For many small, Alaska communities, Facebook groups have become an important way to share information, particularly during the pandemic. But they can also be challenging to moderate, especially as Facebook continues to grapple with how to regulate speech on its site. Keeping divisive rhetoric off of groups like Sitka Chatters can feel like a full-time job.

When Kathryn Daum came up with the idea for the Facebook group Sitka Chatters with her friend Sam back in 2013, she never imagined it would grow to an important community forum with over 9,000 members.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Daum said. “I mean we were pretty excited when it hit a hundred members. We never thought it would get this big and be one of the main sources to get information from for Sitka.”

Over the years, Sitka Chatters has helped people find lost pets and share information about new businesses. It has also connected people in need with resources, like during the 2015 landslides in Sitka. The whole idea behind the group was to create a positive space to bring people together, Daum said. She quit moderating when she moved to Anchorage, but she still uses it to connect to the Sitka community.

“We wanted a safe place where there was no discrimination. There was no name-calling,” she said. “We wanted a positive place for businesses where there was no shaming businesses or other people.”

But that hasn’t always been easy, especially during a divisive election season and a politicized pandemic.

“We were like ‘oh my God,’ this is getting crazy,” former Sitka Chatters moderator Robin Schmid said. “People are snapping. People are acting horrible.”

Schmid moderated the group for about eight months before quitting right after the November election. She works as an attorney and says it felt like a second full-time job.

“I just can’t have this negativity in my life any more. It’s giving me the wrong impression of our society,” she said. “It’s showing a side that is a vocal minority when there are still really great people out there.”

Facebook isn’t a free-for-all. The platform prohibits hate speech, nudity, excessive violence and spam, for example. Schmid said Facebook would notify them of false information or a threat they considered viable. But the group also has its own rules that they try to enforce. No trolling, no personal attacks and no politics, for example. Discussions about masks were also outlawed following months of divisive conversations that devolved into personal attacks in the comments section.

“And we got to the point where we were even giving people like 24-hour cool-off periods, 72 hours, a week,” Schmid said. “You know and then we kept doing that. Trying to give people a chance, you know, knock it off, these are the rules.”

Finally, they decided to ban repeat offenders altogether. But is it possible to do that in an unbiased way in such a small town? The moderators hold the power to regulate speech in whatever way they see fit, as long as it aligns with Facebook’s policies. 

And even Twitter and Facebook have faced backlash in recent months for flagging false information and banning extreme speech from alt-right groups, including booting former President Donald Trump. That prompted many on the far right to flock to less regulated social media sites like Parler, which has since been taken offline.

Both Schmid and current moderator Fran Abeyta said they’ve had to ban people from all parts of the political spectrum.

“People think we’re judgmental, and it’s just like all three of us have different beliefs and you know we don’t boot somebody without discussing it with all three of us,” Abeyta said. She is one of three current moderators, and she initially got involved through the group’s regular photo contest. Sometimes, she said she doesn’t know why she keeps doing it.

“Maybe it’s just the control. Being able to delete people if they get out of hand,” Abeyta said. “Sitka’s my home and I care about it. That and what’s going on in the community.”

Abeyta says that in recent weeks, things have calmed down. She knows there will always be people looking to stir the pot but hopes that moving forward, the group can remain a positive space for Sitkans to come together.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.