Once she gets the fliers back from the printer, Liz Pommer plans to tell all the neighbours on her street about a new Facebook group she’s created.
Based in Melbourne, she’s one of many Australians creating online spaces where locals can share resources or offer to get groceries for less mobile residents — a way for communities to prepare for a period of social separation during the COVID-19 outbreak.
People are organising on platforms such as Facebook, Nextdoor or even in Google Docs during the pandemic, but online groups can also breed misinformation and discord if not carefully managed.
Ms Pommer said she’ll keep an eye on what people post each day.
“It just needs to be respectful and factual,” she said.
If you’re starting or joining an online group to get through the coronavirus crisis, there are steps you can take to create a productive environment and avoid the pitfalls, which can include legal liability.
Decide what your group is for, and fill a gap
When setting up an online group, it’s important to be clear about its purpose, according to Venessa Paech, founder of the industry group Australian Community Managers.
For example, will it just connect neighbours to local resources during the outbreak? Or will members also share information about the science of the disease?
“It really shouldn’t be a catchall, because that’s where some of the problems start to happen,” she said.
New groups should also fill a gap.
Asher Wolf, a social media consultant who has run large online movements, suggested people first check what local services are already available, such as food banks, to avoid duplication.
“Look for groups that already have some degree of trust,” she suggested.
“I would be talking to your local council, your local food distribution group…they will have ideas of what is most needed for your community at this time.”
Set the ground rules
Rikki Stern created the Cancer Chicks Australia Facebook group, which supports women going through cancer.
Her group started with a handful of women in 2018 and has since grown to a membership of almost 500.
To manage the conversation, the group abides by several rules, which she set “just to be safe”.
They include setting the tone, which is to be kind and understanding, to the practical — no promotion of products and affiliate services.
Ms Stern said this last one can be difficult, because it’s important that people are also able to recommend items that help them get through a health crisis.
“We as a community tend to get a lot of spam,” she said. “We get targeted by a lot of pyramid schemes.”
It’s vital to set boundaries and expectations for how people will engage and behave, Ms Paech said, and to implement them consistently. For example, you could decide health information can only be shared from official sources.
This doesn’t need to be a 24-7 job, but it can be helpful to find ambassadors to help scale your community management approach.
Ms Stern runs Cancer Chicks Australia, for example, with the help of two other moderators.
Choose a moderation approach
Lisa Baillie created a Facebook group called 4074 Community & Beyond in 2013, for residents of Brisbane’s western suburbs.
Now with more than 24,000 members, Ms Baillie takes the group’s moderation very seriously.
They recently turned on post approval, which means moderators must actively approve each new contribution.
Ms Baillie said this was done in advance of the upcoming Queensland election, but it’s also working well during the current coronavirus crisis.
“But we fully intend to turn it off, after the coronavirus has settled down.”
Post approval allows the moderators to control any misinformation that’s being shared, and cuts down on repetitive contributions.
“It keeps the page clean and not so virus-focused,” she said.
There may be moments when some members need to be barred from the group, as has happened from time to time in 4074 Community & Beyond.
Ms Paech said her advice is to assume the best and prepare for the worst. “You need the … sense of how you’ll manage that before it happens to minimise the fall out.”
Sites like Facebook and Nextdoor also have rules about sharing coronavirus misinformation, and ways to report it.
Look after your privacy and security
When talking to neighbours online, don’t discard the safety and privacy considerations you may have had before the coronavirus outbreak.
“Things like giving out your home address and how much pasta you have on your shelves is not a good idea,” Ms Wolf said.
Scammers may also attempt to profit off people’s fears during a period of uncertainty.
Ms Wolf warned people to take care when clicking on new links, being cautious of spam and wary of attempts to obtain banking details.
“In social movements, there is the tendency to feel like you’ve found your cause or your purpose,” she said. “You still need to make sure your safety and security is at an appropriate level.”
Another important consideration is legal liability if things go very wrong in the group. Disputes that began in Facebook groups have ended up in the courts.
“There’s the potential for things like defamation, contempt of court, threats of harm to self or others,” Ms Paech said. “The risk is generally quite low, but people need to understand it could happen.”
Of course, for a well-run group, there can be a great deal of reward.
Ms Baillie’s 4074 Community & Beyond group has supported locals through house fires and other crises and come out stronger.
“It’s just a great sense of achievement,” she said. “I love being able to be a part of bringing our community together.”