, but it’s a different experience when the controversy is between you and your neighbor, or you and the guy who pumps your gas. There’s a lack of self-control that manifests itself both online and in real life in Hollis and Brookline.
The Parkland walkout controversy is just one of many hot topics discussed in the group over the last few years. In February, one member posted an NHPR article entitled “Lawmakers Debate Banning N.H. Schools from Teaching about Systematic Racism, Sexism.” Half an hour later, comments began rolling in. “I’m glad my kids are not in school anymore,” one person commented. “Systematic racism is a lie and a thinly veiled hate-white people agenda,” read another. Under this comment, multiple residents argued with each other over the span of four days in a thread that ended up being 100 replies long. “Wow!! This is horrible. White privilege is alive and well,” someone wrote. “Private school [heart emoji],” another replied. Before the original poster turned off commenting, the post had accumulated more than 250 comments ranging from ignorant to disrespectful to blatantly racist.
“I don’t think the comments make better neighbors, I’ll say that,” said Sue, a Hollis resident.
Tania, a 13-year resident of Brookline, dislikes the discourse in the Hollis Brookline Community group so much that she doesn’t even want to be a part of it. Her husband is, so she sees the most controversial posts, and she is in the Town of Brookline group, which is a smaller but similar forum. Due to the problematic conversations she saw about racism in the towns, both on Facebook and in real life, she started an offshoot group, the Brookline Racial Justice group.
“It was amazing to me – not in a good way – how people talk to each other on the pages,” Tania said. And it’s not just online that people behave that way.
In the course of the Parkland walkout confrontation, a group member suggested that Patrick wouldn’t be able to defend his views in real life. In response, Patrick invited him to attend the upcoming school board meeting, where he would be speaking on the matter. The man had an American flag with a skull and crossbones as his profile picture and a gruff, aggressive online persona. When he showed up to the meeting wearing a purple button down tucked into his jeans and with two toddler daughters in tow, voice shaking with nerves when it was his turn to speak into the mic, Patrick couldn’t help but laugh at the contrast.
But not all real-life encounters turn out to be comical. After various arguments in the group, a few people who Hollis resident Michelle knows in real life are no longer friendly when they run into her. Sherry, another Hollis resident, once had an altercation with someone she knew personally that was so bad, it left her in tears. The person is still nice to her when she sees him in town, but she suspects it’s only because someone said something to him about his online behavior.
Over the summer, someone driving by Tania’s house pulled over and verbally threatened her husband about the Black Lives Matter sign in their yard. She posted in the Brookline group about the threatening stranger, who may or may not have been from town, “and because it was about a BLM sign, l was literally attacked about whether I was telling the truth. [People said her husband] must have been lying, people were questioning his story. It was horrifying.”
Tania thinks everything feels very far away to people when they’re interacting in the groups. But it’s not far away. For her, it’s right in town. It’s someone threatening her husband, in real life, in her own front yard.
Hollis resident Maryanne created the group in 2013 with the purpose of uniting the community, not dividing it even further than it already was. There has long been tension between the two towns over school co-op and tax issues. “It seemed like there was a huge divide between the two towns and that did not translate in real life to what my kid was dealing with at school,” she said. The kids didn’t care at all what town their friends were from. But homeowners, especially those without kids in the co-op school system, felt the rivalry, and Maryanne wanted to fix that by making a place for common ground. Now, it can feel as if the group is doing the opposite.
“People act differently in real life than they do online. And the keyboard warrior thing is 100% true,” she said. “You think you’re not going to get touched, no one is going to call you on it, no one is going to bring it up to you when you’re standing in line at Market Basket. You’re just going to go ahead and make your point because you know what’s right and other people need to be told.”
Maryanne said there has always been “lively” discussion in group about community happenings. But Sherry, who has been a group member since its inception, has noticed that things have gotten particularly bad in the last three or four years.
The current political climate is partly to blame for the increasing tensions. Over the last two election cycles many Americans have been struggling with the realization that some of the people in their lives have completely different political opinions than themselves, said Sonia Baschez, a marketing consultant in California who builds and moderates specialized Facebook groups.
Online political discourse only exposes this more. In conversations in the group, people are more vocal about their political beliefs than they might be face to face, which gives group members a first impression of other people in town before they even meet them in real life. When it comes to politics, people behave much worse in the group than they ever would if they had to stand up in front of a town meeting and speak into the microphone and watch their words being written down in the meeting minutes, Patrick said.
In Baschez’s experience, people don’t know how to self-moderate online when it comes to topics on which they have strong opinions. “And it becomes supercharged when it’s a local community, we have local politics here, and the people that are making the decisions, do they feel or think like I do about these issues?” she explained.
Even though posting about national politics is against Maryanne’s rules for the Hollis Brookline group, she allows discussion of local politics, because it’s important for the town. And while people love to sound off about local issues on Facebook, not that many people go to town meetings, where the actual decisions get made. Town meetings are crucial because they decide what gets built in the town, which determines how the schools are funded, which impacts who is able to live in town, which affects who and what is normalized in the community, Tania explained. Both Hollis and Brookline are overwhelmingly white areas, and local political decisions about homebuilding, zoning ordinances, and property taxes can prevent diverse populations and points of view from coming to town.
No matter what side of the political aisle, it’s easy for conversations in the group to get out of hand. And this phenomenon is not exclusive to small town New Hampshire, either. Baschez recalled a New York City motherhood group that became infamous when discussions surrounding Black Lives Matter got wildly out of hand. And this year, New York Times Cooking had to give up control of its own 70k member group because it became so toxic it was impossible to moderate anymore.
Andrew Selepak, a social media professor and program coordinator at the University of Florida in Gainesville, sees the same types of arguments going on in a similar group for the Gainesville community. “It’s something that I think exists everywhere across the country in towns and cities,” he said.
Even though community groups can be incredibly toxic and have real life negative effects, good things do come out of them sometimes too. A number of years ago, the Hollis Brookline group collected donations for a local family whose house had burned down on Christmas. Just a few weeks ago, Michelle hosted a Zoom panel about political issues in town, and afterwards someone posted complimenting her for how she ran the event, even though they were ideologically opposed. And if you need a recommendation for a good plumber, or updates about ice on the roads, or Ring doorbell videos of bears walking through peoples’ yards, the group is the place to go.
In its good moments, the group can be incredibly helpful. And when things are bad, at least it’s entertaining. Doug, a Hollis resident and frequent user of the group, knows that despite a number of vocal members like himself, “a lot of people just sit on the sidelines and watch the show.” Perhaps Sue said it best. “It’s like watching a car wreck, it’s fascinating.” You can’t look away.
*Editor’s note: Some sources are by only their first name to protect their privacy.