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FEATURED: Facebook Report: The steady flow of misinformation and anti-vaccine sentiment coursing through Australia social media channels spilt out visibly onto city streets last week #AceNewsDesk report

#AceNewsReport – Oct.04: When she sees one of them in her local supermarket, Melissa Davis’s pulse quickens and she ducks down a different aisle to hide: If she spots them walking down the main street, she crosses the road……

#AceDailyNews says that according to ABC News Facebook group admins in small towns say misinformation is fracturing country communities and this small town. It’s not worth it,” Ms Davis said: This is not what Ms Davis had in mind when she created a community Facebook group for her small regional Victorian town of Yackandandah The ABC’s Country Social project wants to hear from you

Woman in red jumper and blue jeans with greying black hair sits in tin bush shelter with rain falling
Melissa Davis is an admin for a regional Victorian town’s Facebook group.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Have you seen your regional community change because of what people are sharing online?

What started as a force for good has devolved into a page peppered with misinformation, anti-vaccine conspiracies, bitter personal attacks, and in some cases outward harassment.

It has left Melissa Davis avoiding some members of her otherwise beloved community when she leaves her home. 

“Yack’s my hometown. I grew up here. I’ve always loved it. It’s really sad to see our town turn this way,” she said.

The steady flow of misinformation and anti-vaccine sentiment coursing through Australian social media channels spilt out visibly onto city streets last week.

It is also leaking into regional communities.

For users in online country community groups, but particularly for local Facebook moderators and admins like Melissa Davis, the implications of this phenomenon hit at a very local level. 

“I actually got quite down over winter because I was getting bombarded with harassment from this group. I got quite depressed. It was horrible,” she said.

A narrow asphalt road with trees and paddocks either side
Rural and regional communities often connect in Facebook groups.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Professor Axel Bruns from QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre believes the effects of misinformation and online polarisation can at times be felt more acutely in smaller, regional communities. 

“In the bigger cities there is a certain amount of anonymity and you may not necessarily know all your neighbours. But in smaller towns and small communities, people know each other,” Professor Bruns said.

‘It has really taken a dive’ so whats being shared online in your town?

“What happens online will be discussed offline, and vice versa — particularly in smaller, tight-knit communities where a lot of the community organisation and coordination happens via platforms like Facebook.”

Yackandandah main street shops.
Yackandandah is a picturesque regional town in north-east Victoria.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Ms Davis started up a Yackandandah community Facebook group almost a decade ago after moving back to her hometown from Sydney. 

“It was exciting. It was like, ‘yay we love this town, let’s do something positive!’ And it was positive. It’s been so, so great,” she said. 

“It’s only in the last couple of years it has really taken a dive.”

On its best days, the private Yackandandah Community group — which boasts over 2,000 members, a number that roughly mirrors the town’s population — was home to a cheery mix of local updates, people asking for practical advice, buy-and-sell posts, and photos of users’ gardens or nearby attractions. 

“A lot of it just seemed very caring and sharing. It was like ‘it’s a small country town, but online’,” Ms Davis said.

“People were quite considerate, they were very respectful of each other, and it was a good place where everyone could go to find out information.” 

Two green signs welcoming motorists to Yackandandah with car passing on road
Around 2,000 users are part of a town Facebook community group.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Ms Davis said local conspiracy theorists would occasionally pop-up under certain posts, but things never got too heated.

That all changed when Australia was first subjected to a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. 

“Then it just seemed to spiral. I’d say over the last year especially it’s become a lot more angry and abusive,” she said.

“I just notice that people’s tolerances are a lot lower. They’re not really as friendly as they were. It seems like there are more attacks on the site rather than support.”

Woman in red jumper and blue jeans with greying black hair stands undercover with rain falling against tree-lined background
At one stage Melissa Davis had to take a break from moderating her town’s Facebook group.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

It was not just the tenor of how some users were interacting online. Posts from far-flung corners of the right-wing conspiracy ecosystem started being shared into the group.

Some, according to Ms Davis, carried anti-government conspiracies, others were anti-science, while some were overtly anti-vaccine.

“I don’t really look into exactly where they’re coming from because I just feel like … I’m just overwhelmed with it all now. It’s all just crap to me,” she said.

“I’m happy for everyone to have their own opinions, I’m just not happy to have them forced down other people’s throats, which they seem to be quite big on — and then calling people sheep if they don’t believe them.”

The group’s admins made the decision to remove some of the more inflammatory posts and those making dubious scientific claims. 

Those ad hoc attempts at moderation were not well received. Some users expressed frustration that divisive posts were kept up for too long, while others, according to Ms Davis, accused the admins of censorship. The other admins for the group eventually gave up and left.

Street sign next to a stone pub wall with country streetscape in background
Yackandandah prides itself on its sense of community.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

It was not just the abuse she received online that affected Ms Davis, it was the fact it was coming from a small number of people she could recognise around town — people she had previously shared a beer with at the pub.

“Everyone’s different, which used to be a good thing, and you could sit and discuss and even argue sometimes. It just seems now as soon as you’ve got a different opinion you’re a bad person,” she said.

“I don’t understand why people can be so angry and aggressive in such a small, beautiful town. It’s quite sad.

“I had to really take a step back, gather myself, and talk to a few people. It was really overwhelming.”

Woman in purple jumper flicks index finger on phone inside car with steering wheel visible
Ms Davis said she found some of the comments she received overwhelming.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

The ABC has spoken to a number of people in Yackandandah who were concerned that divisive conversations online were affecting the town’s otherwise treasured sense of community. 

“It was very stressful for the community as well. Lots of people have told me that,” Ms Davis said. 

“The town’s changed, the community has changed, and the page has changed.”

Online conflict strains offline communities 

Brick chimney and crumbled rural building in long grassed paddock
Regional social media administrators complain of a rise in misinformation.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Having researched public debate on social media platforms for over a decade, Professor Bruns has seen political and ideological polarisation fuel a drift toward outwardly antagonistic and hyperpartisan behaviour in previously cohesive communities.

“For people who might see themselves as different from the rest of the community, that creates a lot of strain and a lot of pressure on their own self-identity,” he said. 

“It might also lead them to push back. If they feel they’re the only one who knows the real truth about the pandemic and everyone else are just sheep who go along with what the government’s saying, then they might start to get more and more aggressive about this.

“If there’s a few of you, then you might start to get more and more disruptive and undermine the community consensus on certain topics.”

Man wearing black t-shirt with tattoos with young daughter in pram across street with shopping strip other side
The distinction between online and offline can be “so blurred as to be practically meaningless”, Professor Bruns says.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

In small towns this process can become supercharged and quickly make community relationships toxic.

“The distinction between online and offline is so blurred as to be practically meaningless,” Professor Bruns said.

“There is a real danger that communities can fragment as these things spiral out of control.

“This might also cause offline harm rather than just create a lot of online debates and discord.”

Jo* has recognised that danger in her own town. 

She is one of a couple of administrators behind a community Facebook group in a small seaside Victorian tourist town. 

Dog stands on a deserted beach with waves and sea and small coastal inlet on horizon
Jo says her coastal tourist town’s Facebook page suffers from misinformation.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter, file photo)

Her experience has tracked along similar lines to the moderators in Yackandandah with one key point of difference — posts on her town’s community group are pre-moderated, meaning one of the admins has to approve it before it’s shared into the group. 

“We try to keep it to not being a nasty place,” she said.

“You don’t want people leaving the page because it’s all infighting and bitching.”

A car passes a four wheel drive with attached caravan on a country road
Misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines has become prevalent on Australia social media.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Jo, who asked to use a pseudonym on the basis that she was “trying really hard not to lose friends”, acknowledged that each admin inevitably brings their own bias to pre-moderating posts.

She and the other admins are happy to dedicate the time — and wear claims of censorship — if it means keeping the page largely good-natured. 

“We get told that we’re infringing on freedom of speech all the time,” she said.

“In the last couple of months there’s been a few comments comparing the vaccine program to the Holocaust and I really don’t have any tolerance for that at all.

“I will remove the comment, and if it gets posted again I’ll remove the person.

“By now, the locals know we are fairly stringent about what we do and don’t post. They know that we’re strict about misinformation-type posts so we don’t get many.”

Saying ‘you’re an idiot’ doesn’t work

A tree in a bright yellow field of canola crop
Jo tries to encourage her friends to seek out credible scientific sources.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

The ABC’s recently-launched Country Social project has been examining how regional communities are changing because of what is being read and shared online.

In her own life, Jo has seen friends, family, and members of her local community “sucked into the rabbit hole” of misinformation.

It has hurt relationships and frayed her sense of community.

But she remains committed to trying to engage with those people all the same, and gently nudge them toward credible scientific sources — even as their views become more extreme.

“People have been shit-scared this entire pandemic, which is understandable. I mean, it is scary. But fear creates division,” Jo said.

“We know that saying ‘you’re an idiot’ isn’t going to work.

“I figure you may as well try the effective thing because the other way is not working. You don’t want to widen the gulf. We want to make the gulf smaller.”

In Yackandandah, Ms Davis tried starting up a separate page for the town to discuss political issues in the hope it would keep the community group free of divisive posts.

She does not regularly check it, but has received several warnings from Facebook that the group has violated community standards.

a screenshot of a Facebook post with greyed out video, text saying it contains false information
A post flagged by Facebook for containing false information.(Supplied)

Among recent posts in the group seen by the ABC was a widely circulated, debunked photo of a woman holding a supposedly decade-old newspaper purporting to detail a plan by Bill Gates to depopulate the world through forced vaccination.

Several other posts had been flagged by Facebook as containing “false information”.

A separate, smaller, open forum group for the town has now spawned from the political forum, from which Ms Davis said she was banned.

The ABC attempted to contact the group’s administrator but did not receive a response.

Professor Bruns said Australia might not possess the same animating forces of polarisation as the US and UK, but more needed to be done to stop communities fragmenting.

“I think it would be problematic for anyone at the local level, whether it’s political authorities or anyone else, to just blame social media and say ‘we can’t do anything about this, it’s just what social media does’,” he said.

“Because very often, what happens on social media actually points to some underlying factors and issues that actually need to be addressed.

“There is nothing in our Australian nature or political system that inherently protects us from sliding down towards the kind of polarisation and fragmentation that we’ve seen in other countries.”

Woman in purple jumper and blue jeans with greying black hair stands outside with rain falling against tree-lined background
Melissa Davis is a proud advocate for her home town of Yackandandah.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Melissa Davis nonetheless remains optimistic about the future of her town’s Facebook group and more generally, its sense of community.

When asked if continuing to serve as an administrator for the group was worth it she replied, immediately, “oh god yeah!”

“Apart from the crap it’s great. It’s a really good thing,” she said.

“I just think that anyone who only gets their information and news from Facebook really needs to not.”

* Name changed.

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