While social media is often lauded for its democratizing effect on public discourse, it’s safe to say that giving everyone a voice has not resulted in a cyber-utopia – far from it. Indeed a whole panoply of social ills and criminal behavior have come to be associated with social media, ranging from cyber-bullying, trolling and sextortion to “catfishing,” terrorist recruitment and Justin Bieber.
Now, to this long list of woes must be added another – racial profiling. On that note Nextdoor.com, which operates local, place-based social networks serving neighborhoods in cities across the country, is revamping its usage guidelines because of what some critics are calling racial profiling by its members.
Activists have pointed to a number of cases in which users of Nextdoor’s neighborhood discussion forums have singled out racial minorities, particularly African-Americans, when trying to identify unknown “outsiders” seen in their communities – essentially labeling as suspicious people who were, at least in some cases, actual residents of the community themselves.
In one incident in Oakland, cited by a group called Neighbors for Racial Justice (N4RJ), Nextdoor users warned other users about a “light-skinned black woman” whom they saw walking her dog in their neighborhood. As N4RJ pointed out, in addition to raising an alarm for no particular reason the post also failed to offer any description of the woman besides her race, meaning anyone matching that vague description could be singled out for scrutiny.
According to The New York Times, Nextdoor is taking steps it hopes will counter the racial profiling trend. Among other measures, the social network is testing a new system for reporting suspicious activities and individuals, which specifically prompts users to describe the suspect’s clothing and other (non-ethnic) identifying characteristics in as much detail as possible – which should both steer users away from race and make the descriptions more useful in identifying individuals.
The new system is being tested in the Bay Area and Baltimore before rolling out to Nextdoor’s 98,000 neighborhood networks across the U.S.