On the hyperlocal social network, where neighbors connect with neighbors, Kasim, who works on health policy and government affairs, came across a post from someone about a supposed new vaccination site in Montgomery County, Maryland, where her family lives. “It had been posted 20 to 30 minutes before — so I jumped on it,” said Kasim, who has been on Nextdoor since well before the pandemic. “I was all happy, jumping up and down, dancing all over my house. I thought, ‘This is so great — one thing off my to-do list.'”
But shortly after booking an appointment through the link — which asked her to provide her mother’s email address, age, cell phone number and maiden name — her father’s “spidey senses” went off. “My dad said, ‘where did you find this link?’ Because it seemed too good to be true. … It seemed a little thin on the details,” she said. “Sure enough, I went back on to Nextdoor and the link was gone.”
“We’ve always known in times of crisis that that’s actually when Nextdoor often really sings as a platform,” said Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar in an interview with CNN Business last month.
But some social media experts are uncomfortable with Nextdoor’s growing influence in communities. Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communication at Syracuse University who is focused on social media, called it “concerning” that people have started “over-relying” on the platform in the absence of fact-checked information reported by local news outlets.
“It is out of necessity but it is not ultimately good for our local communities, for societies, for democracy,” Grygiel said. “The risk is that Nextdoor is starting to serve as a place where people share information without the journalists who go and fact check it, and make sure that that isn’t misinformation. It becomes more like best-intentioned gossip.”
And as Kasim’s case shows, sometimes the gossip is just wrong.
The new king of local news?
“I think [Nextdoor] is really good for editorial around local news,” Friar said in the interview. “What I would never say we are in a position to do, is to be what you do — like fact-checking, really high integrity of a journalist — that is not our business. But the local editorial is important, right? What I love seeing on Nextdoor is someone pulling an article from a local newspaper, like, ‘Hey, they’re gonna put speed bumps on our roads. It’s about time.’ And then you get the back and forth.”
Yet, the platform now finds itself in the position of filling in not just for gaps in local news coverage, but also gaps left by the federal and local governments, as seen in the patchwork online registration process around the vaccine rollout.
“It is unreasonable, unfair, and in my view, unjust, to expect people to become very adept at going to a website and signing up and go through three to four pages before you sign-up, and even if you sign-up, sometimes you can’t save the page, and have to sign-up all over again,” Dr. Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, professor of health communication at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, told CNN Business. “That’s the reason I go to my neighbor, who may say, I went down to the pharmacy and hung around and got a vaccine.”
That only adds to the stakes for how Nextdoor moderates the content users see on its platform, with or without more journalistic tools like fact-checking. It could also make Friar one of the most consequential social media executives of the pandemic era.
‘We’re never going to be perfect’
“If you think the thing you’re going to post is going to be reviewed, people act better,” Friar said.
As with any system, however, it is imperfect and may not deter those who simply don’t work to verify a source, or who are determined in their point of view.
“We do try to be very much on our front foot,” Friar said. “We’re never going to be perfect, but I think we have a unique way of doing it, that other platforms are only starting now to get closer to.”