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Dec. 10, 2018, 10:33 a.m.
Audience & Social

“So many times we forget to listen”: How Spaceship Media moderated a Facebook group of 400 political women without it going off the rails

It was hard to recruit Republican woman (“SO many Democrat white women”), and following the news of the day felt PTSD-inducing to many. But aggressive moderation and the help of a few librarians made a potentially uncivil discussion a little more respectful.

When I spoke with Spaceship Media’s cofounders a year ago, they were about to embark on creating arguably the most ambitious news-centric Facebook group in existence: A goal of 5,000 women with diverse views in one group, talking about politics without everything self-imploding.

The Many, as Eve Pearlman and Jeremy Hay dubbed it, was an attempt to concentrate nationwide dialogue journalism (in the form of Facebook’s prized “meaningful interactions”) ahead of the 2018 midterms. They weren’t necessarily trying to game the an algorithm change then — The Many would be one of several Spaceship Media-moderated Facebook Groups for facilitating discussions for news organizations since the startup launched in 2016.

But it turned out that the emotional labor required to manage even a much smaller group talking about abortion and Brett Kavanaugh and such was plenty.

“As the midterms drew closer and vitriol got louder and louder and more aggressive, it required us to hold these women in a completely different way,” said Adriana García, who joined Spaceship last December and was the project manager for The Many.

Wait — hold them? “Frequently [we were] dealing with these shell-shocked women who were suffering from sort of PTSD trigger reactions to the news as it was happening — being to able to absorb some of the news for them and some of their emotions and make them able to once again communicate as these bright, articulate women that they are.”

Emotional impact on user health was one of the reasons Facebook gave for shifting its algorithm away from news — er, Pages. Facebook’s push to groups has booted publishers from prioritizing posts to cultivating communities (some more nurtured than others, but most still requiring hands-on moderation to be effective).

Our own review of 30 publishers’ groups over the summer found that the membership and the activity of those members did grow (sometimes from scratch), but reminder: Facebook groups are also the greatest imminent threat to election news and information integrity, according to digital dystopia researcher Jonathan Albright. (They can nestle unreliable information, hyper-partisan news, rumors, and conspiracy theories in closed communities, away even from well-trained researchers’ hunts.)

But how did The Many build a Facebook community around the midterms for good — and did it work? García shared some of the participants’ testimonials with me; apparently while no one flat-out changed their mind about an issue, members opened their minds to thinking differently about someone who opposes them on that issue.

“If I can learn to talk to people who have different views respectfully, then it serves a purpose. It’s hard though, because sometimes I want to shout out, ‘why do you believe this?’ but I think the group is teaching me to not name-call and insult the other side.” — a Democrat from Michigan

“So many times we forget to listen, and this exercise was helpful in training us to do that … listen with our hearts and minds in an effort to better understand our neighbors.” — a Republican from Alabama

“Instead of trying to ‘convert’ others, it’s been helpful for me to look for the important values that drive the political decisions of those I disagree with. The Many, where dialogue and respect were a given, helped me reach behind the soundbites to something much deeper.” — Independent from Michigan

Here’s how Spaceship Media pulled this off, according to García and Pearlman:

Intentional admission

From the group’s beginning in February, The Many was carefully structured to keep a 1:1:1 ratio of Republican, Democrat, and independent/other-leaning women to minimize gang-ups or group imbalances. An intake survey greeted interested potential members, which García then sorted through to keep a mix of perspectives in the group.

That was one of the more complicated parts of The Many: “We could have grown a lot faster and possibly grown [larger], but Republican recruitment sucked up a lot of our energy,” García said. They attempted posting on Republican Facebook groups and seeking out media partners, but personal outreach to those they knew in real life ended up the most fruitful. Some conservatives were hesitant and/or suspicious of The Many’s intentions; Pearlman and García said some people responded that Spaceship was trying to brainwash them (it’s not like they were actually abducting them to another planet or something).

Spaceship also admitted new members on a rolling basis over the ten-month project, which met eager beavers wanted to rehash issues the group had dialogued about weeks earlier. This wasn’t ideal, something they want to avoid with in-person events to kick off online groups going forward (more on that in a bit).

Constant vigilance

Spaceship had three full-time and two part-time staffers working on The Many at a given time: “We were moderating for 18 hours of the day. We specifically had times when all of us were on so we could talk to one another,” García said. “We’ve found that’s very important to be able to deal with things that might come up with the support of other people and not do it in a vacuum, especially since we were working remotely.

“I checked the group when I woke up and all day long and right before I went to bed. It was very consuming and that was true for all of us.”

Now imagine unmoderated political Facebook discussions, and you get the rest of Facebook. In addition to posts in the group, García and the other moderators did individual private messages with participants when something was amiss with a post or a comment.

But it wasn’t just the watchful eye, but the measured responses that helped keep The Many in check, Pearlman explained: “We’re chatting about what’s happening and should we respond, what’s the best way to respond, who has a relationship with the participant,” she said. “It’s a lot of introspection and crafting language.”

Library partners

In previous Spaceship groups, the newsroom partner served as a participant drummer-up and a resource to research and present the facts of a dispute in the dialogue. The Many worked with Advance Local and Pantsuit Politics (the podcast, not the Facebook group, Pearlman and García made sure to note) but the Birmingham Public Library and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh came on board as well.

As the size of The Many risked becoming unruly, García and Pearlman started breakout groups for neighboring participants to unpack issues in their own context. Each library helped the Alabama and Pennsylvania subgroups, respectively, focus on finding answers. “Nobody wants to trust a journalist right now,” Pearlman said. “But people have a different feeling toward librarians and libraries.”

Mary Beth Newbill, the head of the Southern history and government documents departments, was one of the Birmingham librarians that helped provide “FactStacks,” or basically answers to questions that arose in the online conversation about sanctuary cities, late-term abortion, and the source of drugs contributing to the opioid epidemic.

“They’d want between 10 or 12 factual statements taken from mutual sources — you try to keep any bias out of it and just find some factual info,” Newbill told me. “It could be a statistical table or something from a government source or a news source, but I would try personally very hard to stay away from a source that was known to have a bias or perceived to have a bias. Then we would scour our databases and websites that we like to use that are reputable and get factual information on these topics and present them with the sources cited.”

Offline and off-group communication

Newbill didn’t join the group herself (to avoid biasing her FactStacks if she saw the debate) but did attend an event for The Many hosted by García at the library. A handful of the Alabama participants spoke about their experience to around 25 community members, she said.

“They were all very different from each other and talked so respectfully to each other about how their membership in the group has really tempered the way they react to political discussions and taught them to see things with shades of gray and not just black and white,” Newbill said. “It helped me feel like I was contributing to that.”

Pearlman and García also agreed that it would have been better to kick off the experience with in-person meetings. Then members could have gotten to know each other in person first, like Spaceship orchestrated with a Time/Advance Local group conversation about guns earlier this year. Other news organizations have attempted in-person events to bridge divisions as well.

“The big learning from The Many was this rolling admission idea has the potential to work if people have seen each other face to face,” García said.

Fun Fridays

Aunt Flo, Shark Week, Red Velvet, and Gone Girl were once the topic du jour in The Many — and yes, they were all talking about their nicknames for menstruation. García said she tried to structure the weeks with different themes for discussion (that setup ended just before the Kavanaugh hearings, but that week basically became a Kavanaugh-themed week), often dropping in more light-hearted topics.

“The lighter/fun topics have been instrumental in making connections and finding common ground in areas other than politics,” wrote one independent-geared participant from Louisiana in her testimonial.

As of November 11, The Many is now the few who have found Spaceship Media’s overflow group, Talking about Talking, after García sunset The Many’s Facebook group. Spaceship had opened Talking to house the horde of white Democratic women who expressed interest in The Many but were on the waitlist as they waited for more viewpoints. (“SO many Democrat white women,” García said.)

The Many, which was funded by the Einhorn Foundation and the News Integrity Initiative, might have been the biggest star Spaceship aims for. “When we do the next project, however it unfolds, it’s going to be really targeted and specific. It needs to be small and holding people in the ways Adriana is talking about for a defined period of time,” Pearlman said.

Even with Facebook’s major 2018 flak, Spaceship plans to stay grounded there — options for other major platforms to host groups of everyday residents and their debates are limited. The team is in discussions with a partner in Costa Rica to moderate a group.

“It’s funny, we think as Americans that Facebook is embattled and this company having all these problems,” García said. “In Costa Rica they say of course it’s going to be on Facebook — that’s where everybody is.”

POSTED     Dec. 10, 2018, 10:33 a.m.
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