In Disconnecting From Facebook, Vermont's Retreat Farm Hopes to Inspire Others | Tech | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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In Disconnecting From Facebook, Vermont's Retreat Farm Hopes to Inspire Others


Published November 24, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 24, 2021 at 2:34 p.m.

Lindsay Fahey and Buzz Schmidt at Retreat Farm - DAVID SHAW
  • David Shaw
  • Lindsay Fahey and Buzz Schmidt at Retreat Farm

When the tiny Retreat Farm nonprofit announced last month that it would stop posting updates on Facebook and Instagram, the news set off some soul-searching among its Vermont peers.

The organization, a community and educational center on a 650-acre farm in Brattleboro, said Facebook's damaging effect on community conversations and public events runs counter to its own values. Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary use algorithms that raise the profile of negative comments and posts, a practice widely seen as deepening the political polarization that has led to social strife.

"Facebook's abuse of power is so detrimental and erosive to people, communities, and our democracy that without government action, it is up to private institutions like Retreat Farm to seek new (and old) ways of communication that prioritize face-to-face connection and relationships," the Retreat Farm said in its announcement.

Facebook — which recently changed its name to Meta amid a flood of bad publicity — has been widely blamed for amplifying the tensions and false information that led to the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6; Congress and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are now investigating the company's role. And in October, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, testified to Congress that the company intentionally hid research that showed using its products made teenagers feel worse about themselves. Attorneys general of 10 states, including Vermont's T.J. Donovan, said last week that they will investigate those allegations.

Facebook has also been sharply criticized — and investigated — for mishandling user privacy and enabling Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

"Thanks to the whistleblower testimony, we know that Facebook has intentionally and systematically amplified some of the worst content on its platform — facilitating hate speech, extreme rhetoric, and more, especially in vulnerable parts of the world," the Retreat Farm said of the information that Haugen shared with Congress.

The organization's announcement has prompted other nonprofits to talk about their own positions, said Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, executive director of Vermont Humanities.

"I've seen that statement forwarded around to a lot of places," Kaufman Ilstrup said.

While many Vermont nonprofits and for-profit companies publicize values that run counter to those of Facebook, it's difficult for them to get away from the company's platforms, which have nearly 3 billion users. Facebook's advertising and its algorithms, which target users based on past preferences, make it an efficient and affordable way to get the word out.

"Social media is our biggest and strongest tool for marketing," said Brittany Powell, marketing director at the Chill Foundation, a youth development nonprofit that was founded by Jake Burton Carpenter and Donna Carpenter of Burton Snowboards. It's not that Chill wants to support Facebook — it doesn't, for the same reasons the Retreat Farm is stepping back, Powell said. But she feels that social media, even without buying advertising, is the best way to reach donors and potential participants.

"It's really cost-effective," she said. "We're not going to get rid of it anytime soon."

Vital Communities, a nonprofit created to connect the upper Connecticut River Valley region, reluctantly buys ads on Facebook, according to Rob Schultz, the group's director of development. Vital Communities itself operates local email lists that about 30,000 people use to discuss public events and to buy, sell and trade. Some people advertise their small businesses there. But nothing matches Facebook's reach, Schultz said.

"We're constantly wondering how long we're going to stay in the Facebook market — and wondering if we didn't, how we would engage the community as a whole," he said.

Civil rights groups launched a Facebook advertising boycott in June 2020, urging companies to stop buying ads for at least a month. More than 1,000 — including Ben & Jerry's — joined, according to the New York Times, though about 80 percent of the boycotters eventually went back to buying Facebook ads. Patagonia, a global outdoor gear company, said on October 28 that it still isn't buying ads on Facebook because the platform "spread[s] hate speech and misinformation about climate change and our democracy."

Alternatives to Facebook and Instagram have bloomed in recent years. One of the most established is Mighty Networks, a platform that charges for subscriptions and provides users with smaller and more targeted audiences.

Burlington-based business consultant Flip Brown eschews Facebook and pays nearly $1,000 a year to be part of Mighty Networks.

"Their strategy is to create a real and authentic experience, not just growth for the sake of growth," he said.

The Retreat Farm has an overall budget of less than $1 million and fewer than 5,000 Facebook followers, so its decision won't affect the tech giant. But it's critical to the nonprofit's mission of fostering authentic relationships, president Buzz Schmidt said. And he'd like it to serve as inspiration.

"This is just beginning days for this kind of thing," Schmidt said. He expects future disruptions in communications will also chip away at privacy and generate discord in the future. But that's not inevitable, he said.

"Perhaps we don't have to live by the conventional wisdom that society is on this unalterable trajectory toward technological dystopia," he said. "We think there are still opportunities for organizations like ours to engage in back-channel actions to subvert that trajectory."

The Retreat Farm is not deleting its Facebook page altogether; instead, it will direct people who land there to contact the farm in other ways, said Lindsay Fahey, managing director of impact and community for the nonprofit.

"We're planning on having a permanent, pinned post there so people don't think we went out of business," Fahey said. "But we're not going to update it, and we're not going to reply to comments."

The organization will rely more on its mailing list; traditional "old" media such as newspapers, radio and television; and local listservs such as Front Porch Forum. It sent its announcement to an email list of 6,000 supporters and got 100 replies, 98 of them positive, Fahey said. A few nonprofit and business leaders told her they hope to learn from the Retreat Farm's experience.

"We were overwhelmed by the number of people who took the time out of their day to let us know they were supportive of this decision," Fahey said. As a result of the announcement, the farm added 200 people to its mailing list.

Kaufman Ilstrup thinks Vermont Humanities would have a hard time functioning without Facebook. The nonprofit group buys ads on the platform.

"It's, relatively speaking, affordable to advertise our events," he said. "And at the same time, all of us have really deep misgivings about the way the Facebook algorithm and the Instagram algorithms distort information. It is a conversation we need to have as an organization."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Bad Influence"

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