Is Social Media Making Us Afraid?

Mark Helenowski

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Abigail Weinberg reports that a banned iPhone app called Vigilante has been rebranded as Citizen:

Now, the app is back up and running in New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, where it operates with a nearly identical layout and the stated mission “to keep people safe and informed.”

Users who have turned on push notifications receive alerts, often multiple times a day, about the most pressing nearby incidents, determined using geo-tracking data based on the locations of users’ phones. The app’s homepage shows a map of a user’s metro area where red dots correspond with the locations of incidents. Clicking on a dot (or a mobile push alert) brings up an incident page with details about the emergency and the number of people notified, a chatroom, and a “whoa” button users can click to express amazement. There’s also a “record” feature that lets users stream video of incidents happening near them. All together, the app gives users a mix of verified and crowdsourced information about neighborhood emergencies.

This is a lot like Nextdoor, the “social networking app for neighborhoods,” which allows neighbors to chat about whatever’s on their minds. And what’s on their minds, it turns out, is often local break-ins, police activity, and “suspicious” folks who have been sighted. The result is to make everyone more paranoid.

A couple of years ago a friend installed one of those video doorbell devices that allows you to use your smartphone to see who’s knocking on the door. We both live in Irvine, which is famously one of the lowest crime cities in America, so I asked her why. Over and over, the answer was that some guy a couple of streets over had almost had his house broken into. I pressed a little bit, but that was pretty much it. She had probably heard about it via Nextdoor or some similar app and couldn’t get it out of her mind.

Different people have different levels of concern about crime, and that’s fine. It’s what makes the world go round. But I would love to see a PhD student do some research on this topic. Do apps like this stoke fear? Or is it only the fearful who get them in the first place? Is there any correlation between racial diversity and use of these apps in a particular neighborhood? Etc.

A decade ago I would have asked these questions about the insane preoccupation of local news programs with crime reporting. But times change, and social media has taken over that function for a lot of people. We ought to be interested in exactly what kind of impact they really have.

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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