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Citizen and Nextdoor Are Making Us All Vigilantes. Is That a Good Thing?

Public safety apps are creating a new kind of surveillance culture, absent of context.

by Gretchen Brown
March 29, 2021 | Living
a man using binoculars to look out window. rewire pbs nextdoor and citizen app
Credit: moremar // Adobe

Adrian Ye downloaded the Citizen app weeks ago, looking for more information about an incident she'd read about on Nextdoor.

But when she did, a notification nearly made her heart stop.

"400 Feet Away: Child locked in car."

Turns out, the alert was a test notification on display on the app's boarding page. But to Ye, a UX designer who has worked for companies like Apple, it was indicative of the app's design: to keep people alert, to keep them scared.

"When it comes down to it, it's part of their bottom line, it's what they want people to feel," she said.

"Their videos are literally the size of my fingernail on my phone, yet I feel like a helicopter in a way. I feel like some sort of vigilante."

Citizen is one of the newer public safety offerings online. Like Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social media platform with a public safety focus, it has seen a large increase in users during the pandemic, a year in which homicides, aggravated assaults and gun assaults rose sharply.

But those statistics aren't the whole picture. In July 2020, overall crime was down in 25 American cities compared to the same period the previous year, according to a New York Times analysis of Uniform Crime Report data.

Property crime was down in 18 of those cities, and violent crime was down in 11 of them.

For the millions of new users this year on Nextdoor and Citizen, though, constantly bombarded with alerts about vandalism, and stolen catalytic converters, and gunshots, that might be hard to believe.

"If you look at public opinion surveys, they'll tell you uniformly that the thing that people are scared of is always rated far higher than its actual occurrence," said Faiza Patel, director of the Brennan Center's Liberty & National Security Program. 

"(People) estimate crime rates as being far higher than they are. They'll estimate the number of immigrants or Muslims in the country as higher than it actually is. These kinds of things happen all the time, and Nextdoor is just a microcosm of that."

'There's no fact check on it'

In a pandemic that has forced many into a more solitary lifestyle, Nextdoor and Citizen are gaining new relevance as a connector to the rest of the community.

Nextdoor saw an 80 percent increase in user engagement in the early weeks of March 2020, and Citizen has doubled its user base. Nextdoor has gotten press for connecting folks to vaccines, and CEO Sarah Friar told Marie Claire she believes it can cure loneliness.

Plenty of the posts on my neighborhood Nextdoor are pleasantly boring: neighbors looking for electricians or handymen, missing cats, complaints about property taxes.

But the most popular posts are in the "safety" category. It's a growing segment of the site dedicated to surveillance. 

There are grainy photos of unrecognized cars in alleyways and videos captured from Ring doorbells.

Last week, one of those grainy photos was my neighbor posting about a "suspicious person" on their doorstep. 

The man was carrying a sealed paper bag, and asked if my neighbor had ordered food, which might lead one to infer that he was a delivery driver. 

But my neighbor claimed the address the man was looking for didn't exist. He posted a grainy photo of the car. As other neighbors argued over whether the post was a "reach," and pointed out racism, given the stranger was Black, the post was pushed to my email inbox — again, and again.

"When people start talking about suspicious activity that they've seen, oftentimes that reflects their bias and there's no filter on there. There's no fact check on it," Patel said.

"There's really nothing other than somebody saying something on an app. And we know that people tend to trust people who they share some kind of common bond with, presumably sharing a neighborhood with people."

Crime updates from the Citizen app are similarly not always trustworthy, sourced from police scanner traffic and user reports.

Reports of crime made via 911 are sometimes unfounded, and scanner traffic can contain incorrect details as police begin to investigate an incident. This is why news organizations, as a general practice, do not use scanner traffic as a primary source.

But Citizen, Nextdoor, and police scanner Facebook pages put this raw information at the forefront. That can create an inaccurate picture of crime where you live, along with the sense that the news media is hiding something from you when a Citizen report doesn't make your local police blotter.

Feeling like a vigilante, promoting racism

It isn't a coincidence that Ye feels like a vigilante using the Citizen app.

Citizen, originally released in 2017 by sp0n, Inc., is a derivative of the company's earlier app, literally called Vigilante. 

Both Citizen and Vigilante alert users about crime and encourage them to report on it if nearby. Vigilante was pulled from the app store after safety concerns, but Citizen ultimately operates very similarly. 

Citizen's design contains elements that make you feel like Batman. The app shows your location, with a radar light circling around it. Tiny icons map where incidents have been reported: a punching hand, a burglar, a fire, a yellow exclamation mark.

Even the notification sound is jarring, almost like a muffled gunshot. And the emoji users can select to react to incidents are overwhelmingly negative: a shocked face, an angry face, prayer hands and a heart. The background is dark, and prominent colors are red, orange and yellow.

A sample screen of the Citizen app, from its website.
A sample screen of the Citizen app, from its website.  |  Credit: citizen.com

"In UX design, we do study color theory, and red is affiliated with anger, it's affiliated with hunger, it's affiliated with anxiety," Ye said, seeing a red alert on her app. 

"Right now my heart is just kind of like, 'Oh my God, what's going on?"

Nextdoor and Citizen have been written about as replacements for disappearing hyperlocal newspapers. But the user-generated portion of Citizen and Nextdoor, and the push to be a vigilante, also bring to mind neighborhood watch programs.

First spearheaded by the National Sheriff's Association, neighborhood watch groups operate under the theory that crime is highest in neighborhoods with racial and economic heterogeneity and high turnover.

The groups have been around since the 1970s. But they made a noticeable comeback in the months after 9/11, born out of the paranoia and Islamophobia that defined the era.

"I see it as a return to a small, rural New England atmosphere where you knew your neighbors and people could help each other," an organizer of one group, in a Boston suburb, told the New York Times in November 2001.

''If there is a crisis that affects the town, we'll see what we can do here first.''

Many involved phone trees — from inside your home, you could call up a neighbor about anything strange you might see. 

But they have also come under fire for instilling segregation and racism, especially after the 2012 killing of teenager Trayvon Martin by an informal neighborhood vigilante. 

According to an analysis from the National Institute of Justice, neighborhood watch groups are linked to some reduction of crime. But they don't make neighborhoods safer, and have no impact on victimization. 

Nextdoor and Citizen, and their grainy on-scene videos and photos — sometimes of nothing at all — feel like the next iteration.

The Sept. 11 attacks were 20 years ago. But a global pandemic, a national uprising around racial justice, an increasing number of anti-Asian attacks, and greater exposure to daily crime through apps like this create a kind of feedback loop.

Studies suggest humans have a negativity bias and are drawn to negative news stories over positive ones. Citizen is a shining example of the old adage, "if it bleeds, it leads."

It's hard to tell whether the apps are simply feeding the desire for information about crime, or making us hungrier for it.

Reality check on crime trends

Public safety apps might reflect 2020's increase in some types of crime, but they don't provide context for it.

The sharp increase in homicides in 2020 alone is concerning. But 2020's 30 percent increase is nothing compared to the homicide rates from the early 1990s, said Maria Tcherni-Buzzeo, associate professor and director of the criminal justice Ph.D. program at the University of New Haven.

She points to data from the Council on Criminal Justice, which breaks the data down by city.

"The largest increases are in some of the smaller cities," she said. Chula Vista, California, Chandler, Arizona, and Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin saw the biggest spike in homicides.

"As might be expected, cities with higher poverty and unemployment rates experienced greater increases in homicide."

In St. Paul, Minnesota, where I live, "St. Paul is going downhill" posts appear on Nextdoor almost like clockwork. 

They're in the comments on every post about property crime. There are full rants in the neighborhood Facebook group.

St. Paul saw a 25 percent increase in violent crime in 2020, and a 13 percent increase in property crime.

But in 2019, violent crime in St. Paul was the lowest in 25 years. That's in line with the rest of the country. Crime has been trending downward nationally since the 1990s.

Ye, who lives in San Francisco, said she sees value in learning about incidents as they occur, especially with the recent targeted violence against Asian Americans. 

But for a crime app to be ethical, it needs broad buy-in from the community it covers. 

"What lens is it being viewed in, and how the so-called data is being analyzed, and if it's going to do any good for our neighbors," Ye said. 

"To scale it back a bit and say, 'Hey, this is making my neighbor across the street very scared to leave the house.'"

Ye is planning to delete the app from her phone.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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