On the morning of June 25, the Beacon shared an article to the BVI Community Board, one of the most-followed public groups on Facebook for residents of the Virgin Islands.
Relying on more than a decade of reporting, the story drew attention to the lack of a pollution-control scrubber at the Pockwood Pond incinerator and what it could mean for residents who live nearby.
Within hours, Community Board administrators had unceremoniously removed the story from the page, leading to a wave of other articles being removed in the two months since.
But in the same period of time, admins allowed 129 posts from government, including 17 “news” videos about health-related topics or waste disposal in the VI (all with a much rosier tint than the Beacon incinerator article), as well as several posts from individuals about rotting sargassum and a close-up photo of dog faeces on a beach, among many others.
The page’s volunteer managers — who have sometimes been praised for giving their time to help provide general information on the board — have said that they are simply following their self-created protocol when they remove certain news stories and other posts.
But that set of rules isn’t always clear, and at a time when many in the VI and abroad read much of their news on Facebook, such decisions raise questions about how news is curated in a hugely popular medium where traditional rules regulating the media don’t apply.
“There are a lot of people who are now suddenly — for lack of a better word — editors when they normally wouldn’t be,” said Duy Linh Tu, a professor at Columbia Journalism School in New York, who explained in a phone interview how social media has changed the way people get news and, perhaps most importantly, who delivers it.
In a small jurisdiction like the VI, one public Facebook group could have enough members to make up the entire population of the territory.
Each page also has its own distinct identity.
The group “BVI Abroad — Hurricane Irma” popped up after Sept. 6 last year to assist with communication in the disaster’s aftermath, and is now filled with mostly cheery information about the recovering tourism sector. “BVI Real Estate” features properties for rent and sale, “BVI Bring & Buy” functions like an online flea market, and “BVI National Forum” serves as a platform for discussions about topics like politics, culture and the environment.
But the BVI Community Board — which boasts over 21,000 members — has arguably been the epicentre of all public pages for residents since 2012.
Its “about” page explains that the board is meant for sharing “information about daily happenings in the BVI” — effectively covering a wide swath of content. That page also includes additional warnings not to advertise individual items for sale or to air “personal opinions.”
Until June, when Community Board etiquette began its transformation, news articles from the Beacon were apparently safe under that description.
The incinerator article was among the first Beacon articles to go.
After the post was deleted, the Beacon messaged an admin and creator of the page, Kate Purdy, for clarification behind the decision.
By way of explanation, another moderator for the page, Laura Dumbach, tagged the Beacon in a June 12 public post which warned that “from today we will be adopting a no tolerance approach to any posts” that do not share
“useful information about community events;” allow “members to request information;” or “facilitate a space where businesses may promote their events.” (In Facebook jargon, a moderator is similar to an admin in that they can manage membership and review posts, but don’t have the power to change group settings or block another admin).
In the comments under the June 12 post, several Facebook users questioned why the incinerator story would be deleted, with one woman arguing that “real news” should be allowed to stay on the board. Ms. Dumbach explained that removal “depends on the content of the article.”
“There’s a fine line between ‘issue’ and ‘event,’” the moderator wrote in a public post. “Events don’t invite discussion. Issues often do, and as the CB rules state, this is not a ‘discussion board.’”
Later, a moderator turned off commenting on that post.
In the following months, the page’s gatekeepers have removed more Beacon articles, ranging in topic from the defunct BVI Airways to government contracts awarded to repair the Road Town ferry terminal.
Two of five Community Board administrators and moderators — Mses. Purdy and Dumbach — declined to speak over the phone about the articles’ removal, but agreed to answer various questions posed by the Beacon via email.
Two other page managers — Omonike Robinson-Pickering and Mary MacCarthy — each responded briefly to messages but did not comment, and the fifth — Esther Wheatley — did not respond.
“One thing to note is that our longstanding rules are being more strictly enforced to allow the group page to function as it was intended and more effectively whilst serving our members,” Ms. Purdy explained, while also referring the Beacon to the set of older rules posted on the Community Board. “We are not a discussion board but are happy to direct people to other places on Facebook that serve that purpose.”
129 government posts
Ms. Purdy stipulated that “businesses” are limited to two posts per week, adding that this category includes print, online and TV news outlets.
“This is not a policy change and has, for the most part, been respected by our media members (including the BVI Beacon),” she wrote.
Though private media outlets are restricted in various ways, most posts that come directly from the government’s official Facebook page appear to be unaffected by the recent crackdown — even those with a particularly newsy bent.
Between June 12 and this Tuesday, 25 Beacon articles were shared to the Community Board. Admins turned off comments on at least seven of those posts, and four articles were deleted outright.
In that same timeframe, 129 posts and bulletins were shared from government’s page, including 17 videos about health-related news in the VI (called “Health Highlights”), about waste disposal or about Health and Social Development Minister Ronnie Skelton himself.
Asked about the disparity, Ms. Purdy wrote, “The government is not regarded as a business and their posts are treated as public service announcements that serve the community.”
The Community Board may be the latest public group to start regulating its posts more tightly, but it’s not the first.
BVI Abroad — which has almost 35,000 members, many of whom live abroad — began removing certain Beacon articles in May, including one about cryptocurrency.
In response to an inquiry about that decision, an admin, Sophie Leroy, said articles would be considered “on a case-by-case basis.”
Removal “might not apply to all articles. If it’s in line with the spirit of the page then it can be posted,” she wrote in a private message on Facebook. “A post on BVI’s relationship to the dip in cryptocurrency value will spark debates that quite frankly we can’t keep on top of and again, is not in line with the spirit of the page.”
In another post on the main BVI Abroad page that month, she went into slightly more detail about what constitutes “the spirit” of the group.
“This page was initially set up so that friends and family had a way of searching for and reaching out to those affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the aftermath of the storm, when communication was poor,” Ms. Leroy wrote. “Almost 10 months have now passed since that fateful day and this page has since taken on new shape and purpose.”
Now, she explained, the page “can and should be used for” seeking and providing advice about travel within the VI, sharing experiences in the area, and advertising for specific events.
Neither Ms. Leroy nor any of the other four admins of the page — Aja Royle, Jason Ruffell Smith, Jenny Ruffell Smith and Roger Carter — commented on a series of questions sent by the Beacon about the new rules.
Though it may seem like social media is revolutionising the way people get news, some experts argue that there’s an underlying historical precedent.
Where there was once a town crier — making public announcements in an 18th Century marketplace, for example — is now Facebook and its decision-makers, said Mr. Tu, the US professor.
And creators of large Facebook groups like the Community Board, who are outside the realm of conventional journalism but nevertheless make crucial decisions about what news goes out to their members, mirror what’s happening within higher levels of social media platforms, according to Mr. Tu.
Whether intended or not, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stepped into an informal editor position, he explained. When Mr. Zuckerberg recently grappled with whether or not to block articles from sites like InfoWars — a far right media platform that has historically backed fringe conspiracy theories — his choices are akin to editorial decisions, according to the professor.
Admins of Faceook forums make similar choices, albeit on a smaller scale.
“What you’re seeing is very much a kind of a trickle-down effect of the platform in general,” Mr. Tu said. “But if these parties are usurping authority or becoming the ultimate barometers of fact, then you have a problem.”
In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017, some 67 percent of Americans reported getting at least some of their news on social media. Given that this percentage had increased slightly from 2016, the figure is likely even higher this year.
For the first time since the research centre has begun conducting such surveys, more than half of Americans 50 years or older said they read news on social sites. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans under 50 got news from social media.
Facebook is still king over other social sites. More than half of Americans have a Facebook account, and a majority of them get news from the site.
“We see it with Twitch, Twitter, YouTube, too: Any platform that distributes content in one way or another becomes an editor,” Mr. Tu said.
Role of admins
In terms of who gets nominated to become a Facebook editor in the VI, the selection process varies by group.
On the Community Board, for example, admins and moderators are a diverse set. Ms. Purdy is a charter chef; Ms. MacCarthy is the former general manager at the Fish ’n Lime Inn; Ms. Wheatley is the owner of Fat Virgin’s Café on Virgin Gorda and the daughter of former Chief Minister and Premier Ralph O’Neal; and Ms. Robinson-Pickering is an associate at the law firm Walkers.
Unlike the others, Ms. Dumbach, one of the most active page moderators, has never set foot in the territory.
“She was added to the board post-Irma at the request of her friend Mary Mac to assist Mary in keeping in touch at a time of very limited communication,” Ms. Purdy explained in a February post. “Despite the unusual circumstances, the admin team has asked her if she would join us in becoming a moderator, to continue what she has been doing but in an even more useful role.”
Some forum members have publicly praised Ms. Dumbach for her role on the page, despite her location.
Shereeza Bipat-Richards recently nominated the moderator — who provides many updates on ferry schedules and phone numbers for VI businesses — as a “hero of Irma” (to be featured in an upcoming edition of the Beacon) for being “prompt, reliable and consistent with crucial information [required] at a critical time even though she wasn’t even in the BVI.”
Contacted via email, Ms. Purdy did not comment on how admins were selected, other than to say the group “gives [their] time for free to moderate the board and see it as [their] service to the community.”
As for the BVI Abroad page, even more admins appear to live elsewhere based on limited information from their Facebook profiles.
None of the admins responded to requests for comment on how their group was chosen.
While some Facebook groups in the territory look to limit political or social conversations, BVI National Forum was created to start them. Bashaar Tarabay, a longtime VI business owner, said he created the group around 2012 in the hopes of cultivating a “civil and smart discussion.”
“Most of the discussions on the blogs, or some of the news sites, were getting really nasty and really divisive,” he said in a phone interview. “I wanted a place where people could talk intelligently about real issues that concerned us. … It was also a platform for mild protest. If we didn’t like something, we would talk about it. I hoped some representatives in government were reading these posts and seeing these comments and would realise we were not in agreement with some of the things they were doing.”
The National Forum has far fewer members than the Community Board or BVI Abroad (about 3,000 total) and a more specific screening process for admittance as a member.
Facebook users have to briefly explain their interest in the VI and in the board, Mr. Tarabay said. Overall, he explained, posts are taken down only if they are vulgar or offensive.
“When it was just myself [as an admin], if I saw something I found offensive, like about race or religion or gender, I took it down,” he said. “If it was a direct attack on someone, or if it was something bigoted or ignorant I would take it down.”
Now, Mr. Tarabay has recruited five other admins: Blu Wright, Whitney Haller, Ian Clark, Phillip Hines Jr. and Eugenia O’Neal. Mr. Tarabay said he made a “personal judgment” when choosing those people based on who he thought had spoken impartially in the past and could refrain from taking sides.
The admins have a group chat where they must all agree if a post should be removed from the board, he said.
“Currently, we have to discuss [the post] and agree if it should be taken down,” he said. “I don’t think an admin should take it down without us talking to one another first.”
Though he has received negative private messages in response to some of his posts or opinions, he added, most of that pushback has been “bark with no bite.”
“How are you going to do anything about me opening a discussion about an issue?” he asked. “[BVI National Forum] is not politically affiliated in any way. When there’s something really good, we try to post about it, but we also talk about issues that people feel uncomfortable talking about that are very real in the BVI.”
This article originally appeared in the August 23rd print edition of the Beacon.