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Localising content governance in Place-Named Facebook Groups

Localising Content Governance is the first systematic study of how administrators and moderators of neighbourhood or local Facebook groups approach moderating content contributions.

This page provides comprehensive detail about the project for a range of audiences. 

Rationale and Aims 

  • Facebook groups related to named places – such as neighbourhoods, streets, districts, villages or boroughs - are popular and growing. Some have thousands of members with hundreds of daily contributions. Unlike platforms such as Nextdoor, which allocate users based on their geographical location, multiple place-named Facebook groups can be, and are, created, joined and contributed to by multiple users, built around different and often overlapping geographical scales and topics.
  • Place-named Facebook groups can be vibrant arenas of constructive local discourse. But they can also host polarised exchanges, harmful content and even facilitate the possibility of offline harm. This research project is the first systematic study of how administrators and moderators moderate contributions in such local or place-named Facebook groups. It explores the relationships as well as possible tensions between ‘translocality’ and ‘locality’ in social media communication. Specifically, we are exploring how, when moderating contributions, the administrators and moderators of place-named Facebook groups usually need to orient towards:
    • The 'translocal' space of Facebook as a platform. Wherever Facebook is used in the world, it has the same technical functionalities. The same community standards and appeals process applies, with the final global arbiter being the new Facebook Oversight Board.
    • The localised situation surrounding the place-named Facebook group. How people use Facebook is also always inherently ‘local’. This is especially so for Facebook groups related to named places, since their users are more likely to share the same geographical turf. Accordingly, the administrators and moderators might take local contexts or cultural meanings into account when deciding whether content is objectionable or harmful, or whether there is a risk of offline harm. They may even establish more bespoke rules for their group. Often, the administrators and moderators will also draw upon their own experiences (and perhaps reputation) of living, working or volunteering in the local area.
  • We are exploring these translocal and local qualities as ‘orienting conditions’ for administrators and moderators of place-named Facebook groups. These conditions are not something we will regard as mutually exclusive, or distinct from one another, but rather as overlapping in complicated ways.

Methods

  • We are employing three main methods:
    • We are collecting - using computer-assisted scraping - publicly available information about place-named Facebook groups across Greater London (group names, descriptions, numbers of members and posts, and URLs). This collection does not include any personal information or user messages and interactions. From this, we will create a dataset of geo-referenced groups (e.g. by associating groups with longitude and latitude, a London borough or a local ward). These groups will be analysed and compared with geodemographic data, such as national census records and Greater London Authority planning data. The main purpose of this analysis is to identify 16 place-named Facebook groups, selected for their relation to a broadly representative range of locality types (e.g. inner London, suburban, urban-rural fringe, ethnic mix, income mix, employment mix, residential fabric, education profile, etc). A secondary purpose of this analysis is to create an overview portrait of the range of different place-named Facebook groups currently active across Greater London.
    • We are undertaking a preparatory observation and analysis of group activities in 16 selected Facebook groups. The sole purpose of this analysis is to prepare questions for later interviews with administrators and/or moderators. In the case of private groups, these observations will only be done after (a) gaining permission from the group administrator, and (b) posting an announcement about the project to group members, who will have a chance to ask the project team any questions. 
    • We are conducting 20-30 in-depth interviews with administrators and/or moderators of the 16 selected Facebook groups. We will ask all interview participants a set of general thematic questions, as well as questions specific to their own experience, drawing in part on general examples and/or types of cases observed in our preparatory analysis of group activities. Interviews are being conducted remotely via video call. The audio recording of the interview will be transcribed and later coded using NVivo.

Participant Anonymity and Data Protection 

  • Interview participants will be given pseudonyms in all of our research outputs. When referring to specific Facebook groups, we will employ more general place identifiers (e.g. “a group in suburban West London”), rather than using literal group names. No data of group behaviour or contributions is being collected or stored while observing group activity, other than general, thematic notes taken to inform interview questions for group administrators or moderators. Likewise, no specific accounts of group activity, behaviour or contributions will be discussed or divulged in our research outputs.
  • In the event we discover content that might be illegal or pose a significant risk of harm, we will perform a risk assessment, which may compel us to make a report to the appropriate authorities (e.g. a group moderator, Facebook, the police or social services). In such cases, it may become necessary for us to waive some or all of our provisions around participant confidentiality and anonymity.
  • Video recordings of interviews will be stored in an encrypted location accessible only to the project team. Audio recordings will be split from the video and sent to the contracted transcription service with no identifying information attached. Transcripts will be named using a coding system, stored in an encrypted location, rather than the name of the respondent.

Outcomes

  • This research has two main outcomes:
    • A publicly accessible online resource for administrators and moderators of place-named Facebook groups. This will provide guidance as well as relatable perspectives around such topics as establishing group rules and an admin team; dealing with objectionable or harmful content; strategies for averting possible offline harm; and negotiating responsibilities between general platforms rules/policies and local contexts/norms.
    • Academic publications in refereed scholarly journals. We are projecting three articles: the first will draw methodological lessons from this study, in conjunction with related earlier research; the second will present high-level findings around the diversity of place-named groups across Greater London; and the third will present more focused findings from our interviews with administrators and/or moderators of the 16 selected Facebook groups, aiming to advance the academic understanding of practices, roles and resources related to more local forms of content governance in place-named social media.

Project Team 

  • Dr Scott Rodgers is Senior Lecturer in Media Theory at Birkbeck, University of London. He is a qualitative researcher whose work specialises in the relationships of media and cities and the geographies of communication. Scott is the Principal Investigator on the project.
  • Dr Andrea Ballatore is Lecturer in Geographic Data Science at Birkbeck, University of London. His research focuses on spatial analysis, GIS, social media analytics and Internet geography. Andrea is a Co-Investigator on the project.
  • Dr Susan Moore is Associate Professor in Urban Development and Planning at University College London. Her research focuses on urban development and governance, including the role of social media platforms in relation to local urban change. Susan is a Co-Investigator on the project.
  • Dr Liam McLoughlin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. His work spans qualitative and quantitative approaches, focusing on the study of internet cultures, content moderation practices, online harms and politics. Liam is the lead Field Researcher for the project.

Funding