Leadership and Conflict in Online Forums

By Kelsy Kretschmer

Of the most recent twenty posts on the Portland Women’s March Facebook page (at the time of writing), eighteen are explicitly about race inequality and racial injustice. They include posts about the recent removal of confederate monuments in the Deep South, police brutality against communities of color, and an announcement for a hip hop education conference. Two focus on the intersection of gender and race, including a news report about an indigenous woman running for president of Mexico and a black woman owned business tapped to replace lead-ridden pipes in Flint, Michigan. The clear majority focus on race alone. The page recently featured an extended fight over whether all white people are racist, with group members reporting and having each other blocked by Facebook moderators for violating community standards.

This is a very different place from where this Facebook page started. Inspired by plans for the Women’s March on DC, the original organizer opened the page in early November to announce her plan for a Portland Women’s March. In her post, she wrote passionately about her love for Hilary Clinton and her anger about the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Her vision for the march was a color-blind protest for women’s rights, and she explained that, to her, “It didn’t matter what color you were, who you identified with. It was about the bigger picture”. In the first few weeks, the page drew thousands of supporters who commiserated over the election and eagerly anticipated the march. But the colorblind approach didn’t sit well with many community members, and a group began to advocate for a broader scope, particularly around racial issues. The online conversation grew hostile, and moderators began deleting individual comments, and then whole threads of conversation. Some people were blocked from the page and march organizers were accused of neglecting to include women of color. This narrative was reinforced when local racial justice organizations withdrew or refused support for the March. Calling it a hostile takeover, Constance Van Flandern, an Oregon representative for the national Women’s March organization, engineered a coup of the Portland March, ousting the original organizers and inviting a new team that would centrally focused on racial justice.

In the months following the January 21st march, the Facebook page has remained an active and sometimes volatile site for engagement for the community. While the moderators of the Facebook page have established some boundaries, their overarching ethos has been the free and open communication, even when it veers into negative or controversial territory. They are largely hands off in these exchanges, except to occasionally chime in as participants. The fight over Portland’s Women’s March isn’t unique; the same fight played out at marches across the country, although perhaps without leadership coups. It is also clearly in line with broader shifts in American feminism toward racial consciousness and intersectional identities. But it also offers a glimpse at some of the more pressing and interesting leadership dilemmas when social movements emerge online and apart from traditional organizational forces. What should we make of these conflicts and what do they tell us about the emerging forms of online leadership in the newest wave of feminism?

Social movement leaders recruit and shepherd groups of activists, aggregate resources, make plans and strategies, and frame group messages. Now that so much organizing happens in online forums like Facebook, the role of leaders is murkier. The necessity of clearly defined and established leadership is diminished and a broader swath of participants can initiate actions, discussions, and frames on their own (Earl 2015). That’s arguably a good thing, and activist communities that use Internet Communication Technologies are certainly able to include more voices and perspectives than if had to meet face-to-face in traditional organizing communities. On the Portland page, the transition from a color-blind women’s march to a community focused on racial justice is a tangible result of bringing a broad swath of people together online who would not likely have found each other any other way and would not be having these conversations.

But the Portland episode also calls to mind Jo Freeman’s warnings about the “tyranny of structurelessness.” She cautions that groups continue to enact power and authority even when those structures are invisible. In Portland, the original organizer was banished not for her inattention to racial justice issues, but for refusing to let those conversations happen in the forum at all. The second organizing team promised a more open and transparent page, yet demands of openness haven’t necessarily resulted in a full exchange of conflicting ideas. Instead a handful of very active users dominate the conversation and have informally established new boundaries around the group, planting it solidly in the racial justice movement. Those who disagree with this change have drifted away, are shouted out, and are sometimes removed from the group, until those left are the members who agree with the new orientation. This racial justice shift was certainly welcomed by many members, but it also wasn’t explicit decision that members decided on. And in a Facebook group, who counts as a “member” anyway? People participate in the threads, but they don’t have the same standing or ability to resist changes that they would in a traditional social movement organization. While there are group moderators, there is not a clear leadership hierarchy accountable to members. The online community seems to operate by invisible rules and through largely invisible authority channels.

This dynamic brings to the fore questions about leaders’ roles in managing group conflict, and how complicated this becomes in online communities in which few people actually know each other. Of course, much of what we know about the destructiveness of internal conflict in social movements was established through studies of the 1960s and 70’s feminist groups – particularly the ones about which Freeman wrote. A new generation of scholars has argued that infighting is a net positive for movements because it creates room for expanded collective identities and establishes more inclusive shared values (Ghaziani 2008). Others have argued that internal conflict is an energizing and creative force; even when it’s painful to the individuals involved, it pushes movements forward (Mueller 1995). The Portland Women’s March page is filled with examples of how conflict expanded conversations and pushed activists to think in new directions.

At the same time, the central role for leaders is to, well, lead. A core part of leading is managing conflict so that it is generative rather than destructive. Leaders for the Portland Women’s March seem committed to the new racial justice focus of the group, explicitly cultivating it through discussions, partnerships, and event notifications from other racial justice groups. At the same time, the page is consumed by internal fights about the group’s position regarding white women. Often, the conversation is driven by self-identified white women lecturing other white women about how terrible they are. On one hand, they may be helping to create powerful moments of self-realization for some members of the community. On the other, social movement scholarship is filled with cautionary tales about groups who focus so heavily on policing each other that it consumes all their energy. On the Portland page, in the fights over whether all white people are racist, group members reported each other and tried to have each other blocked for violating Facebook community standards. For days on end, the page revolved around posting and reposting the same message to see who would be blocked. Only a handful of very active members engaged in the fight, and it seems likely that many others tuned out, discouraged by the deluge of internecine fighting. The moderators of the page, based on the sparseness of their participation in these fights, seem to be taking a hands-off approach to guiding conflict in the community.

So, what is the role of leadership in guiding this kind of infighting? How can activist communities harvest the benefits of conflict without turning completely inward? Linda Sarsour, one of the four organizers of the national Women’s March organization, has encouraged the new generation of feminist activists to take seriously an intersectional approach to activism, while recognizing that people come to these communities with different perspectives and motivations. There should, she argues, be room for all without their differences becoming an all-consuming project. Any early career scholars looking for a new project might consider trying to figure out how leaders, especially in online communities, help achieve this balance, and what organizational structures they use to get there.

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