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Facebook community forums become controversial

Disagreement over what to allow in Facebook community forums is nothing new.

Every so often, those who tire of having posts deleted abscond from a town's most populous group to create their own, perhaps with "uncensored" or "unmuzzled" or "free speech" in the name.

But in the group formerly known as the Ledyard Community Forum, debates over what should be permitted came to a head last month regarding posts about Black Lives Matter protests and issues.

People started calling forum administrators Linda Davis and Ellin Grenger racist and fascist. About a month ago, a new forum popped up called "The Ledyard Community Forum, but the admins aren't racist," which was quickly changed to "The Ledyard Community Forum for Equity."

The Ledyard Community Forum admininistrators say they can run the group the way they want, and what they want is a conflict-free place where people can share information about trash, weather cancellations, weird noises, hummingbirds, lost pets, recommendations for services, and on Wednesdays, business promotion.

Their critics say they're being censored and silenced, push back against the idea that the forum is the wrong place for discussions about racism, and feel the forum is exclusionary to certain narratives. Some have reported the page to Facebook, trying to get it taken down.

Linda Davis, chairwoman of the town council, started the Ledyard Community Forum in June 2011. It has grown to more than 7,000 members — the equivalent of about 47% of the town's population, though not all members currently live there. Grenger joined as an administrator about two years ago.

Grenger said during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when posts were surging, group rules changed so administrators must pre-approve posts before they appear.

When people started trying to post about Black Lives Matter protests and issues in early June, Grenger and Davis said they wouldn't approve posts that asked for support of a cause or that repeated information already on the page.

Davis said she doesn't think Black Lives Matter is a political issue, but that the discussion stemming from it can become uncivil.

Along with getting criticism over not allowing posts, people started sending Grenger screenshots of tweets that she said attacked the administrators personally, and so she started removing the tweeters from the forum altogether.

Much of the loudest pushback has come from young white women, some of whom note that Facebook wasn't their social media platform of choice but they saw its value during the pandemic or in organizing with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Grenger said she agrees with 95% of what they're doing but doesn't agree with personally calling people out, and she hopes they can "use their energy and passion to deal with the real issues surrounding equality, rather than this narrow focus."

Two people Grenger removed for their tweets were Lexi O'Connell and Bella Langlois. O'Connell, 20, said she didn't say anything on the Facebook forum, and when she messaged Grenger about being removed, she learned it was because of her tweets.

O'Connell said that as a resident of the town, she doesn't think it's fair that she's not allowed to know what's going on through the forum.

Langlois, also 20, made a crack about a new favorite pastime of bullying racists on Ledyard forums, a tweet she since deleted. Langlois said she could see how it might not be very nice and she doesn't condone bullying, but it was a joke.

"But I don't understand why my posts on an entirely different platform of social media were being sent to them, and being used against me," she told The Day. "I don't understand why they're taking it so personally."

At the Black Lives Matter protest on the Fourth of July, Ally Campbell held a "Defund Linda Davis" sign. Davis wasn't there but heard about the sign; she told The Day she took it in stride and "thought it was funny she thought I was paid."

Shortly after joining the forum in June, Campbell commented on a post from Davis about a Fourth of July house-decorating contest in which Ledyard kids would vote for the winner: "This comes across rather tone deaf considering the current political circumstances — no?" After a back-and-forth with Davis and another member, she was removed from the group.

"I'm being kind in my approach," Campbell said of her Facebook comments, many of which were punctuated with cheerful exclamation points. "There's no need to silence me."

Outside of Black Lives Matter issues, Grenger said people have been kicked out — though infrequently — for swearing too much or promoting their business or services too frequently. Davis said she has also not permitted some posts on tolls and, more recently, fireworks.

A few weeks ago, Davis changed the name to Ledyard Community Resource. She said she wanted to change the name about five years ago, having realized that "forum" implied "discussion" and that wasn't her aim, but she said Facebook didn't allow her to change the name at that time.

The Ledyard Community Resource as a living room

One theme among critics of the Ledyard Community Resource is the feeling that it's unfair for an elected official to decide what can and can't be said in the town's largest social media group.

"I don't understand why it is okay that someone who is part of the town council, who is a registered Republican, who obviously has an agenda, is allowed to run the forum," Langlois said.

Hilary Evans, who is on multiple boards and committees in town, thinks it's "unethical for elected officials to be controlling the narrative that way." She said she has been complaining about censorship in the forum for two years but is also concerned about backlash.

"It's my forum. They don't have to be a member. To me, it's that simple," Davis told The Day in response. She said she checked early on with a couple of attorneys to ensure that running the forum wasn't any violation.

Davis twice compared the forum to her living room, indicating she wouldn't expect someone to say something to her in her living room different from what they'd post in the group. But she knows why people want a voice.

"It's because I have 7,000 people, and why do I have 7,000 people? It's because people weren't hating on each other in my group," Davis said.

She pointed to a comment from Democratic Town Councilor Bill Saums that the forum has that many members because "it is tightly moderated with rules, a focus and a purpose." This was one of dozens showing support and gratitude for the administrators, in response to a June 14 post from Davis about how she and Grenger were called racist and fascist.

Saums told The Day he thinks people confuse freedom of speech with the right to say things on other people's forums, and people think this is a public forum when it's not. He said the town hasn't allocated funding for an official town forum, and he's not sure who would want the job of moderating that anyway.

Another person showing support was Joel LaRose, who told The Day he was upset with what was being said to Davis and that she "tries extremely hard to put together a good product."

Similar debates in other area forums

In a larger forum, Deborah Johnson decided to "poke the bear" after Homebrewtvnews administrator Corey Watford posted, "We will not allow any post about any protest or events dealing with them. This page is to inform people about accidents, detours, fires, festivals, parades, and etc."

She questioned, "If a protest and/or march involve road closures, why is that not considered 'and etc'? How is that different from a parade or event that would impact travel in a region? Just curious."

Her post was deleted. Watford acknowledged the protests will impact traffic but there's so many of them around. Watford told The Day he and the other administrators won't allow posts if people will attack them or there will be a lot of arguments.

Johnson also noted that a post sharing a Back the Blue Parade supporting law enforcement was still up, questioning whether there was a double standard or this was about semantics.

The Day also posted in the primary community forums in Groton, East Lyme and Stonington asking how Black Lives Matter posts are handled there and seeking members' thoughts.

In the Groton CT Community Forum, moderator Danielle Hartung said discussion of national politics is not allowed, but said they're not removing Black Lives Matter posts whatsoever and that BLM is not political.

In the East Lyme Community Forum, administrator Wendy Parkhurst Updegrave said she is "allowing BLM posts because I believe it is a moral issue, not political. I am proud to have this important discussion on this Group. I think we can make positive changes by working together."

In the Stonington Community Forum, one of its members, Kerri Marshall, said she thinks any censorship can be a slippery slope, and that education and experiencing other cultures are some of the most productive ways to fight racism. But she also noted that everyone chose to join the forum, the rules are listed, and she could make her own group with different rules or no rules at all.

North Stonington resident Olivia Rinkes said she's seen a lot of these posts devolve into fighting, but she loves seeing them because it means people still want to have the discussion. She thinks the Black Lives Matter movement transcends party politics, and as a conservative, she thinks of it "as limiting govt power and spending to the places we need it the most."

e.moser@theday.com

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