Civic News
Crime / Privacy / Social media

Nextdoor’s role in murder-suicide news coverage raises questions

A news story about former University of Delaware staffer Meredith Chapman aired relevant screenshots from the private social network. Was that wrong?

What's public and what's private when it comes to Nextdoor? (Photo by Flickr user Daisy082011, used under a Creative Commons license)

Like many people, I have a Nextdoor account. One day I received an invitation in the mail to join, and I did. I’m not a regular user — it can skew a bit vigilante for my comfort — but I’m a member, as a member of the community.

Last week, Delaware Online published screenshots from Nextdoor as part of their ongoing coverage of the murder of former University of Delaware Director of Digital Communications Meredith Chapman. The screencaps included a post made by the deceased suspected killer looking for a lawyer. You can see the article here.

Thanks to the “private social network” app, Delaware Online was able to  scoop other outlets on some info no one else had: The alleged killer, a Greenville member on Nextdoor, had posted that her husband had asked for a divorce in March. I don’t want to get into the case — this isn’t about the crime itself — but that nugget changed the common media narrative. It was valuable information.

Was that, as some on the app are saying, a breach of privacy? Did someone leak the screenshots to the press? (People on Nextdoor, if you don’t know, can be a bit excitable.)

Many people would have had access to the post, including members of the press and law enforcement (and law enforcement’s presence on Nextdoor is welcomed, even though, let’s be real — having a police presence, even with limited access, is hardly private).

They were not, however, public public until Delaware Online published them. Some Nextdoor users are mad about it. As someone posted in the comment section of the article in question, “Facebook, yes, if you post as ‘public’ it’s free game, but not Nextdoor.”

I asked John Williams of IncNow, a Wilmington legaltech company, what he thought. “If you use the service you have to agree to whatever they say,” he said. “It’s a contract of adhesion.”

He added: “The nature of being ‘social’ is not being ‘private.'”

And there we have the contradiction.

Nextdoor promises its users privacy, while also marketing itself as a social network.

Nextdoor ostensibly allows journalists to pull quotes from Nextdoor, as long as the user is anonymous. Emphasis theirs:

Nextdoor’s first priority is protecting the privacy of its members. When constructing a Nextdoor story, please avoid revealing the identity or personal information of ANY Nextdoor member without first getting that member’s written permission. The only website that can be shown (stills or otherwise) online, print, or broadcast is our demo website. This is a demo website that looks exactly like live Nextdoor websites. Content is based on actual Nextdoor member interactions, but details have been changed to protect members’ privacy.

You can see how this works in articles from the New York Times, Wired and other major publications when they’ve written about Nextdoor’s ongoing racial profiling problem, including using direct quotes from non-attributed users.

As far as getting permission to reveal an identity, there are, of course, extenuating circumstances. I think most would agree that Chapman doesn’t, at this time, have the same privacy rights as the average Nextdoor user.

But here’s what bugs me about the “controversy.”

Why, when many Nextdoor members seem to live by a “suspect something, say something” credo where users urge each other to call the cops at the first hint of discomfort or suspicion, is it an issue that someone may have reported such a post to authorities and/or the press? After the crime was in the news, wouldn’t that have been the right thing to do?

User complaints have led to trouble for the small press: A blogger from Seattle named Erica Barnett was suspended from Nextdoor in 2016 for posting specific questions asked during a Nextdoor Town Hall with the Seattle police chief. Her post, which you can read here, revealed some uneasy realities about the general prioritization of certain neighborhoods over others. She did not use names, but users reported her to Nextdoor anyway.

Barnett argued that, as a Town Hall, it was a public forum. But even if it hadn’t been, she noted that the expectation that Nextdoor posts are protected regardless of content is problematic:

Nextdoor wants to have it both ways: To be a “partner” with cities and conduit for city officials to share information with and solicit feedback from residents, and to be a private social media app where neighborhood residents can say things to each other that they wouldn’t want to say in a public forum. I maintain it can’t be both, and that it shouldn’t be either.

Nextdoor reinstated her. And note, this was entirely a matter between Barnett and Nextdoor, not a legal matter.

So, is Nextdoor really private? I’m interested to know what readers think.

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