Back in 2015, Asheville Politics was one of a handful of fledgling online platforms seeking to increase public engagement at City Council meetings. Nearly eight years later, the Facebook group’s membership has grown tenfold to over 11,000 members, reflecting social media’s dramatically increased importance in politics at all levels.
“There just aren’t that many public forums for people that want to talk about politics,” says longtime activist Robyn Josephs, an administrator for multiple Facebook groups, including this one. “You could sit in a coffee shop and talk to one person, but you can sit in Asheville Politics and type at 12,000 people,” she notes.
That broad reach is why Bailey Stockwell is a frequent poster, sharing information about events listed on another Facebook group, East Asheville for Safety and Truth. She co-founded E.A.S.T. last November to oppose the low-barrier homeless shelter proposed for the former Ramada Inn on River Ford Parkway.
“Social media is such a convenient way to keep up with what’s going on and find out when and where you need to be to advocate for those things that you care about the most,” says Stockwell. Since its creation, her group has grown considerably both in size — it now boasts some 2,600 members — and scope, having broadened its focus to cover local politics in general.
Cross-posting events on Asheville Politics, such as a Sept. 8 candidate forum at the East Asheville Library, enables Stockwell to reach thousands more people. Yet she says she doesn’t always feel welcome on the site.
“If you make any comments that are right-leaning, they will attack you,” Stockwell maintains, adding that she and her fellow E.A.S.T. administrators “call it an echo chamber.”
But former Asheville Politics administrator Rich Lee, one of the group’s founding members, says he hears “equal amounts of complaints that we’re not making it safe enough for conservatives as that we’re not making it safe for progressives.”
And despite their differences, both Lee and Stockwell say their respective groups have real-world impact on local politics.
“I’ll call certain people I’ve met off of the page and be like, ‘Hey, you need to be here,’” says Stockwell, citing strong attendance at both the candidate forum and a Sept. 6 neighborhood meeting about the proposed town house development on Pinnacle View Road in Oakley.
Meanwhile, Lee maintains, “Some of the most dedicated readers of Asheville Politics are local officials. Almost anytime I talk to them, they mention a recent conversation on AP.”
Whatever a particular group’s politics may be, however, participants will all pretty quickly confront the challenges inherent in any freewheeling, ongoing public conversation. And opinions vary on how much that rough-and-tumble interferes with achieving posters’ goals.
Backyard party politics
According to Lee, the folks who created Asheville Politics in November 2013 looked to backyard parties as their model when considering how to moderate the content.
“If you had a party at your house and somebody was hogging the stereo or just shouting everybody down or being belligerent, you wouldn’t think twice about saying, ‘Dude, you’ve got to cut that out,’” Lee points out. “Nobody expects your backyard to be a forum where people are free to express themselves in the most obnoxious or overbearing ways.”
That approach continues to guide the group’s administrators, says Josephs. When they take down posts, she explains, it’s “because the intent is to be unkind. It’s not the content: We want as many different voices as possible.”
Longtime member and frequent poster Andrew Celwyn, who became an administrator when Lee stepped down in 2019, says, “We have suspended several members for being rude or offensive to another member, but we don’t remove people unless they repeatedly violate the rules.” The most common reasons members are removed, says Celwyn, are for posting on national rather than local issues or for posting ads. He did, however, recall one person who was removed for posting anti-vaccine information.
“It is a left-leaning page,” Celwyn concedes, adding “we try not to be in the business of shaping what gets put on the page, other than keeping it local and trying to keep it centered on politics.”
One way Asheville Politics differs from other local pages — and perhaps makes the exchanges more like in-person conversations — is its policy of banning GIFs and memes.
“A page like ours pushes people to refine their arguments and make them better, so they have a greater chance of influencing our elected officials and others,” says Celwyn, adding that his own appointment to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board is an example of online involvement turning into real-world action.
Similarly, Lee credits his group with inspiring the property tax grant program introduced in Buncombe County, Woodfin and Asheville last year. “I can confidently say that that idea entered the local discussion through Asheville Politics,” he asserts. Now in its second year, the program lets homeowners apply for up to $500 to help cover housing-related expenses such as property taxes, mortgage payments and insurance.
Celwyn also highlights another kind of impact, calling his group “the id of local liberal politics that doesn’t always get its way but is often driving where it’s eventually going.”
Both sides now?
When E.A.S.T. membership grew large enough that Stockwell knew she couldn’t continue to single-handedly manage the page, she wanted to assemble a politically diverse group of moderators. The idea, she says, was “to find some trusted people that are versatile in their beliefs.”
Of the five administrators, Stockwell and two others are registered Democrats; the other two are registered Republicans. “We come from different walks of life, and that makes it work,” she explains. “The goal is to bring people together to at least agree to disagree or find common ground and compromise. If there’s a conversation going on that’s heated but they’re getting somewhere, I’m going to let that freedom of speech ring.”
But when a conversation descends into name-calling or foul language, the administrators will often put a stop to it. Each decision, she says, is determined by a majority vote.
And despite Stockwell’s commitment to diversity, E.A.S.T. is widely seen as having a predominantly right-leaning membership, which she attributes to the media and political organizations that reached out when the group began voicing concerns about the homeless shelter.
“In the beginning, it was the Republicans who brought in all the help,” remembers Stockwell, noting that the Buncombe County GOP reached out to her, and about a month after the group was established, Chad Nesbitt did a story on his SKYline News Facebook page that triggered an influx of new members. Whenever local media do a story about E.A.S.T., the group picks up about 100 more people, she reports.
“I am very center-leaning,” says Stockwell. “I fluctuate based on what I think is right or wrong, not based on party lines.” At the same time, however, she believes it’s “important to hear both sides, whether they win or not. I think everybody needs to have that opportunity.”
The illusion of influence?
But not everyone who’s active in such groups is convinced of their ability to affect the world beyond their own virtual borders. “Dialogue gives people an opportunity to say what they want to say: It doesn’t change people’s minds,” says Josephs, who also serves as an administrator for the Black Mountain Exchange.
And as an early group administrator who attended summits hosted by Facebook and also briefly worked for the company, Josephs knows better than most how much control the social media giant has over its groups.
First of all, she notes, Facebook’s algorithms screen posts before administrators and moderators even see them, which sometimes results in nonsensical bans such as labeling the phrase “stupid Americans” hate speech. “If you say, ‘I’m in my garden with my hoe,’ that post will be gone,” Josephs explains.
Accordingly, she notes, much of the blame for alleged censorship that’s directed at moderators and administrators of pages like Asheville Politics should rightly be assigned to Facebook. The company, says Josephs, doesn’t always let people know that its algorithms have blocked their posts, and it doesn’t share the content of those posts with administrators.
“It’s only when the members show us a screenshot and we see what was removed,” she says, that “we can explain to them how they can enter into the process of asking it to be reversed” by Facebook’s independent oversight board.
In Josephs’ view, it’s really Facebook that has all the power. “What kind of influence does [Asheville Politics] have outside of the group? A lot less than people want to think,” she asserts.
For his part, Lee wonders whether some of his own early optimism may have been misplaced. “We started with this idea that more education about the workings of local government was going to lead to more cooperative, better-informed decision-making,” he recalls. “When I hear about Asheville Politics now from random members of the public, I’m more likely to hear that there’s just a bunch of angry people and radicals.” Nonetheless, he remains proud of the site and its work, saying, “I still believe in the potential of groups like Asheville Politics to bring people together.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Oct. 21 to accurately reflect the online groups that Robyn Josephs is involved in.