Why Pantsuit Nation couldn't have happened without Facebook

The pro-Hillary Clinton group has risen rapidly since the election, and even announced a book deal this week. It couldn't have thrived anywhere other than Facebook.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
5 min read

Pantsuit Nation, the pro-Hillary Clinton group, started on Facebook.

The Washington Post/Getty Images

An interesting thing happened on Facebook late in the day on November 8, after it was clear Donald Trump would win the US election. Pantsuit Nation, the Facebook group for Hillary Clinton supporters, went from being a place to share stories and galvanize voters to a place for people to grieve and console each other over their candidate's loss, and to figure out what comes next.

That's continued in the hours, days and weeks since his victory. Take, for example, this post on November 10, from Courtney Marie Elmore, a 30-year-old stand-up comedian living in Nevada's Douglas County. Trump won the county though the state went blue.

"I know this is ridiculous... but after signing petitions, organizing, crying and fighting.. can a girl just get a spa day? What petition can I sign for that? ... Hope you all are taking care of yourselves and pushing forward. <3"

Soon after, Elmore teamed up with a few others she met on Pantsuit Nation and formed an organization called Americans for the 12th Amendment, whose purpose was to get electors to vote against Trump. Last weekend -- two days before electors officially cast their votes -- she traveled to Washington, DC, for a rally she helped organize called Flip the Vote.

"Everything that happened this weekend was because of Pantsuit Nation," she said in an interview. "Everyone is in there to support each other."

Trump won the electoral vote, but she says the group will continue to be active and find another cause.

The out-of-the-ordinary thing about Pantsuit Nation isn't that it's allowed some people to find a path to activism. It's that the community -- now nearly 4 million members -- was even allowed to grow, thrive and eventually evolve, in the first place. And that it's doing so on Facebook, even as the social network came under fire in the wake of the election for helping fake news proliferate -- something CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week began trying to clean up.

A different forum

So often, massive forums where strangers gather on the internet can devolve into a hub for trolls. Reddit has acknowledged its challenge with abuse. Last year, it banned a few subreddits related to things like "fat-shaming" as part of a new anti-harassment policy. Twitter has struggled with it too, whether it's been the bullying of "Ghostbusters" actress Leslie Jones, or Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologizing for a neo-Nazi ad. YouTube comments have a rap for being cesspools of nastiness as well. Outside of the friendlier confines of closed groups, Facebook has had to deal with hate speech, too. Facebook's third-party contractors in other countries, like the Philippines or Poland, reportedly deal with questionable posts on topics like bigotry or violence.

To be fair, comparing the different platforms is like judging apples and oranges. After all, each site is its own different world. Plus, Pantsuit Nation is a closed group with administrators who watch it closely. They approve each post, and you can only be invited to join by another member. Meanwhile, anyone can post stuff pretty much anywhere on Twitter and YouTube, and that's a huge part of their success.

Most Pantsuit Nation members also likely have the same political leanings, so that probably helps to keep the peace too.

Still, it has become a space that's different from most forums online: a generally civil place with millions of members. Libby Chamberlain, a Clinton supporter in Brooklin, Maine, started the group in October with a different goal: try to get people to show up to the polls in a pantsuit. Today there are thousands of posts from people who share personal stories. One Muslim woman wrote about trying to avoid an older white woman while she was running errands because she was scared the white woman would say something hateful. Instead, the woman wanted to compliment the politeness of the Muslim woman's son. Another woman posted a picture of herself dressed up as Rosie the Riveter. Another wrote about her daughter's bat-mitzvah this past weekend.

The group's star is still rising. Chamberlain said earlier this week that Pantsuit Nation has a book deal. It's also in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization.

Pantsuit Nation declined to comment.

But there's more to the group's rise than just tight admin controls, said Justin Patchin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. A big part of the success is the fact that the group originated on Facebook, and not some other site. That's because Facebook, he says, established a special sort of social contract with its users, from the days of its very its founding.

"Right from the beginning, they established this culture that people are who they say they are," Patchin said. People on Facebook are more inclined to report inappropriate behavior on the social network, because of that culture.

While Facebook groups are a definite safe space on the internet, it's hard to compare it to other sites, he acknowledged. Still, "I can't think of any story saying there's been problems in any of these groups."

Alex Deve, director of product management for Facebook Groups, also says having people use their real identity adds to cultivating that environment. "People are their real selves on Facebook, not random screen names or Internet handles," he said. "This means people are responsible for what they say because they have to stand behind it."

Not perfect

Even though a group like Pantsuit Nation seems a good example of internet civility, that doesn't mean it's impenetrable to trolls.

Earlier this month, Chamberlain wrote a lengthy post apologizing to minorities for some abusive behavior in the group. "To our members of color, we are sorry," she wrote. "We apologize that sometimes posts are approved when they shouldn't be, or that abusive comments are not always responded to immediately by our team."

But Pachin, the cyberbully researcher, said even the post of apology is notable, adding that it would be rare to see that on another platform. "Do you think that would be posted on a Reddit thread?" he asked, laughing.

Meanwhile, Elmore says she's seen some trolls in the group, too. But she credits the administrators for doing something about it. "They're stepping up."