Adwoa Afful is Bitch Media’s 2019 Writing Fellow in Technology
This post is the first in a series exploring organizing on Facebook and its implications for digital social justice.
In 2015, Chicago-based journalist Lola Omolola created the private Facebook group Female In Nigeria, or FIN, after news of the Chibok kidnapping broke in the United States. Originally from Nigeria, Omolola felt compelled to create a safe space where Nigerian women could share stories about issues that matter to them—but she quickly found herself overwhelmed by the number of women who joined FIN to share stories of gender-based discrimination or abuse. The group has since grown to 1.7 million members from across the globe, and has become so popular that Omolola was a featured guest at F8 2018, Facebook’s annual developer conference. In a 2017 CNN interview, Mark Zuckerberg shared Omolola’s success story to help illustrate Facebook’s current growth strategy, asserting that “[I]f we can help build those tools and give more people like Lola in the world the power to build more of these communities, the world is going to be a much better place.”
Zuckerberg never explains what those tools might look like or how they could be used by community organizers like Omolola because ultimately, it’s a smoke screen. After a few years of extremely bad press over its handling of user data, the proliferation of fake news on its platform, and a correlated decline in usership, Facebook is hoping to rehabilitate its image while increasing user engagement, in part by spotlighting social justice–oriented private groups like Omolola’s. But in the process, it’s highlighted one of the biggest paradoxes of organizing on the platform.
The very business and growth models that have made Facebook such an effective community-building tool are fundamentally at odds with the ethics of many of the communities it helps build. Without the financial resources or capacity of the platform they depend on, these groups must invent their own strategies in order to mitigate the worst aspects of hosting a private Facebook group in lieu of viable alternatives.
One of the ironies of using social media as an organizing tool is that the reach of a group’s advocacy work relies on the platform’s exploitative algorithms: The more a group’s members engage with each other on Facebook, the more vulnerable each one becomes to surveillance and data sharing. The very mechanisms that drive some groups from other platforms are the backbone of Facebook’s business model. Yet knowing that does not change the desire among group organizers and their members for a digital space to form community and vent about some of the frustrations that come with navigating predominantly white spaces offline. Members also share strategies for navigating industries that can be especially hostile to women and queer folks of color, without fear of judgment from their peers or negative repercussions for their careers.
I belong to several private Toronto-based and social justice oriented Facebook groups created and moderated by women of color and queer and trans Black, Indigenous and people of colour (QTBIPOC). Dedicated to urban planning, technology, and Black feminism, these groups are the main reason I still keep my Facebook account active; and according the platform’s own user research, I am far from alone. In 2017, Facebook announced a shift in its corporate mission toward helping grow the private groups to which roughly 1.4 billion of its users belong. The platform that once strived to “make the world more open and connected” is now “[giving] people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” and private groups are a central part of the rebrand. And while these groups are invite-only, calling them “Private” is a bit of a misnomer—they are often visible to non-members and, more important, legible to Facebook’s algorithms.
Facebook groups have become an important tool in contemporary movement building because they help meet what writer Ann Friedman has called “a deep systemic need.” IntersectTO, for example, is a Toronto-based group its founders describe as “a space for learning tech skills (e.g. web development, digital design) and executing projects, as well as for critical discussion, talks, and workshops on how technology affects communities of color and those at the margins.” The group formed in 2018 as a response to the lack of diversity in Toronto’s tech sector and the ongoing failure of its leadership to address it. Then there’s Bita, a Montreal-based community worker and activist who created the group Mtl FreakFamJobby Jobz in 2014 to match friends looking for freelance work with jobs or potential employers.
As the daughter of working-class refugees, Bita saw an opportunity to help marginalized people in her networks find employment, even if it was temporary or precarious. Now she wonders whether groups like hers are contributing to the gig economy whose negative impact may be most keenly felt by women and queer people of color. The amount of unpaid labor that goes into moderating these groups is immense: In an interview with the BBC, Omolola revealed that though she dreams of taking FIN offline by opening women’s centers, she’s far from having the means to do so. (“I can’t even pay my rent,” she notes.) There’s nothing in Facebook’s PR for its new business strategy that addresses compensation for the users who run what they call “meaningful” groups; it also doesn’t acknowledge the harassment their moderators experience. (In fact, Facebook’s algorithms have have a history of suspending the accounts of Black women and antiracist activists.)
Omolola’s BBC interview revealed that FIN has been a target of attacks from religious groups; Lequanne, one of IntersectTO’s founders, was wary of creating the group due to her personal Facebook history with stalkers. As for Bita, being on the receiving end of attacks from members of her own group motivated her decision to hand the moderating reins to two volunteers. And yet all of them continue to organize on Facebook because it’s the one platform that (almost) everyone uses, offering reach that other platforms can’t provide.
The reach of a group’s advocacy work relies on Facebook’s exploitative algorithms: The more a group’s members engage with each other, the more vulnerable each one becomes to surveillance and data sharing.
They also emphasize that their ultimate goal is to move conversations into offline spaces, and currently focus on sharing events and encouraging members to attend in-person meetups that they’ve found to be the source of much of the groups’ meaningful engagement. IntersectTO responds to the inherent Catch-22 of Facebook organizing by in part using the group to illustrate the importance of digital literacy: Members post little personal information in the group and instead focusing on tech-related opportunities and resources, intentionally limiting engagement to a few specific areas. But in a space where content—any content—and engagement supersedes everything else, IntersectTO is well aware that it is, in some way, implicated in Facebook’s worst business practices.
The success of Bita’s group, on the other hand, has forced her to confront issues of privacy and community in more existential ways. At the start, Bita had no moderation policy or code of conduct because she “just had this belief that we can be organically ethical together.” (She soon realized that was “cute [and] unrealistic.”) One of the biggest challenges of hosting a private group is managing people, and since Facebook relies so heavily on user engagement to feed its growth, it’s likely against the conglomerate’s best interest to develop tools to provide meaningful support to people like Bita. In speaking to these moderators, I asked about alternatives to Facebook: What would a platform with the same capacity for community building, but run more ethically, look like? Each expressed a desire for one, but couldn’t imagine how such a platform would gain the reach and power offered by Facebook.
The reality is that many activists and organizers know that leaving Facebook would be detrimental to their groups and to the momentum of their organizing efforts. These groups are often founded to combat the exploitation of vulnerable communities, but their moderators, in engaging with members on this platform, become participants in their own. This irony is not lost on them. As Bita points out, doing work on behalf of their communities requires tradeoffs, and one tradeoff is expanding a group’s reach at the expense of depth, connection, and privacy. Organizers are figuring out, in real time, whether these tradeoffs are worth it—and doing so while Facebook tracks and learns from their every move.