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The messy politics of Nextdoor
Getty Images Want to see how polarized America is? Look no further than Nextdoor. Ray Wang is bothered about what’s happening on Nextdoor lately. As a moderator for his neighborhood in Cupertino, California, he has been watching the conversation closely. “It’s descending into a cesspool of bad conversation,” Wang told Recode. “A lot of folks are very emotionally charged. They’re feeling very vulnerable and anxious at the moment, and it’s only amplifying that anxiety.” Though it’s best known for wanting to help neighbors locate missing dogs, connect with babysitters, and find fellow hobbyists, that’s not what some Nextdoor feeds look like in the days ahead of the 2020 election. Despite the company’s efforts to restrict discussions about national politics and keep things civil, some conversations on Nextdoor are becoming riddled with conspiracy theories and tense fights over local politics as well as the presidential race, according to multiple Nextdoor users and moderators. Despite its efforts to avoid them, the platform is facing the same challenges of polarization and misinformation as other social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. Nextdoor, which has reportedly signed up more than 10 million users and nearly 220,000 neighborhoods in the US, is mulling a public stock listing and has long tried to set itself apart as a safe space for local discourse. For instance, a feature called a “Kindness Reminder” encourages people to be nice in their comments on the platform. Nextdoor prohibits certain forms of misinformation, such as false information that could interfere with voting and calls to incite violence. The company also doesn’t allow political ads, and to discourage tense political debates, it directs discourse about national politics to less prominent areas of the Nextdoor website and app. But given the highly segmented nature of Nextdoor, it’s hard to tell how its communities are processing the election overall, though the company has said that use of the service has surged amid the pandemic. While it’s easier for misinformation and other content to go viral on Facebook and Twitter, Nextdoor limits who can see particular feeds based on who lives in a particular area. “The danger in that is that smaller sub-communities could be forming around highly salient, mini echo chambers of people who strongly buy into this like-minded community,” explained Catherine Delcourt, a computer science professor at Wellesley who has studied social media and political polarization. The restricted nature of Nextdoor communities can make it harder to manage misinformation and other contentious content, which has appeared on the platform this election season. Meanwhile, it’s not clear that all the moderators charged with managing these discussions are prepared for — or even interested in — keeping things as neighborly as the platform would like. Nextdoor wanted to divert people from national politics, but it hasn’t succeeded In anticipation of the upcoming election, Nextdoor announced in August that it would make changes to keep national politics out of users’ main feeds and in separate groups. Now, Nextdoor’s automated system tries to guess whether a post is about a non-local political topic, and if so, it will invite the poster to start a separate group for the topic. At the same time, the platform instructs moderators to flag posts that move toward national issues. This was done, Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar explained in an interview with Yahoo Finance earlier this year, because discussions of national politics could too quickly descend into discourtesy between neighbors. The company has long aspired to be a social network where civility and neighborliness prevail; there’s even a guide to being respectful to your neighbors in the Nextdoor help center. Still, users criticize the company for becoming, instead, a platform for all sorts of pettiness, vitriol, and offensive behavior among neighbors. Nextdoor On its website, Nextdoor displays a “decision tree” directing its moderators how to regulate posts about politics. “Your ability to connect to Nextdoor is really tied into living in that physical place, which creates a very different network and community than what you would see on Twitter and Facebook,” Delcourt explained. The local nature of Nextdoor has factored into some of the company’s biggest controversies. The company made changes to its crime reporting feature after criticism that the platform enables racial profiling and an exaggerated fear of crime, and there have been reports of police digitally patrolling Nextdoor neighborhoods and discrimination against Black users. This election season, rumors about voting issues have sometimes swirled on Nextdoor, according to local reports and discussions on Reddit. Officials in Colorado, for instance, have found themselves responding to claims that originated on Nextdoor, like unsubstantiated reports of voter intimidation at ballot boxes. On a Nextdoor post about wearing masks, a commenter shared an image that implied Democrats might vote on a different day than Republicans. The user said the post was flagged to both the neighborhood moderators and Nextdoor staff, and was eventually removed. In one Georgia Nextdoor community, a user shared a chain message from a “very reliable good friend” that warned of poll workers marking up ballots, falsely claiming that this could invalidate them. Another user eventually pointed out that the rumor was wrong — poll workers can’t invalidate ballots by writing on them — and directed others to a Snopes fact-check of the viral message. But several people had already said they shared the same post on their own personal social media, according to Audrey Harrelson, a retiree in the community who spoke with Recode. There’s also evidence that more extreme conspiracy theories aren’t always taken down. A search of publicly available content on the platform indicates that, to some extent, the platform has housed QAnon-related content and organizing. Tammy Fiorella, who lives in New Jersey, told Recode that it took weeks and a Twitter call-out for Nextdoor to respond to her reports of a neighbor’s posts containing QAnon talking points. A screenshot reviewed by Recode showed this user accusing billionaire George Soros of funding a Democrat-led “deep state” and arguing that the media covers up child abuse and human trafficking. Part of the challenge of keeping conspiracy theories and misinformation off of Nextdoor stems from the company’s approach to moderation, which is typically led by several residents of a neighborhood (Nextdoor staff can sometimes step in). These unpaid moderators are given special privileges on the site, like the ability to vote on what constitutes a violation of Nextdoor’s rules. But the moderation system has led to problems. Earlier this summer, Nextdoor faced criticism when moderators deleted posts in support of Black Lives Matter, which only added to existing concerns about racist moderation practices. In response, the company declared that posts supportive of Black Lives Matter should be allowed on the platform — and could be considered local issues — and said that leads would receive unconscious bias training. Nextdoor tries to discourage discussion of national politics. Nextdoor did not respond to several requests for comment on political discussion on its platform., a nonprofit working with the company on voter turnout initiatives, declined to comment. Despite Nextdoor’s policies discouraging conversations about national politics, discussions of neighborhood topics can quickly derail into debates about exactly that, according to Will Payne, a geographic information science professor at Rutgers, who has researched Nextdoor. Posts about topics like yard waste pickup, he says, can quickly descend into discussions about “antifa” and “the wall.” “I think they saw that as an issue and created this other place to say, ‘Look, you can talk about Trump, Biden, or whatever, you just can’t do it in the main area. We’re going to create special groups for you to go talk about that,’” Payne told Recode about Nextdoor’s attempt to move national politics discussions to groups, noting that Yelp has a similar strategy of sequestering certain discussions to other parts of its platform. But many issues with moderation remain. Kiersten Dirkes, who works in the film industry in the greater Los Angeles area, told Recode that when she posted a link to warn people about California GOP officials setting up unauthorized ballot boxes, her post was removed. Another Nextdoor user from a suburb of Daytona Beach, who calls herself “very socially aware,” says the conservative-leaning moderators of her community make no attempt at fairness, and routinely remove her posts from the general feed while leaving pro-Trump posts up. Some users say the platform has devolved markedly in the past few months. “It went from ‘All Lives Matter’ to Covid, and then as things really started ramping up for the election, things kind of went off the rails,” says Fiorella in New Jersey, who says she’s not in any politics-focused groups on Nextdoor. “I rarely see a post that’s really about a neighborhood thing. Like once in a blue moon, I’ll see something about a lost dog or cat or something.” Robert, another user based in Daytona Beach, Florida, who asked to be identified only by his first name, told Recode that his Nextdoor community has evolved from backlash against Covid-19 safety measures, like wearing masks, into conspiracy theories and misinformation about the election, which seems inspired by Trump’s rhetoric. “Nextdoor was a tool that was created to be helpful for people and their neighbors,” Robert said. “But it’s now spawned into this offshoot thing that’s like the worst of Facebook and Twitter combined — but at a hyperlocal level.” A common flashpoint, several users told Recode, is stolen political yard signs. Sometimes, these fights can get people booted from the platform. Ian Shea-Cahir, who works in social media in Kansas City, says he posted on Nextdoor that the theft of his Biden-Harris and Black Lives Matter lawn signs constituted a crime. Then a neighbor joined the thread, threatened Shea-Cahir, and called him a “communist.” Shea-Cahir responded by reporting the comment to the Nextdoor moderators and forwarding screenshots to the police. When the insults continued, Shea-Cahir donated to Black Lives Matter in the neighbor’s name. Nextdoor then blocked Shea-Cahir from posting on the platform, claiming he had been bullying. Even local discussions have become polarized on the platform Compared to national politics, Nextdoor is more welcoming of discussions of local and state politics, which can have a more measurable influence on a locality’s policies. This appears to be a way that Nextdoor can set itself apart from other social networks, which could soon be more direct competition. Facebook is currently testing a feature called Neighborhoods that looks an awful lot like Nextdoor. This invites users to create verified, localized profiles that connect with others nearby, a move that comes as Facebook continues to emphasize private group interactions. “We think local politics actually has a really big place on Nextdoor,” Friar told Wired earlier this fall. “It’s an interesting nuance of: how do we ensure national moves off into a group but local can really stay in the main newsfeed because, for many people, there’s no local news anymore, no newspaper to go to. So it can be the way they’re finding out about what’s going on with, say, the local mayor.” The platform also provides local public agencies like city governments as well as fire and police departments a direct channel to “easily broadcast information” to several Nextdoor communities at once. But even in local updates, multiple users told Recode that misinformation, politically motivated moderation, and general distrust of discussions about local political topics remain problematic on Nextdoor. Officials in one town in Michigan even sued Nextdoor this summer, arguing that misinformation about a local ballot initiative spread on the platform and led to its failure to pass. Beyond misinformation, some neighborhood feeds seem influenced by politicized moderators and a black-box algorithm. Wang, the moderator from Cupertino who described Nextdoor as a “cesspool of bad conversation,” says the platform’s moves to discourage national political discussions have made discourse around local politics even more heated. “I honestly don’t think they want to be in the political business or in the business of censorship,” Wang said. “They just want to be a happy community that’s hyperlocal.” Stephen Floor, a professor at the University of California San Francisco, noted that there’s no mechanism for users to report and remove false information about local initiatives, adding that his Nextdoor contains misinformation about several California propositions on the ballot this year. “I understand that there’s going to be differences of opinion,” he told Recode. “But when somebody misrepresents the text of a proposition that is worth billions of dollars, that seems to be something that should be regulated.” But understanding just how much of Nextdoor has been subsumed by the election is difficult. Each community, segmented from public view, comes with its own tensions and problems. And each neighborhood can end up in its own echo chamber, with moderators and community creating their own political reality. “I looked around here and I couldn’t find any election misinformation in my small neighborhood and its neighbors in Central New Jersey,” said Payne, the Rutgers professor. “But that tells me very little about what’s going on elsewhere.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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