Selling Fear? There's An App For That


Fear sells.

Fear has always sold. It has sold wars to the public, both real and imagined. It has propelled the endless funding of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. It has sold the killing of unarmed citizens by police officers to courts. It has sold the diminishment of our Constitutional rights, most notably at our borders. It has sold surveillance creep — the steady encroachment of cameras in public areas, increasingly coupled with tech that makes anonymity a historical relic.

It has sold newspapers and brought eyeballs to newscasts. As the public has shifted its news consumption to the web, the fear salesmen have followed, ensuring what bleeds still leads, even online.

The public still buys it, even when the facts don’t back up the narrative. A decade of historically low crime levels has made little dent in the public perception that we live in a country overrun by drug cartels, sex traffickers, and assorted lowlifes hellbent on separating us from our possessions and lives.

All of this information is a Google search away, but it’s ignored in favor of what still brings viewers to websites and funding to government agencies. This would all be sad enough if it weren’t for a new wave of tech companies behaving like newspapers riding the fine line between information and sensationalism.

Rani Molla’s report for Vox about the rise of snitch apps and the use of “neighborhood” platforms to encourage racial stereotyping under the guise of “safety” is a depressing read. But it’s a worth a read nonetheless. People apparently love to be afraid, and there’s a long list of tech companies willing to indulge this urge.

Violent crime in the US is at its lowest rate in decades. But you wouldn’t know that from a crop of increasingly popular social media apps that are forming around crime.

Apps like Nextdoor, Citizen, and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors — all of which allow users to view local crime in real time and discuss it with people nearby — are some of the most downloaded social and news apps in the US, according to rankings from the App Store and Google Play.

This is just part of it. But it’s an unhealthy start. Citizen, for instance, used to do business as “Vigilante,” so that gives you some idea of the mindset some of these apps/tech appeal to. Amazon is upping the ante further than the rest, though. It’s turning its doorbell cameras into reality TV for crime junkies.

It recently advertised an editorial position that would coordinate news coverage on crime, specifically based around its Ring video doorbell and Neighbors, its attendant social media app. Neighbors alerts users to local crime news from “unconfirmed sources” and is full of Amazon Ring videos of people stealing Amazon packages and “suspicious” brown people on porches. “Neighbors is more than an app, it’s the power of your community coming together to keep you safe and informed,” it boasts.

Apps like these turn isolated incidents that don’t even amount to a rounding error in local crime stats into a narrative that users’ neighborhoods are full of suspicious people doing suspicious things. This kickstarts a vicious circle where cops are called on “suspicious brown people,” leading to increased profiling of brown people… which leads to arrest stats that seem to prove brown people are more dangerous. And Amazon is there to get this ball rolling by hiring an editorial team to drum up fear using doorbell camera footage. What a time to be alive.

The tech revolution has made bigotry more efficient.

A recent Motherboard article found that the majority of people posted as “suspicious” on Neighbors in a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood were people of color.

Nextdoor has been plagued by this sort of stereotyping.

Citizen is full of comments speculating on the race of people in 9-1-1 alerts.

To be fair, these apps and tech offerings didn’t create the problem. It was always there. They’ve just made it worse by tapping into this thick vein of fear and bigotry that is likely being underserved by local journalism. As Molla points out, small news entities have been dying off, leaving a void that’s been filled by neighborhood-focused social media outlets. Like anything else, the potential of positive development was always there. It’s just that those who use the services the most tend to be the type who view people of other races, creeds, etc. as inherently suspicious.

The solution, unfortunately, is better inputs. The researchers Molla spoke to suggest “better media literacy” and “more mindful consumption of news.” Let’s be honest: if those are the choices, it’s never going to happen. The selling of a crime-filled America happened as crime rates dropped precipitously. Journalists sold it. Politicians sold it. Massive echo chambers were constructed and the apps that might have disrupted this have instead, for the most part, amplified the echoes.

The information has always been out there. It’s just always ignored by those whose personal beliefs can’t be swayed by stats and alternate viewpoints. Tech isn’t going to fix it. It’s up to us, as individuals, to try to pierce through this haze created by hundreds of entities whose existence depends on the public believing the nation is unsafe. And that’s the hitch: you’re not just going up against friends and neighbors. You’re going up against entrenched beliefs held by government agencies and media concerns that have monetized fear successfully for decades.

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Companies: amazon, citizen, nextdoor

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Comments on “Selling Fear? There's An App For That”

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Anonymous Coward says:

It predates the media even

Just look at religious fundamentalists – despite all of their talk of God it is clear what they truly need above all else is the Devil – for they see Satan behind every bush and new social trend. What else would you call ancient moral panics like seeing windmills and forks as demonic?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It predates the media even

Primitive science. Those who ridicule The Bible for saying the world is 6,000 years old might want to consider that this was probably a scientific estimate made at the time The Book was written, and that God’s word has held up much better than science over that time.

Bruce C. says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

FWIW: Science hasn’t even been around for most of that time. God has about a "5500 year" head start, using OP’s timeline. Talk about how much better God does than science in another 5000 years, maybe?

God and faith are necessary constructs to give structure to many people’s lives (and to their societies).And I’m agnostic enough not to rule out the possibility that there was a creator who instigated the universe, or even that the creator actually gives a rat’s ass about 6-10 billion bipeds in a remote corner of its creation.

But I find such a belief/faith is neither necessary or sufficient to understand the universe to the best of our ability from our position inside of it. For me it’s enough to know that the universe is a wonder unto itself, regardless of its source, and appreciate it for what it is (or at least as much of it as I can comprehend). The minor details like mass and energy are best explained by science.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Too narrow...

…a view.

Fear is a major tool, not just against "people of color" (what a ludicrous phrase).

DDT – fear campaign based entirely on faked evidence caused it to be banned.

Radon – pretty much same as above.

Asbestos – couldn’t find a medical or scientific link to cancers, EPA decided it was anyway and banned it.

A truly staggering number of Public Works that were never built because of faked or wildly inflated environmental concerns. (Some were real, I’m simply pointing out that many were scams.)

Hell, The Vast Right-Wing Militia that we heard about ad nauseum for over a decade that didn’t actually exist.

If you get people scared enough, they’ll do what you want to stay "safe".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Too narrow...

DDT – fear campaign based entirely on faked evidence caused it to be banned.
Radon – pretty much same as above.
Asbestos – couldn’t find a medical or scientific link to cancers,

Wait, what? Are you saying that ironically or are you praising the safety of Asbestos?!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Too narrow...

it wasn’t about fear "only against people of colour". it’s just that when fear junkies need their fix, so many tend to find that black guy walking down their street an easy fix.

lol such bullshit. just with asbestos… the insurance companies knew since forever that asbestos was shit, and acted accordingly. it just took a series of lengthy campaigns to get the government far enough out of the pockets of the relevant industries to do something.

p.s., there was never a vast right-wing militia, just lots of small ones, and the sorts of individuals who will join up with them for something if they feel like they can get away with it. and quite the opposite, the gov will never label individual or group right-wing extremists as terrorists, even when they are doing terrorist things, and refuse to watch them at all, even as they constantly surveil and hound anything that looks left-ish, like environmentalists, people who expose what factory farms do, or those protesting something. Get a large group of non-right-wingers carrying around AR-15s anywhere and see what happens.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Why people are socializing more about crime even as it becomes rarer.

It’s not becoming rarer in my neighborhood, that’s for damn sure.

Thanks to Jerry Brown and our state legislature’s crusade to let everyone out of prison that they possibly can (and stop police/prosecutors from sending them there in the first place), the rate of burglaries, assaults, and vandalism in my city have tripled in the past three years.

Add in the city of Los Angeles’s inexplicable love affair with the ‘noble’ vagrant and property crime is skyrocketing in L.A. as well, as the vagrants that the city attracts and coddles by the thousands all look for ways to finance their next heroin injection. And that crime wave is spilling over into the independent cities that surround L.A., like the one in which I live.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Fixing just one of the many governmental screw ups is not going to be the panacea you envisioned.

Go figure.

Let a bunch of previously non violent offenders (some were innocent) out of prison to an economy that does not pay a living wage at the low income levels and what do you expect will happen?

btr1701 (profile) says:

and is full of Amazon Ring videos of people stealing Amazon packages and “suspicious” brown people on porches.

If that’s not their porch, then damn right they’re suspicious and the color of their skin has nothing to do with it. It’s not his skin color that makes him suspicious. It’s that he’s on private property that doesn’t belong to him where he has no business being.

Are we now supposed to ignore strangers skulking about our property because they’re ‘brown’?

Christenson says:

The whole internet...

especially the nightly news, and the newspapers before them, could be said to be selling fear….

Time we all started countering that, the right words are "So who do you KNOW that that happened to or almost happened to???"

That will get you on the risks you really need to deal with. The help is a lot more likely to pinch stuff than the burglars!

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: The whole internet...

the right words are "So who do you KNOW that that happened to or almost happened to???"

Okay, let’s see… I personally know people in two houses– one a single guy and the other a couple– who were the victims of a burglary– one while the couple was home and had to fight the guy off. And then there’s my girlfriend who was accosted by one of Garcetti’s ‘noble’ vagrants, who demanded she give him money and then tried to steal it from her when she refused.

That enough for you?

fairuse (profile) says:

Re: that's my experience with Nextdoor

Jumping to my neighborhood west of Baltimore.

I did not understand this "suspicious brown person" report these apps get until neighbor called me saying a car was in my driveway and driver was black. After saying so fk’ing what and hanging up I fetched grocery delivery.

This "block" was all upper income jewish. Now it is a bit of every racial group on the planet. I’m the suspicious and crazy white guy even to caller’s mom.

People tend to be clannish. These apps know how to exploit that.

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