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We know that online crowds can be either snappy and insensitive or welcoming and informative. On tech is host a virtual event for subscribers to the New York Times this week to talk about what makes healthy online communities and how to get more of them.
An essential ingredient are people like Kate Bilowitz.
Bilowitz is the co-founder of a Facebook group called Vaccination talk, which describes itself as an “evidence-based discussion forum” for people with different beliefs about vaccination to better understand one another.
You can imagine raging shout festivals, but I’ve been watching Vaccine Talk since reading about the group in the Washington Post, and I’ve mostly seen discussions that were empathetic, civilized, and nuanced. I read the compassionate responses to someone who worries that Covid vaccinations will harm a loved one who is recovering from cancer.
Vaccine talk is not perfect and the group’s work is exhausting. Facebook recognizes that Vaccine Talk is the type of group it wants on its website, but Bilowitz told me that the group’s overseers are constantly worried about being shut down. (More on that in a moment.)
In my ideal world, the best online community hosts would be as famous as Mark Zuckerberg. Think of this newsletter as a step to get them more exposure.
Vaccine talk is time consuming. Bilowitz, who is a mom and works in the real estate industry, said she spent about 10 to 15 hours a week on the Facebook group. I asked why she takes so much time to volunteer where she is occasionally yelled at by strangers.
“It’s extremely rewarding when people tell us that the group helped them,” said Bilowitz. “We’re not here to preach to people, but honestly, when people hesitate about vaccines and find information that will help them be confident in their decision, that’s honestly the main reason we do it.”
The irony of building great online communities is that when they work, they can appear effortless. They definitely are not. Bilowitz said that like others who run online groups, Vaccine Talk’s overseers have worked hard to create a healthy culture and develop and enforce codes of conduct.
Vaccine Talk started more than four years ago and has mainly focused on vaccines for children such as measles. The original idea was to be a place for all sorts of things. “That didn’t work,” said Bilowitz. “It was not a civil discussion forum.” Many people – especially those who find themselves in the middle of strongly approving or disapproving views – have turned themselves off.
Now rules require people to be respectful, and the group gives tips on how to effectively back up claims with evidence. “Complaining excessively” about the group or how it is run is taboo. Nearly 30 moderators, spread across multiple time zones, are closely monitoring the comments and approving newcomers who wish to join the group of around 77,000 members.
Bilowitz knows some people feel choked by the guard rails of vaccine talk, but she believes they are essential to productive conversations.
the Risks of Incorrect Information About Vaccines complicate the work of the group and that of Facebook. To counter any misinformation on its website, Facebook has rules against posting information about vaccines that Fact check groups or health authorities believe to be wrong. However, this poses a challenge to groups like Vaccine Talk, where misinformation is sometimes posted to help with exposure – something that is allowed in the Facebook rules.
Bilowitz said that Facebook twice this year disabled vaccination talk for several hours as a punishment for violating the Company’s misinformation policy. Facebook told me it was aware the group was closed once and said it was a mistake.
Understand the Facebook Papers
A tech giant in trouble. The leak of internal documents by a former Facebook employee made sure of that an intimate look on the operation of the secret social media company and renewed calls for better regulation of the company’s wide reach into the lives of its users.
A Facebook spokesman, Leonard Lam, told me that “the company can do more to support well-meaning communities like Vaccine Talk”.
You will hear more from Bilowitz along with a founder of Reddit and a famous drag performer at On tech event on Thursday. I hope you will join me in better understanding the work of people like you turning technology into a living reality for all of us.
We also have a group chat on Slack where you can talk to fellow readers about the changing role technology plays in your life. You will receive an invitation to join the group as soon as you register for the event.
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Before we go …
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