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A lot has been written about the corrosive effect of Facebook on our national discourse. It’s also eroding what people know and what they talk about in small towns like McKeesport. We lost our newspaper, the McKeesport Daily News, at the end of 2015. When I was working in print, the rule of thumb was that a healthy newspaper carried fifty percent news content and fifty percent advertising. By that metric, the Daily News before its demise was a very unhealthy newspaper—some issues carried less than ten percent advertising.
How much of Facebook’s advertising growth has come at the expense of small daily and weekly newspapers? Facebook allows anyone with a business or organization page to buy advertising. You can market to individual zip codes, behaviors, ages, and interests—almost every demographic category short of directly targeting individuals by name. While your ad is running, Facebook will even show you how many people are interacting with it, in case you want to adjust your targeting or your message.
Compare that to print advertising. The Pittsburgh area still has a number of small weekly newspapers, such as the 10,000-circulation South Pittsburgh Reporter, which serves three zip codes. A single column-inch of black-and-white advertising in the paper costs nine dollars.
For the same nine dollars, Facebook promises to show my ad to 3,300 people in Pittsburgh’s south suburbs. It will even tell me who saw my ad, and when. No newspaper can match that. If you owned a neighborhood coffee shop or car-detailing business, and had fifty dollars or less to spend every week on advertising, would you buy four column inches in the weekly, or would you use Facebook? That’s what small papers are up against.
Facebook also sucked away many of the little news items that once populated newspaper columns. When I worked at the Daily News and the Washington, Pennsylvania, Observer-Reporter back in the 1990s, we reporters were always filing short, one- and two-paragraph briefs on rummage sales, pancake suppers, volunteer fire department recruiting drives and pet adoptions. On Saturday, each paper devoted most of a page to church news, and each paid clerks to take wedding and birth announcements.
At the community news site I edit, Tube City Online, we seldom get those kinds of items. People don’t need to filter those announcements through a reporter or news clerk—they post them directly to Facebook.
When the crisis in local journalism began more than a decade ago, there were promises by technology pundits that social media would lead to the rise of “citizen journalism,” and that crowdsourcing of information would replace the work done by professional reporters.
There has been a proliferation of community and neighborhood “news” groups on Facebook. In McKeesport alone, there are at least a dozen competing Facebook groups that claim they’re devoted to community news. White Oak, a neighboring borough, has at least seven, and Glassport, another adjoining municipality, has five.
But in reality, few of them post what would be traditionally considered news. Some consist mainly of lost dog reports, reviews of local diners, funny photos and church announcements. That’s pretty harmless, and even uplifting, if not particularly informative.
Yet increasingly, the content in some “community news” groups reflects the same dangerous tensions and divisions for which Facebook is being blamed for stoking nationally. A few of them traffic in blatant racism. Black teenagers wandering through a mostly white neighborhood will immediately set off posts about “strange people” being seen walking the streets, and reminding residents to “watch your car and lock up your valuables!”
Misleading information dominates other “news” groups. Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, posts about local businesses requiring customers to wear face masks, for instance, inevitably lead to the same familiar arguments: Yes, face masks do slow the spread of airborne virus particles. No, you cannot get carbon monoxide poisoning from wearing a face mask. Yet both theories have passionate defenders in Facebook’s “community news” groups.
PREVIOUSLY: Dirty politics in the digital age
And now we’re seeing how misinformation and racism are making their way off of Facebook and back into the mainstream conversation in our community, and in towns around the country. For instance, on May 26, a Black transgender woman was found dead outside of her apartment building in McKeesport’s Downtown. Allegheny County police were called to the scene. They concluded she had jumped or fallen from her ninth-story window and that she likely died by suicide.
Normally, Tube City Online wouldn’t cover a possible suicide. But it happened on a weekday morning, within sight of McKeesport City Hall, and the victim, Aaliyah Johnson, was a popular performer on the Pittsburgh drag scene with an active social media presence. Her fans and friends wanted to know what had happened—was there foul play? (As an out Black trans woman, she had received threats to her life.) Also, none of Pittsburgh’s TV stations or newspapers were reporting her death—her friends began speculating whether police were involved in a cover-up.
I called a county homicide detective and was told police reviewed surveillance video from outside of Johnson’s apartment. No one had been seen entering or leaving before or after the incident, other than the victim. We ran our story the next day.
But in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minnesota—which set off protests in and around Pittsburgh, as elsewhere—a lot of people were, understandably, not willing to take police reports about a Black woman’s unexpected death at face value.
They wanted the investigation reopened to confirm that no one had harmed her. If Johnson did die by suicide, they asked, did she kill herself because of targeted harassment? And finally, if she was suicidal, why are there no resources in the McKeesport area for Black people who are LGBTQ?
Rumors continued to swirl. On June 10, police in neighboring Port Vue announced that a “Justice for Aaliyah” protest march was being planned for McKeesport in two days. I made a few calls. I was sitting in the McKeesport police station, reviewing the week’s blotter, when one of the march organizers called me back.
He told me a peaceful march was being planned by several groups, including community activists and members of Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community. I called the mayor: McKeesport police would provide traffic control and an escort, he said. Port Vue police said they’d been in touch with the Pittsburgh office of the Department of Homeland Security and concluded “this will be a peaceful gathering from this group [which] has no history of any aggression or violence.”
I walked across the street to our newsroom and posted the story on our website. That might have been the end of it—had not one of those “community news” Facebook groups posted a report that “someone from the city” was calling McKeesport business owners and advising them to close their stores and offices at 2pm and evacuate the Downtown area because “someone” (supposedly “Black Lives Matter” or “Antifa”—it wasn’t exactly clear) was threatening violence.
Within minutes, the post had gone viral.
No one from the Facebook group called police or city hall to verify such calls were being made. McKeesport police issued their own statement (via Facebook), denying the report, which set off waves of recriminations—some users defended the police, while others alleged that city officials were engaged in a conspiracy to silence their critics on Facebook. The march in McKeesport, by the way, was peaceful.
Another small town—Bethel, Ohio, near Cincinnati—wasn’t so lucky. On June 14, a Black Lives Matter rally of about one hundred peaceful demonstrators was met by six to seven hundred counter-protesters, some carrying weapons, who harassed and threatened participants, according to Cincinnati’s WCPO-TV. The counter-demonstration, according to published reports, was organized on Facebook, spurred by rumors that “Antifa” was invading the town.
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If McKeesport police hadn’t strongly and quickly rebutted the rumors, and if we hadn’t published our report about the marchers’ peaceful intentions, could something just as bad have happened here?
Facebook recently pledged $100 million to support local newsrooms in the United States and Canada. But only $25 million will provide direct grants to news gathering. Assuming a reporter is making only $50,000, with no benefits, that would support five hundred reporters for one year. Meanwhile, Pew reports that more than 27,000 reporters have lost their jobs in the United States since 2008, including the ten or so writers and editors who worked at the McKeesport Daily News.
Any investment in local news gathering is welcome. But as long as Facebook continues to give an unchecked platform to racists and gossip-mongers, allow otherwise well-meaning people to spread false information unchecked, and drain money from local news organizations, the grants are little more than a balm for whatever guilt the company may feel about the problems it’s creating for democracy and community life in America.
Facebook reaps the profits. Small towns like McKeesport pay the price.
Next week, Chapter 20: covid-19 surges in the Rio Grande Valley.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.