Local Facebook Groups Paint A False, Hysterical Picture by Tom Beasley

This month’s column is inspired by something bizarre and ridiculous on Facebook. I appreciate that doesn’t particularly narrow the field of potential topics, given that Facebook presents a near-constant churn of absurdity, horror and acquaintances posting uncomfortably racist memes. My particular experience, though, took place in the increasingly common arena of the “local area gossip group”.

These groups, which are popping up all over the place, are ostensibly about allowing people to keep up to speed with what’s going in their communities. They’re populated by as much advertising as they are actual conversation, with tradespeople, dog walkers, restaurants, etc taking advantage of their chance to flog their wares locally without having to shell out on expensive advertising. They are also full of listings for community events and exciting things happening in the area they cover – the sort of information usually reserved for the wonderful people who read magazines like this one.

However, these groups also incubate the sort of curtain-twitching nonsense that was once confined to doctors’ waiting rooms and coffee shop chat. It’s a world in which nobody is an expert, but everyone seems to believe that they are. In these Facebook groups, every minor crime is evidence of a town going to hell in a handcart and every neighbourhood infraction must be punished by a lengthy stay in the social media stocks, while a crowd peppers the supposedly guilty party with the digital equivalent of rotting fruit. “Name and shame” is a common cry – regardless of the due legal process we supposedly all have a right to experience.

Specifically, I have recently joined one of these groups for my own area in Greater London. It’s a pretty leafy town in which, based on the most recent data, around half of the population is older than 40. You’d expect that the area would be pretty free of crime and would, for the most part, be a pleasant and drama-free place to live. You’d be right – but no one told that to the hysterical denizens of this particular group.

In the few weeks I have been a member, this group has featured dozens of accounts of crimes of various sizes and various levels of truth – mostly perpetuated by young people, it seems. There was, at one point, a comment thread spanning many, many days about whether or not it was racist to note the skin colour of someone who had allegedly committed a crime. It’s not uncommon to see people claiming that the town “used to be such a nice place” but is now “overrun with crime”.

It was in response to one of these comments that I felt the need to step in. I pointed out – using official data – that the local crime rate has remained mostly level for the last two years and is, as of December 2019, 34% lower than the overall London crime rate. It’s not even just low for London. The crime rate is in fact 17% lower than the national average.

So what accounts for the hysteria? It’s simple, really. These local Facebook groups give you access not just to the curtain-twitching of your immediate neighbours, but to the crowdsourced twitchings of your entire surrounding area. If all these groups depict is crime – and the occasional photogenic baking business – then the obvious conclusion is that your local area is full of crime… and a few cupcakes. Often, this is not the case though.

It comes down to a problem that now affects the way we discuss just about everything. Social media has levelled the playing field to the extent that official news now carries the same weight as what Karen from the other side of town “reckons” about it. These local area Facebook groups are a great community resource with real potential to bring about togetherness and fun. But the way they are so often used merely amplifies doom and gloom, leaving any positivity relegated to those cupcake posts. They’re all we have.

© 2020 Tom Beasley

Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist living just outside London and originally from Coventry. He can be reached at tomjbeasley@gmail.com.