UNION, NJ — A proposal to certify online discussion groups by Union officials appears to have intensified a rift between the moderator of a popular internet forum for residents and the township administration.
Union Mayor Suzette Cavadas suggested the certification program in her 2018 reorganization meeting address on Jan. 2, in an effort to target social media forums and groups “where our residents engage with each other, and where we engage with our residents.”
“Here in Union, we pride ourselves on our diverse community, and accepting and supportive residents but — as a parent of two children curious about technology — I’ve been spending a lot more time online and have noticed a scary trend even among adults,” she said in her speech, a copy of which was provided to LocalSource.
“On pages, forums and groups on Facebook, in comments on Instagram posts, and even in private Snaps, there is rampant negativity, personal attacks, and even threats of violence.”
Jason Krychiw, the administrator of the nearly 13,000-member Union, NJ Residents Forum on Facebook, said he was generally supportive of the program. However, he questioned what the township would consider bullying.
“To me there is a difference between bullying and criticism,” Krychiw said. “I have removed and blocked people from the forum in the past for inflammatory and derogatory remarks and will continue to do that. However, as residents and taxpayers, I will not stifle someone’s opinion about an issue in town and how the issue should be improved.”
Krychiw is a former independent candidate for the Union Township Committee, who unsuccessfully ran in November, and has been outspoken about the current administration in Union during his campaigns.
Cavadas, meanwhile, said the township would not share or post information on third-party groups or pages that are not “Bully-Free Certified” by Union.
“Once certified, the township will be proud to share information about special events and activities going on in town and work, through the public information office, to liaison with your followers to answer ‘tagged’ questions and comments in an official capacity — something that has never been done before,” Cavadas said. “Second, we will be working with local businesses to run special promotions and contests in ‘bully-free’ groups.”
Krychiw claimed that township employees, including public information officer Natalie Pineiro, stopped sharing news and events in his forum once he announced his candidacy. But Pineiro said she stopped sharing information on his forum via her personal Facebook account for different reasons.
“Jason is absolutely correct,” Pineiro said in an emailed statement. “Like so many of the people in his forum, I am a member, but I don’t participate because of the harassment, vile attacks and constant negativity that he allows to run rampant as a source for his political agenda.”
According to Krychiw, any comments that name-call other members or curse on his forum are quickly removed. Moreover, he said he’s never used the forum to exploit what Pineiro called his “agenda,” although he uses it to express his opinion on town-related issues, as other residents do.
“I have never seen a case where someone would comment and personally attack Natalie or one of the committee people or the mayor as a person,” Krychiw said. “Have I seen them attack their issues? Yeah.”
The proposed program does not target Krychiw’s forum, since it’s geared toward all groups and pages on social media, Pineiro said. The program is also still under development and will officially roll out later this month, she added.
While Pineiro sometimes shares information from her personal account to online forums and groups, she said there is currently no specific person designated to engage with people online. The new program hopes to establish this position or responsibility, Pineiro said.
The township will reach out to Facebook forum administrators and operators of Union-based Instagram pages to make sure they know about the program, she said, and invited anyone who operates a residents’ forum to contact her office about how to obtain the township’s certification.
As planned, online administrators would have to adhere to a set of guidelines prohibiting harassment, taunting, exclusion, pretending to be someone else or “masquerading,” cyber stalking and engaging in intentional insulting or hostile exchanges — otherwise known as “flaming,” the township’s criteria states.
The guidelines would have to be displayed at the top of forum as a post. All new members would have to agree to follow the guidelines, the criteria for the program states.
Administrators or moderators would also have to create a method of enforcement and agree to monitor the forum for guideline violations or rely on community reporting for this. Any comments that violate the guidelines must be captured with a screenshot and deleted, the criteria says. A first-time violation will result in a warning, while a second-time violation will cause the person to be suspended from the forum for a period of two weeks to 30 days. A third-time violation will result in permanent removal from the forum.
Administrators would also be required to participate in a township anti-cyberbullying panel and watch the “Union Stands Against Cyberbullying” video, which will be available at the end of the month, the mayor said. After complying, administrators could complete a form to receive a #BullyFreeZone badge.
That badge will have to be embedded in the group or forum’s cover photo in order to receive the certification, the criteria states.
Krychiw said his forum already follows some of the town’s criteria and said he hopes to meet with township officials to make some suggestions to improve how the guidelines are implemented on forums.
The mayor recognizes that there are some challenges in addressing online bullying, calling it “uncharted territory.”
“The fact of the matter is that social media is largely uncharted territory and people are having a hard time reconciling what is acceptable and what is not,” Cavadas said in a Jan. 6 statement. “But the Township of Union believes that pitchfork citizenship contradicts the values espoused by the majority of our residents and believes in promoting behavior on- and offline that protects people, builds communities, and strengthens neighborhoods.”