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Good karma turns bad: Facebook group implodes

Amid allegations of censorship, threats and ‘toxic positivity’, the Brunswick Good Karma Network has been put on hold

Mark Phillips
Friday, August 20, 2021

IT began with such good intentions.

When a small group of people began the Brunswick Good Karma Network in 2018, they were inspired by the idea of using Facebook to spread goodwill and encourage community bonding. It was supposed to be a forum where users could post photos of beautiful sunrises and sunsets, advertise household products they were giving away for free, and share uplifting comments about how great it was to live in Brunswick.

And for a couple of years it all went swimmingly.

But today, the BGKN is officially “paused”, its administrators having suddenly suspended the Facebook group amid allegations and counter-allegations of public shaming, censorship, threats, bullying, and even “toxic positivity”. A new alternative group has been established, and the internet has been awash with inflammatory and borderline defamatory comments about the BGKN’s administrators.

“Sadly, of the 24,000 good souls on here there is a very small number of people that have taken their anger to the next level,” said the official announcement by one of the group’s three administrators on Wednesday night (Brunswick Voice has decided not to name the administrator to protect them from further attacks).

“We have now reached a point where we as admins are not safe, in public or online. Our names being shared far and wide with no regard for our safety or wellbeing. Posters with our faces being plastered on the street. Our heritage and intersectionality being mocked and called into question. And our inboxes full of abuse.

“We have come to the realisation that context, truth and reason have no place in the minds of the people behind this. And that nothing we do from here can salvage our safety and our personal wellbeing … For this reason, this group will pause at midnight tonight. We expect that the group will be back with a new approach in a few weeks (so hang in there if it’s for you). Thank you for the good times, the heartwarms and the msgs of love and support.”

Brunswick Voice reached out to the administrator, who appears to have been speaking on behalf of their colleagues, but there was no response.

How did it all go so horribly wrong?

The roots of the implosion seem to lie with a post in the group on July 31 detailing an Iranian man’s experience being assaulted and then helped by a group of strangers in Sydney Road.

Within minutes, the post was blocked for not being “positive”. This triggered a massive backlash which shook the administrators of the group, forced them to reassess their rules and objectives, and brought to the surface an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and frustration with the way the group is operated.

Many objected to what they described as heavy-handed censorship by a small group of administrators and moderators. Others accused the administrators of being tone deaf about issues of racism and discrimination, and of refusing to allow a more broad discussion about the good and the bad of Brunswick.

Because this all happened in a private social media group it might not have been important, except that with a membership of more than 23,000 and in the absence of all but a handful of small local media outlets, the Brunswick Good Karma Network wields a disproportionate amount of influence on the public discourse in Brunswick.

In turn, the saga has become a cautionary tale in the age of social media, exposing the limitations of a Facebook forum where the concepts of free speech clash with the role of a gatekeeper and can cause poisonous and nasty division among the community it is meant to be helping.

Good intentions

The Brunswick Good Karma Network was established in February 2017, and promoted itself as adhering to the principles of The Good Karma Effect, which had been established the year before in Kensington.

As the mission statement on the group says: “Being a member of this network is an opportunity to contribute to the lives of beautiful people that live in your neighbourhood and to be able to offer invitations to others to do the same … In this crazy world that we live in today this is initiative intends to put out there some more compassion and might make a difference, however small.

“The values of our group are openness, compassion and empathy, collaborative problem solving, unity and inclusion, positivity, empowerment and action.”

It then listed a range of allowed activities, including “getting advice (eg. computer problems, car troubles, study assistance, restaurant recommendations/reviews, etc), carpooling, finding lost pets … finding other people to exercise with … passing on excess harvest, seedlings or compost, getting rid of stuff that you don’t want any more”.

There was also a link to a seven page booklet of guidelines for participation in the group written by the Good Karma Effect, which is now a registered charity.

But perhaps the administrators should have paid more attention to the fate of the original Kensington Good Karma Network, which was torn apart from within in 2019.

“The values of our group are openness, compassion and empathy, collaborative problem solving, unity and inclusion, positivity, empowerment and action.”

The Brunswick group grew quickly to become the largest in the Good Karma Effect’s network across Australia. By the time of its implosion last Wednesday, it had about 23,300 members, almost twice as many as the next largest group based in Coburg.

It is unclear if any of the people who originally set it up are still involved, but it currently has three administrators and four moderators. At least one administrator is believed to have quit in recent days.

While most people participated in the group as intended, some chafed against the limitations on discussion about local politics or public issues, or even just everyday complaints about poor service. Others felt the group’s administrators were often too cavalier in deeming content to be unacceptable and temporarily suspending or banning members.

In response, a new group, titled the Brunswick Fairly Good Karma Network, was established in July 2019.

Founder and administrator Sam Watkins said he set up the BFGKN after he had posts rejected and was eventually kicked out of the original group. He already had experience setting up similar groups in Coburg and Fawkner.

“I started these alternative groups for people who don’t want the strict rules and moderation, and for people like myself who were blocked from the other groups, and to help small businesses including my daughter’s dance teacher,” he said.

He recalls only one person he has had to block from the group in two years, and rarely does he intervene, even when people are having an argument. He also allows a limited number of posts promoting businesses.

“It’s a lot easier because we don’t have many rules, unless people are swearing at each other but other than that, I let them do whatever they want and it seems to work pretty well,” he said.

The BFGKN now has about 5600 members, with some crossover between the two groups.

‘We like to focus on the positive side of life’

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the short post on July 31 about an assault that had taken place in Brunswick  the previous night:

just wanna thank the group of guys who break up fight where i was getting beaten the **** up by a bunch of rasict [sic] white lads at sydney road on friday night, and then helped me get home! if u r reading this please get in contact ill make tea and iranian food!!

Within 18 minutes, the post was blocked by an administrator with the message: “Hi [name deleted], We are sad to hear that you had this experience in Brunswick. However, in BGKN, we like to focus on the positive side of life. We’d love to acknowledge the help you received from the community, without highlighting the negativity. Thank you”

The offending post and the ruling by the administrators

A friend of the original poster shared a screen shot of the conversation onto the BFGKN, generating dozens of comments.

“I can’t believe a victim of a racial attack had to even justify themselves because some people don’t want to acknowledge that racism exists in Brunswick,” they wrote. This generated dozens of comments. Meanwhile, outraged members and former members of the BGKN began sharing their own experiences of being blocked or having seemingly innocuous posts declined.

Brunswick Voice is not suggesting race was a factor in the decision to reject the post.

A thread running through the criticism was that the BGKN administrators were “too white” and failed to understand the daily aggressions that people of colour experienced. Others attacked the administrators for being naïve in their belief that only “positive” news should be shared.

While the incident had a happy ending the following day when the good Samaritans and the victim of the attack made contact, in the days following the post the backlash grew. The BGKN administrators went into damage control, apologising profusely and vowing to review their guidelines and their association with the Good Karma Effect.

In a message posted on August 2, they assured the group’s members that “we are listening and working together to reflect and consider improvements to our approach”.

“The last 24 hours have been a tumultuous and challenging time for lots of people in our GKN,” they wrote. “Racism, abuse, judgement or discrimination of any kind, is completely unacceptable in the BGKN. Important issues for each of us and for society as a whole have been brought to the floor, inadvertently, through our application of the guidelines, which are strict in nature … It is fair to say that in this situation we could have and should have been able to achieve a better outcome.”

But the damage had been done and the mob was baying for blood. The attempted apology from the administrators only fueled more anger and vitriol, and most of the 269 comments in response to the post were negative, some bordering on defamatory.

“You can do better than this. People are expecting better. This community is expecting better. Take your time but please commit to doing better. An actual apology and contrition would be a good start,” said one comment.

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New alternative group

In the meantime, on August 2, another former member of the BGKN, Rob Fedele, decided to start yet another group, which he titled Inner North Community Alliance, which has since changed to Melbourne I.N.C. (Inner North Community).

While the basic philosophy of the new group was the same (“a safe space to promote and share the best of Melbourne’s inner North, and ensure a safe and well informed community”), Mr Fedele promised it would be different by not being bound by the rules of the Good Karma Effect and “no heavy handed admin restricting your right to contribute”.

The group has since grown to have 660 members.

Mr Fedele said he shared concerns about how the tight adherence to the guidelines by the BGKN seemed to deny marginalised groups in the community from having a voice.

“I like that the group seemed to stand for of community mindedness and bringing together a lot of different people from different backgrounds who could share ideas and it seemed to be doing that job.

“But when you looked a little deeper, things didn’t quite appear right with it. It seemed a lot of voices weren’t being heard because they weren’t the right voice or had opposing views.

“That level of censorship seemed to be the tipping point and clearly I wasn’t the only person who thought that.

“I think when people were being told their posts were not being allowed or their comments being deleted or they were removed from the group, it’s actually quite dangerous.”

Thank you and good night

The decision to put the original BGKN on hold was announced at 9.23pm on Wednesday, August 18.

“We have now reached a point where we as admins are not safe, in public or online. Our names being shared far and wide with no regard for our safety or wellbeing. Posters with our faces being plastered on the street. Our heritage and intersectionality being mocked and called into question. And our inboxes full of abuse.”

This was met with a predictable mix of both sympathetic and antagonistic comments.

“I am so sorry to read this. I love BGKN and I wish you admin all well and thank you for your superb efforts in the past. I hope those who have made your lives a misery now realise the damage they have done,” said one message.

But there were also plenty who had a different point of view.

“I agree that it’s very inappropriate for ppl to put admins faces on walls etc. but it seems like you admins are playing victim. You say you no longer feel safe. So you only care about safety when it affects you??” said one group member.

Officially, the site has been paused and will return in a few weeks. But if that comes to fruition — and in what guise — remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the other groups are making hay while the sun shines. The BFGKN was alight with commentary on Thursday celebrating the demise of the original group and its membership has grown by almost 40% since the start of the month.

Mr Watkins said he hoped the BGKN can continue and the two groups can continue to co-exist.

“When someone sets up a group, they do have the right to direct it,” Mr Watkins said. “I can understand a group having particular rules and guidelines but if it’s such a big community group, I think it comes to a point where you have to do what the community wants.

“I think there is a place for them but if people want another group which is more open and where they can talk about what they want, they can join this group.”

Mr Fedele said was surprised and saddened by the level of vitriol towards the BGKN administrators. He said he bore no ill will towards them, but would be taking a different approach.

“People have a right to join [his group] but they don’t have a right to be toxic in any way, shape or form,” he said.

“If [this group] goes somewhere that’s great, if not that’s fine. I just like the idea of the community being part of it …There’s a lot of people with a lot to offer, a lot of collective information and knowledge and I like the idea of being able to harness that.”

Disclaimer: posts linking to articles on Brunswick Voice have been rejected by the BGKN administrators in the past.