In the early morning hours of March 19, a gunman killed 23-year-old RaceTrac employee Elijah Wood. As rush hour began, posts on the Oconee 411 Facebook group page asked about the police activity at the RaceTrac station on Macon Highway. Later, using information from county officials, local news groups from Oconee and Oglethorpe counties posted pictures of the suspect.
As news organizations struggle to find a business model that supports local news gathering, Facebook local news groups are one way that members of communities share information. However, Facebook and the community are putting a lot of pressure on the unpaid admins by expecting them to verify breaking news in real time.
Why It’s Newsworthy: These local news groups acted as a news aggregator following the murder of a RaceTrac employee. They included reports from law enforcement, articles by local newspapers, information on donating to the reward fund and the victim’s funeral expenses.
A Pew Research Center study reported that a third of Americans frequently got their news on Facebook in 2020. Many readers are familiar with the national and regional newspapers that post news daily on Facebook.
Facebook local news groups in the counties that surround Athens have thousands of members.
These groups are private, and a prospective member must agree to follow the group’s rules, such as “no bullying.” If a prospective member does not live in the county of the news group, he or she must explain the reason why they wish to be a member. The admin is a gatekeeper and responsible for keeping order.
A Google search reveals many articles about Facebook groups–mostly about Facebook rules, how to organize a new group and how businesses can use the groups. But there was little information about how these groups affect local news.
Oconee County 411 Facebook Group
Julie Mauck started the Oconee County 411 Facebook group in 2018, and now it has about 4,600 members. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the Oconee County population to be about 40,000.
Mauck had been a member of a similar group in Tennessee, she said. When she moved to Oconee County, she thought a Facebook group would be a good way to get to know people, she said.
Mauck had questions and needed help finding a pediatrician, she said. When she did not find a good resource, she started the Oconee County 411 Facebook group.
“I will say that there’s a place for local papers. And I consider Michael Prochaska (the editor of the Oconee Enterprise) a friend. You know, I don’t feel like I’m in competition with him at all,” Mauck said. “You know, people still like to have scrapbooks. They like to see their kids in print.”
Mauck takes the gatekeeping role seriously. “I’ve had people join just for the purpose of stirring up trouble,” Mauck said. “I’m not afraid to remove people from the group.”
Occasionally, there is breaking news. At a Watkinsville, Georgia, City Council meeting March 17, Mayor Bob Smith abruptly resigned, effective immediately. The Oconee Enterprise, a weekly newspaper, posted its account of the resignation online.
Mauck posted, “Sad times for the City of Watkinsville, I think. I’m actually surprised he stayed as long as he did.”
Many, if not most, of the member’s posts concerned exchanging information on local businesses, pets and school activities. That changed Friday, March 19.
An Oconee County Tragedy
Both Facebook groups posted information about the murder of Elijah Wood.
The Oconee County 411 group’s members were active in the days after the murder. Information included reports by traditional news outlets, such as the Athens Banner-Herald and the Oconee Enterprise. The members posted law enforcement updates and press conferences by the Sheriff. Members discussed the possibility of paying funeral expenses for the victim’s family and donating to the reward fund.
“One of the great things about the Oconee County 411 group is that, basically, everyone becomes an unintentional ‘citizen journalist,’” Mauck said. “As group members saw the post(s), they would reach out to get information from their sources and post accordingly. So, really, the information is coming in real time.”
The local news groups provide a safe place for members to exchange information. After the murder of Wood, the Oconee County 411 group acted as a news aggregator for its 4,600 plus members. The group published information from law enforcement agencies and concerned citizens, while giving the community a place to grieve.
Oglethorpe County’s News on Facebook
The Oglethorpe County Local News Facebook group has about 7,800 members. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the Oglethorpe County population to be about 15,000. The Facebook group, created in 2014, is now run by two admins, Jennifer Beasley and Stephanie Kennedy Maro. Beasley said they assumed control of the group about four years ago.
Beasley spends about one hour a day moderating comments, which is down from the two hours a day during the presidential election period of 2020, she said. Beasley said the admins receive “keyword alerts,” a notice when a member uses certain words that might cause a conversation to go “off the rails a little bit.”
The admins of the Oglethorpe group do not allow political conversations about national politics, limiting political discussions to local offices and local campaigns, Beasley said.
Beasley said a difficult part of moderating a local news group is “dealing with the false information.”
“But this COVID situation has really shown to me … how gullible people are to things that make them feel good but are not actually true,” Beasley said. “Over the last year, the biggest thing has been the mask.” She has dealt with people who feared that the mask was microchipped or a tool to muzzle people, she said.
The most difficult to understand is “people saying that, you know, COVID-19 is not real,” Beasley said. “They just don’t open their eyes to facts, and that’s very discouraging.”
Olyn Gee is a fourth-year student in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.