PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — It once was a role played by the city council meeting or chatter at the local tavern. But as we begin the 2020s, there seems to be a new central node of communication in The County: the Facebook group.
In a county with a population just under 70,000, Facebook pages and groups harbor tens of thousands of likes and active participation. Their subjects are eclectic: law enforcement pages, platforms to buy and sell used items, churches, local citizen groups and far more.
As community Facebook groups spring up nationwide, it is not surprising that Aroostook County is getting in on the action. Yet, the importance that social media is beginning to take in everyday life is surprising for a population that is 90 percent rural, and has a substantially lower rate of broadband internet access than the rest of Maine.
For a vast, sparsely populated area like Aroostook County, many of these groups bring an interconnectedness not otherwise possible. Some gather residents from across The County in one location, including the 21,000-strong Aroostook Swap, Buy, Sell group. Using the group, a resident of Caribou can buy a dresser from the St. John Valley, Presque Isle or Eagle Lake alike.
Other groups and pages connect disparate Aroostook communities to a common culture centered around larger cities and towns, such as Caribou, Presque Isle, Madawaska and Houlton. By attaching urban communities with their rural suburbs, a common culture is cemented that may not have been possible before the digital age.
But with the rise in the importance of social media in the daily lives of residents, some are worried that there is potential for misinformation and abuse.
In the St. John Valley, a photo of a masked teenage girl threatening gun violence floating around Facebook caused at least 350 students to stay home from school in December. Police publicly debunked the threat, but it was not enough to satisfy concerned parents.
Fear about the photo appeared to be linked to a larger phenomenon on social media in the Valley, rumors and allegations about an alleged “cult” in St. Agatha.
The potential for falsehoods is startling, but is it natural? Paul Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, said that the dynamics of social media often cause the sensational to gain the most traction.
“We tend to click and get interested in things that are emotionally arousing,” Johnson said.
He said this phenomenon operates similarly on both the national and local levels, citing the proliferation of conspiracy theories linking vaccines and autism on social media. Though such theories were debunked long ago, they continue to spread.
But local Facebook groups and pages, especially ones in which participants are familiar with one another, could be a positive way to humanize those with opposing viewpoints, he said. Johnson said this is because it allows even hardened partisans to see that those who feel differently have positive qualities unrelated to politics.
Law enforcement pages are among the most popular in Presque Isle and surrounding communities. The Presque Isle Police Department’s Facebook page has more than 14,000 likes, while Fort Fairfield Police Department’s page has almost 5,000 in a community of approximately 3,400 people.
But it’s the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page that has the most significant following of any law enforcement page in The County, with 16,000 likes from practically every municipality in The County.
Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen said that the page plays a vital role in his department: It allows the department to speak directly to the public about community initiatives, as well as to enlist the community’s help in catching criminals.
He said the only downside is that there are occasionally hurtful comments and bad language in the comment section, which he said the department monitors and deletes.
Gillen also said that some of the information sent to them through the page ends up being erroneous. Yet, he said his department would rather have occasionally bad leads than no leads.
“Yes, it does lead to some false information,” Gillen said. “But it is up to us to do our due diligence to make sure we investigate it properly.”
The Concerned Citizens of Presque Isle group has dominated the Facebook feeds of those in Presque Isle and the Star City’s various surrounding communities since it first began in 2016. Members discuss all things Presque Isle on the page: crime, taxes, the City Council and SAD 1, which are among the hottest topics.
Though discussions occasionally turn heated, the comment section is often jovial, with residents trying to help inform others as much as they can about local issues. When an article or post is made regarding a specific community, residents come in to give their two cents about what they’ve seen or experienced.
Paul Lister is the administrator and founder of the group, which he began in 2016.
Presque Isle City Clerk Thomas King said there was no one named Paul Lister in city records. Lister said he lives in Presque Isle, though he is not on the property tax or voter registration lists, and keeps a low profile because many powerful people in the city were “not happy with him.”
Lister said he started the group to give residents a voice in their local councils and school boards that he felt was lacking.
“Our group is a place where citizens of Presque Isle and other communities can vent frustrations and encourage action on many problems,” Lister said. “We like to complain often, but we can also provide a hub of knowledge for our civic leaders.”
Lister’s pet issue is the heavy tax burden he said Presque Isle is putting on residents, especially the property tax rate. He believes his group has influenced policy pushed by city councilors, who have posted in the group in the past.
Lister said that misinformation was a constant concern on social media, but that the community had found a way to ensure the truth comes out.
“This group has enough people and leaders involved that if a member, knowingly or unknowingly, posts a false fact, other members will correct them soon enough,” Lister said.