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Citizen’s crime livestreams are no substitute for local journalism

In May, the neighborhood crime-watch app Citizen offered its user base $30,000 to track down a suspected arsonist on live video, only to discover that they’d sent a mob of civilians after the wrong guy. Now, Citizen is covertly hiring journalists to livestream on the app at crime scenes for $25 per hour through third-party websites. I’m tired.
When Citizen first hit the App Store in 2016, it was called Vigilante — it marketed itself as a platform to fight injustice with transparency, which might sound good in theory, but in practice, it deliberately encouraged users to seek out crime scenes to report them. Vigilante was removed from the App Store for violating a clause in Apple’s App Developer Review Guidelines that an app shouldn’t be “likely to cause physical harm from its use.”
Surely, this would be the end for the nascent platform. But like a cockroach after an apocalypse, the app chugged on. It rebranded itself as Citizen, added disclaimers that no one should interfere with a crime scene, reentered the App Store, and continued to raise VC funding. Now, the app is like a crowd-sourced crime blotter — as its App Store page says, “Citizen may notify you of a crime in progress before the police have responded.” But this level of hypervigilance can fuel panic, rather than make people feel safe — not to mention that user-reported crime incidents might be incorrect at best, and racist at worst. The app pulls data from 911 calls, but not all information in those dispatches are verified, which can be cause for false concern.
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