How neighbourhood app Nextdoor is driving both community aid and conspiracy theories

Though widely applauded as a hub to organise local initiatives, the social media platform has also become riddled with false information and bogus science about the pandemic. 

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Coronavirus means that many vulnerable people desperately need help from those nearby. And it seems there’s no better app for this than Nextdoor. For the uninitiated, Nextdoor is a social media platform that only shows users people from surrounding postcodes, that is typically littered with cafe recommendations, furniture sales and complaints about construction or local crime.

Recently it has been widely reported that Nextdoor has become a place to help out neighbours, with young people volunteering to do food shopping for the elderly, suggestions of local food banks or donation centres, and people offering to have phone calls and video chats with people stuck alone in isolation. In common with community WhatsApp groups that have been popping up to help vulnerable people in local areas, Nextdoor has proved to be a perfectly designed tool to find people in your postcode to help you, or who need your help. 

But in the midst of this pandemic, Nextdoor has proven a double-edged sword. Along with helpful posts, neighbourhoods have become riddled with conspiracy theories, misinformation and dangerous advice to ignore health experts and government guidance. And while misinformation is being aggressively removed on other social media platforms, it appears these posts are living on Nextdoor for days without any moderation. 

Coronavirus misinformation on Nextdoor is wide-ranging, from false medical information suggesting certain herbs can prevent you from catching it, to fully fledged conspiracy theories labelling it a fake illness. In my own Nextdoor, users were heralding the effects of chewing rosemary as an antiviral preventative measure against coronavirus, a post which I only saw because Nextdoor pushed it out to users via an email with a link.

One user tweeted that they saw similar things in their neighbourhood, with people suggesting elderberry and oregano oil to combat coronavirus, since “none of the mainstream crap is working”. Another user shared that someone in their Nextdoor told them there was simply nothing they could do to escape coronavirus, because “God has his plans and… if it’s your turn you can’t stop it.” 

Many posts questioning the validity of coronavirus are milder – people challenging government advice to stay indoors and telling people they should go out in spite of it. Others believe that coronavirus is like any other cold or flu, and offer homemade medical suggestions such as keeping your body wrapped in a cold towel to reduce your fever and therefore kill it. However, some of the coronavirus misinformation lurches into the territory of full-on conspiracy theories – some of which border on dangerous and seem to go unchecked by the platform.

One prime example originated from a user in a London-based neighbourhood, who suggested that Covid-19 is a media-led conspiracy, likening it to 9/11 being an inside job, popular theories around Princess Diana’s death, and conspiracies about the Lockerbie plane crash. This user argued that because deaths related to HIV/Aids and Ebola were higher, coronavirus was a fake news story that “came out of nowhere”. He claimed there was a link between heightened political tension between the US and China and the rapid, widespread coronavirus outbreak. 

What makes Nextdoor unique in spreading conspiracy theories is its entire USP. “The root of conspiracy thinking lies in our ancient instinct to divide the social world into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ categories,” wrote Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor in social and organisational psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, for Aeon in November last year.

He explains that creating a tribal attitude towards the unknown has long been the foundation of conspiracy theories and that, throughout history, this has been rooted in people clinging onto physical things, such as specific locations and territories. On Nextdoor, spreading a conspiracy theory by citing suspicious behaviour in local shops, parks and streets means that the sense of “us” is heightened by simple familiarity. And that becomes all the more convincing when it’s suggested by someone living down your road, rather than a faceless user on a global social media platform.  

It’s also likely that the government’s somewhat lax approach hasn’t helped either. Speaking to the Guardian in 2015, author and conspiracy theory expert Rob Brotherton observed, “Whenever anything ambiguous happens, we have this bias towards assuming that it was intended – that somebody planned it, that there was some kind of purpose or agency behind it, rather than thinking it was just an accident, or chaos, or an unintended consequence of something.” In the case of Covid-19, what people should do and whether they should be taking serious measures is not entirely clear, leaving more room for people to argue over best practice. 

Nextdoor has created an option to report misinformation specifically about coronavirus – however, users warn this hasn’t necessarily resulted in posts being taken down. The user who reported the conspiracy theorist who linked coronavirus to Princess Diana’s death sent screenshots showing the post was still up four days later, 24 hours after he’d reported it for false information. 

A Nextdoor spokesperson said: “We are committed to doing everything we can to help our members stay safe and have access to accurate information from trusted public health officials in real time. To date, we have published continuous updates from the WHO and the NHS; worked with our Public Service partners to deliver locally relevant updates; created a  ‘COVID-19 Posting Reminder’ to encourage members to ensure the information they share reflects guidance from trusted public health officials; aggregated posts from public health officials into ‘carousels’ so that this information is easily discoverable; and urged our members to use our defined steps (available in our help centre) to report instances of misinformation that they see.

“Coming together to prevent panic and the spread of misinformation is critical, and therefore requires the assistance of all neighbours, including members, local businesses, and public services which includes health officials. With increased social distancing measures, having a strong local community is going to become even more vital; the time to get connected with your neighbourhood on Nextdoor is now. People across the globe are reaching out to their neighbours on Nextdoor with kindness and offers of help and we have already seen 15x more groups created on Nextdoor compared to the week before, as members turn to the platform to coordinate help.”

As well as conspiracy theorists, there are people seeking to combat misinformation. Under almost every post I was sent pushing false information were comments from neighbours calling the information fake and pointing the user toward more reliable data. However, it would seem that Nextdoor is relying heavily on its users to combat such misinformation. In times of need, apps like Nextdoor can be a godsend for vulnerable people in need of immediate, local help. But unchecked, Nextdoor can be used to push misinformation that could put thousands of lives at risk. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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