Register Saturday | January 22 | 2022

When Shit Hits the Facebook Group

As the first pandemic summer neared its end, the residents of Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood were all talking about the same thing: the recent installation of a “vélorue” bike path taking over all of Island Street, complete with garden boxes and benches monopolizing half of the street’s parking spaces. 

It was a seemingly harmless project installed on one of the area’s residential streets, crossing a commercial thoroughfare—and by all accounts, a project conceptualized to benefit locals. Spearheaded by the borough council, the vélorue was a response to requests by some residents and community groups for more communal spaces. And yet despite a public consultation with residents and the occasional online notice about the upcoming project, few people seemed to have been aware it was coming until the day it showed up.

This development, and the controversy it soon stirred, was a popular conversation piece at local shops or on the street between passersby. But it was in the neighbourhood’s largest Facebook group, POINTE ST-CHARLES, where most residents (myself included) first got wind of it, and where the squabble steadily rose to full-on strife. 

In the beginning, in August 2020, I watched with detached amusement as post after post about the vélorue was shared to the group, and as the project’s supporters and detractors battled it out in the comments section. Those in favour of the installation enjoyed the communal space and the feeling of cohabitation between neighbours it could foster, and that its design prioritized bikes and pedestrians over cars. 

But many residents, and those on Island Street, in particular, did not appreciate losing half of the street’s parking for a bunch of benches set up only a few feet away from people’s front doors. Residents reported feeling that their privacy was being invaded, and decried the use of the public seating by people consuming alcohol or cannabis. “Some homeless people came and spent the night at the picnic table under my porch,” reads one iteration of many similar comments. “They smoked weed and drank alcohol all night long.”

By early September my amusement had waned, replaced with weary annoyance after watching countless virtual debates retreading the same tired arguments before descending into insults and name-calling. On September 20, my annoyance morphed into disgust when a photo was shared to the group showing one of the installation’s tables smeared with shit. Whether it was from a dog or a human, I don’t know, even after close examination of the photographic evidence in the name of community journalism. Either way, I couldn’t help but lose some faith in this beloved neighbourhood I call home. 

When I moved to Pointe-Saint-Charles seven years ago, I discovered an area that is quiet and residential despite its close proximity to the city. I also discovered a community with an inspiring, storied history of working-class resistance and cooperation. It was a settling ground for Irish and later Eastern European immigrant communities who built the railways and worked in the factories along the Lachine Canal that allowed Montreal, and Canada as a whole, to prosper. 

But when the canal was de-industrialized following the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway transportation route in 1959, the people of Pointe-Saint-Charles lost both their jobs and the workers’ unions that were central to community life. The 1960s to 1990s were hard times: the Southwest of Montreal’s population decreased by almost 50 percent as residents left to find better opportunities elsewhere. By 1984, 35 percent of households in the Point were receiving social assistance. 

In response, residents created dozens of community initiatives to support the now jobless people, and many of those initiatives still exist. The first-ever community-run clinic was started here in 1968 and eventually served as a model for Quebec’s CLSC health clinic system. The Regroupement Information Logement, a tenants’ rights group that remains very active to this day educating residents of their rights and fighting against landlord abuses like renovictions, came to be in 1978. This is just some of the legacy left by a community that banded together to improve their circumstances when they were all but forgotten by the world outside.

Recently, though, Pointe-Saint-Charles has seen a lot of development in a short span of time. The gentrification of neighbouring Griffintown and Saint-Henri has crossed over into the community, resulting in a number of condo projects and a fast-changing demographic. The Point’s historic working-class and prominently Irish population, many of whom grew up here and were born to parents who grew up here, has been facing rising rents and fewer housing options as increased speculation has brought in newcomers looking for a fixer-upper to renovate into their dream home. 

The change has been noticeable since I moved here, and it can also be seen in how the neighbourhood Facebook group has evolved. A sleepy group with only the occasional post when I first moved in, usually advertising a heap of free stuff to give away on some street corner, its membership has grown considerably and brought with it an increase in both activity and contention as different visions of the area, what it once was and what it could now become, come to a head. But with Island Street, we reached unprecedented levels of both.

“It felt like, instead of bringing the neighbourhood together, instead of being something unifying, the project was dividing the neighbourhood, and it wasn’t meant to do that,” says Roxane De Lafontaine, a graphic designer and mother who lived in Pointe-Saint-Charles at the time. A moderately active member of the group, she also watched the controversy unfolding online with frustration, only occasionally adding her voice to the debate. “I found it got to be really heavy eventually. It was ridiculous,” she says.

For many of us, the shit represented a breaking point. Even so, I don’t want to let the unhinged actions of one neighbour get me down; I love my neighbourhood and I’m convinced we can communicate with each other without resorting to excrement-smearing. But I can’t help but think that the chaos would not have reached that point had we not just spent the last month collectively stuck in a virtual deadlock, either yelling at each other through all caps or watching from the sidelines. So I have to ask, how did things get so bad?

Neighbourhood Facebook groups have exploded in size in the aftermath of the pandemic, a result of business closures and shelter-in-place orders. Viewing this optimistically, the silver lining has been the strengthening of neighbourhood connections and a general fostering of mutual support. As these groups grow day by day, our interactions with our neighbours are becoming increasingly virtual. 

This ease of communication with those in our immediate surroundings has many benefits—connecting people who otherwise would not have met, or providing access to hyperlocal information that even Google can’t help with. But it also means that situations like the one the people of Pointe-Saint-Charles went through are becoming more common. What does our virtual hyper-connectedness mean for how we communicate with one another as neighbours, and how do we avoid discourse getting out of hand as it did about the vélorue installation?

Though the Island Street controversy became a source of frustration for many in Pointe-Saint-Charles, it also highlights one of the benefits of neighbourhood Facebook groups: more people can weigh in on public projects or other topics that are relevant to a highly localized group. Laurence Bherer, who researches participatory democracy at the Université de Montréal, says the increased connectivity of the internet means that the conversation is open to a wider audience than in-person public consultations about a project. 

“Less wealthy residents, residents belonging to minority groups, are usually the ones who have a harder time just getting to the public consultation,” she says. This can be because of work schedules, the need to travel to wherever the consultation is being held, or because the information about the consultation was not shared widely enough. 

Between Facebook groups and public consultations being held virtually through the pandemic, a structural barrier has been tempered. But whether people belonging to those groups who have a harder time participating in-person are actually included in online consultations in a meaningful way remains unclear, says Bherer. 

Although, one look at the Pointe-Saint-Charles or neighbouring Saint-Henri Facebook groups does indicate that, at the very least, it’s easier than ever to get your complaints heard by your elected officials. The borough mayor for the area encompassing both these neighbourhoods, Benoit Dorais, and city councillor Craig Sauvé are tagged in comments and posts on a daily basis, and often respond directly to the issue being raised.

Mauro Peña is a moderator for the Facebook group Thrive NDG, which caters to the inhabitants of Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood. He says that without a diverse team of moderators, it’s easy for a group to become an uninviting space for marginalized people. He talked about a situation he saw unfold in another large NDG group when an LGBTQ2S+ member’s request to have more than one moderator to reflect some diversity resulted in a slew of defensive comments from the sole moderator and her supporters.

“It was just really negative and toxic, but that’s what happens every time,” he says. “It shouldn’t be like that just because you don’t understand someone else’s point of view, or struggle.” Peña highlights this example as the exact reason why having multiple moderators with different identities is so important. 

From a participatory democracy perspective, there’s another benefit to these groups—when enough people don’t like how a group is being run, they can simply create their own. This was how Thrive NDG came to be: a few people were fed up with how the sole moderator of the large NDG Facebook group was running things, so they broke off and made a new one. The group’s numbers soared through the pandemic—in November 2020, as Montreal was in the thick of a nightly curfew that would go on to last for months, membership just reached five thousand. Today, it has over eight thousand members.

Peña is one of five moderators for the group.“We only intervene in cases where it devolves to direct insults, belittling, all that stuff,” he says. “When it’s straight-up bullying, that’s when we try to intervene.” Things can devolve fast, so it’s important to have a few attentive moderators who can intervene quickly when the bullying starts. “It’s the internet. As much as we would like it to be a respectful environment, it isn’t, because of fake profiles, trolls, people who simply have very bad internet etiquette.” 

Peña and the other moderators of Thrive NDG do basic vetting of everyone who requests to join the group. They check when the profile was created and how many other groups they are a member of. If the profile was made the same day as the request, Peña declines because it’s a sure indication the profile is fake and the person behind it has malicious intentions. 

Some trolls still slip through. In one instance, a food vendor specializing in Bánh mì’s was being targeted by a profile that turned out to be fake. The troll hurled accusations that the vendor did not have a permit and the food was “dangerous.” All of this was happening right at the beginning of the pandemic, a time of economic uncertainty for everyone, and also a time during which Asian people and businesses were regularly faced with racist attacks. The moderators removed the profile and the comments, but Peña noted that in a group as large as Thrive NDG, you can’t know how many people see the fake comments bashing a business before they get taken down, and that can have a real effect on people’s livelihoods.

This is another downside of neighbourhood Facebook groups: they can easily fall prey to misinformation.“I find they are great sources of information, but the information isn’t always accurate,” says Bherer. “Sometimes rumours are started, then the rumours become the facts.” 

Bherer cites her own experience as a member of the Facebook group for the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood in Montreal, where a series of missing cat posts in short succession invariably spurs a post speculating that a cat killer might be roaming the area. Bherer says that this theory reappears regularly, but the rest of the group is usually quick to point out that there is no proof of such a cat killer. 

De Lafontaine says she saw comments about the vélorue in Pointe-Saint-Charles that were not factually accurate. An unknown perpetrator created posters advising Island residents of the date of the upcoming council meeting and encouraging them to attend it to have their voices heard, listing the address of the Borough Hall. This person pasted the posters to the Island Street installations and put one in each mailbox on the street, which led to some twenty-five people travelling to the locked, vacant Borough Hall to attend a council meeting that had been moved online due to the pandemic. 

It’s not clear whether this person had malicious intentions or genuinely wanted residents to attend the council meeting and was just misinformed. But regardless, rumours and theories abounded in the group amidst the frustration of those who missed the council meeting they had travelled to neighbouring Saint-Henri to attend.

De Lafontaine also has her doubts about the authenticity of some of the many photos of beer bottles littering the public seating shared to the group. Use of the installations on Island Street to drink or smoke is arguably the most contentious issue after the loss of street parking. “There are people who just want to stir the pot,” she says. This is yet another argument for having more moderators—how can one person manage a group of eight thousand people without the occasional flagrant untruth slipping through? 

“There is something undemocratic in the present state of neighbourhood Facebook groups,” says Mathieu Murphy-Perron, a Pointe-Saint-Charles resident who often engaged in the debate about the vélorue. He was in support of the project, primarily because he believes in reducing car use and prioritizing cycling. 

Murphy-Perron recognizes that being a moderator for one of these groups is volunteer work so moderators can’t always be around to monitor the discussion. “But this leaves room for a handful of unhinged people to lash out over hot topics, pushing most people to disengage from the issues,” he says. “Debate, discussion and disagreement are key to building healthy communities, but in the absence of democratically run and managed Facebook neighbourhood groups, I feel that online discourse does more harm than good.”

A year later, the vélorue is still in place. The design and configuration of the shared space has changed a little following input from residents, and many windows on Island Street still bear large signs that read: “Non à la vélorue.” I might use the seating on the street more if it weren’t for the signs. It’s hard to enjoy this communal space when the evidence of its contention is so in-your-face. Although very little of the fighting took place there, Island Street gives me the discomfort of being in the thick of the kicking and screaming. 

I know my neighbours have a right to their opinion, and I know the project would have benefited from more consultation with residents. But after months of watching what felt like my whole neighbourhood battling it out in this virtual space that was created to foster community, I found it hard to sympathize with anyone in the debate, for or against. I want to care and I want to hear out my neighbours—I just don’t want yelling or insults or shit smeared in communal spaces. I don’t think that’s too much to expect.

What would it have taken for the situation to not get to such confrontational levels? Moderators would likely have helped, but mostly it takes the will of the people to maintain decorum. Neighbourhood Facebook groups exploded in size in the last two years because people wanted to connect with each other as we faced a global pandemic, not out of a desire to bully and insult their neighbours. These groups are becoming almost as fundamental to our neighbourhoods as the streets in which we run into each other, the shops where we have a chat by the cash. I get the sense so much of the discourse about Island Street would not have been said if the discussion was face to face. Maybe we’re simply forgetting how to talk to each other.

The references to the installation are few and far between on the Pointe-Saint-Charles Facebook group these days, at least. The vélorue debacle can sometimes almost feel like a fever dream. Then a comment shows up on my Facebook feed referring to what we all collectively went through, and I shudder at the memory. Based on the replies to such comments, I’d say I’m not the only one.