It's a place where pleas about lost pets and rants about local politicians both reside — often side by side.

On city-specific Facebook pages, snarky and serious content converges as a growing number of residents join groups like Neighborly New Brighton, Real Life in Chaska, We Love Lake Elmo and Columbia Heights Rant & Rave. The citizen-run groups are used to rally support, track community events, mobilize petition efforts and find the family dog. Many have gained the attention of elected officials, lurking quietly in the background.

Researchers say social media has buoyed civic and political engagement in new ways. And increasingly, digital activity is stimulating old-fashioned political participation.

"There's a strong relationship between online action and offline action in terms of politics," said Shelley Boulianne, an associate professor with expertise in political sociology at MacEwan University in Canada.

Take, for instance, Virginia Pleban, a 77-year-old regular commenter on the We Love Lake Elmo page. Pleban said posting online and attending City Council meetings persuaded the city to clean up several weedy rain gardens.

"It's the only way I could get across to people on the council how upset I was with certain things," Pleban said.

But the groups have critics, with some citing the vitriol that often bubbles up as a reason to avoid them.

"My supporters and I laugh about [the West St. Paul Neighbors page] more than anything," said former mayor Dave Meisinger, who said that portions of his divorce papers were once posted on the page. "I think they're overly passionate — this is all they have."

Julie Fliflet, a Lake Elmo City Council member, describes the We Love Lake Elmo group as a "hate site — and one in which only one point of view is given."

These groups count anywhere from a handful of active members to several thousand. Nearly eight of 10 adult American internet users are on Facebook, according to a 2016 report from Pew Research Center.

The rise of social networking sites has changed the way people spend time on the web, researchers like Boulianne say, especially since the 2008 election. Spaces like Facebook groups, Boulianne said, have connected users.

"That's what was missing from prior digital use," she said. "They didn't have effective venues to engage people in groups and have group discussions."

It's hard to say how many city-centered Facebook groups exist around the metro, with several often sprouting up in a single city. But in groups like West St. Paul Neighbors, the number of members — more than 7,700 — accounts for roughly a third of the city's population.

Some groups are public, allowing anyone to view members' posts. Others are private.

These privacy settings can be a cause for concern if elected officials contribute posts. A 2014 law change clarified that social media use does not violate the open meeting law if exchanges are made with all members of the general public.

If a group is private, the League of Minnesota Cities generally cautions council members against commenting, said Amber Eisenschenk, a staff attorney.

"These types of groups are on cities' radars," Eisenschenk said. "Social media has definitely been a game-changer for citizens."

Sifting content

Group administrators often determine the kind of posts that fill a page — and which are deleted. Some carefully police content, while others allow a wider variety of posts, from restaurant reviews to event reminders.

The description for "Concerned Citizens of Shakopee" makes its focus on social and political issues clear. The group even creates Facebook "events" for upcoming City Council and County Board meetings. But business owners among the group's 2,600 members, for instance, are advised to avoid advertising.

"The biggest difficulty of the page is keeping it on point," said Sean Nelson, who helps oversee the group.

Several city leaders said positive comments, or ones that defended them, have been deleted from their city's pages.

"It can definitely get heated," said Kevin Hendricks, a member of West St. Paul Neighbors.

Only about 10 percent of West St. Paul Neighbors' posts are political, said Hendricks, who uses the site to find out why sirens are blaring on his street or to comment on a new roundabout.

Making an impact

Occasionally, content from the pages comes up at City Hall.

Soon after the Columbia Heights Rant & Rave page debuted in April, it was cited at a council meeting. In August, the group also hosted an election forum, allowing members to post questions for candidates. Some say the page made a difference in the November election, noting the tight mayoral race between longtime former Mayor Gary Peterson, who didn't post during the forum, and current Mayor Donna Schmitt, who did.

"I think [the page] may have cost me the election," Peterson said.

In Lake Elmo, regular commenters have mixed thoughts on whether the page swayed November's mayoral race, which pit incumbent and current Mayor Mike Pearson against council member Fliflet. The page's creators said they're trying to address the city's ongoing dysfunction and constant staff turnover, but Fliflet said it slanted against her.

Pearson admits that conversations can get "dicey" on the site, but he still checks it out — though he never comments.

"There's just a certain legitimacy to it because it's unfiltered," Pearson said.

Yet some posts raise questions of bias and accuracy, city officials said.

Paula Geisler, a Chaska Council member and a moderator of the Real Life in Chaska page, said gossip sometimes comes first and facts second, causing misunderstandings.

She mostly uses the site to monitor how residents feel about issues, like a controversial power plant or a new Goodwill store. But she said she'll chime in when necessary, correcting people if there's "something that's egregiously wrong."

"I think it gets more people interested — I truly do," Geisler said.