Facebook and Twitter are riddled with opinions and posts that sit on a shaky foundation of conspiracy and hearsay. It's only after almost four years of baseless claims, outright lies and a violent insurrection at the center of our democracy that these platforms are starting to take serious action against users promoting violence through misinformation.
There has been one place in this wasteland of racist dog-whistles, however, where the truth is enforced and some sense of common ground can be reached: The DFW Corona Connection Facebook community, founded by the Banjos and Beats show producer, co-founder and talent buyer Josh Smith and his wife, Amanda. It's become an online destination for balanced information and opinions on the coronavirus and a platform that places honesty over hyperbole regardless of political affiliation or personal influence. The founders have also been honored for their 11 months of hard work and dedication with a nomination for Dallas Reformer of the Year from the Reform Dallas website.
"We don't want to block differing points of view," Josh Smith says. "It's really important to us. We didn't want to become an echo chamber. Some anti-vaxxers may be sharing memes and some people have legitimate points to make. We tried to give everyone a legitimate platform to present those views."
The Smiths' original livelihood revolves around live entertainment, and the coronavirus gave them a lot of time on their hands, something Smith says they saw coming.
"When South by Southwest got canceled, the alarms sounded and we knew it was going to impact business in some way," he says. "Then on [March] 12th or 13th, when the NBA canceled after South by, that's when we knew things were about to get crazy."
Thanks to a "middle of the night idea," Smith and Amanda started a Facebook group dedicated to discussing the events and delivering information surrounding the pandemic. The page has over 21,000 followers and daily discussions about the latest pandemic news.
"It exploded pretty quick," Smith says. "We went from zero to 5,000 [members] within a matter of a couple of days with each new set of restrictions, with each new big piece of news. It just seemed like it kind of grew, and we made the decision to keep it public. We realize it was kind of becoming a database for relevant news and information."
The group has become a part-time job for the Smiths. They take turns from morning to evening monitoring the group's chatter, filtering out fact from fiction and researching and posting the day's latest information, including a daily release of Dallas and Tarrant counties' total COVID-19 infections and deaths. Recent numbers from the Dallas County Health and Human Services Department show that Dallas County alone has over 194,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases.
"It can get heavy sometimes," Smith says. "It took a lot of energy to watch all of it and deal with that. Now we're 10 months into whatever this new routine is and we're able to balance it a little bit more. We're able to take time for family, dogs and food and all those sorts of things."
A typical shift includes posting the latest information and confirmed stories and monitoring the chatter to ensure it maintains their standard of trust and relevance. The definition of relevance seems to be broadening as the virus encroaches on new facets of daily life, like the recent right-wing raid on the U.S. Capitol.
"We have a saying in the group, 'What does this have to do with coronavirus?'" Josh says. "It's a tongue-in-cheek joke thing because we figured out early on when you try to share numbers and data, corona has affected every part of our lives."
That means politics are a daily presence in the group.
"When it does get into politics, we try to share as much of the core of it as possible just because as with any social media platform, when big politics stories hit, it tends to overtake that, so we try to keep it as conversational as we can," Smith says. "We're not going to shy away from the political nature of it. We think it would be a disservice to do that."
Even when political discussions can reach a fever pitch, regular visitors have turned the group into a community club of sorts with its own language and unique relationships. Moderators also work to share good news about the day's events around the virus without overshadowing its seriousness. Members share stories and photos of their day and their families as if they're catching up with neighbors at a block party. The chatter on the page about the "Anti-Social Social Club" meme inspired a new term for this new reality called the "Anti-Rona Rona Club," a buzz term that led to the creation of special T-shirts sold to group members as its unofficial club uniform.
"There's a subculture that's developed," Smith says. "For some people, that might be a turn-off, but for the majority of people who've joined and stuck around, that's what's keeping them engaged."
The DFW Corona Connection has created a virtual community in a world where traditional community seems as unattainable as safely going to a concert or live show again.
"It answers what Facebook was originally intended for," Smith says. "At the time we created it, the idea was to connect people who were close in proximity in a geographic location that may not have met otherwise and create discussion in a forum to figure out who their neighbors are and it's kind of become that.
"Undoubtedly, the last 10 months or however long this is going to last, it's going to have a lifetime effect on us," he adds. "We're not gonna be the same people and society is not going to operate the way it did before. We came in with the idea that this would be about coronavirus but we came out seeing how that the thing that connects all these historical events is the virus. It's through Black Lives Matter, the election, the Capitol raid, concert cancellations and sports cancellations ... but that doesn't mean the conversation has to center around there."
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