By Spencer Klein
The widely-used app NextDoor features lively discussions about issues pertinent to Mercer Island, such as former city council candidate Joy Langley’s qualifications, bad traffic and the scavenger hunt. However, NextDoor embodies something more dangerous to our community than the free firewood would make it seem.
A couple weeks ago, I created a fake NextDoor account with the name “Marie Degler.” I signed up, found a picture of a middle-aged woman on Google Images as my profile picture and I was ready to go. The first thing I posted was the paragraph that follows: “I just caught my son and his cronies turtle fighting. What a despicable thing! He took my lifelong friend, Gus, and our neighbor’s (Jenny, I am so sorry) and took bets from other students. Make sure your son is NOT participating in this activity.” While the majority of NextDoor users did not believe me, the important thing is that a few actually did. Carole Branom commented, “My brother in Phoenix has two turtles, each about the size of a large dinner plate. Though Tina is ever the little lady, she sparks fury in Tommy whenever he sees her. He tries to roll her over on her back the better to nip at her soft parts. My brother had to build two rock pits to keep them separate, and walks them separately in the back yard. Tina enjoys the outing on the grass but Tommy runs around frantically looking to escape. They can be fast when they want to be. We suspect Tommy was born in the wild, a road scholar as it were, while Tina was gently raised in captivity from the start.” A man messaged me an even longer paragraph about how I had indicted my son, and even sent links to websites describing the jail sentence given for animal abuse. Before my account was revealed as fake, I had convinced at least five adults that turtle fighting was a legitimate problem in our community.
You’re probably thinking that this was an isolated incident. But once I was blocked from NextDoor about ten of my friends found similar success creating fake accounts and posting about similarly absurd things. These posts included warnings about hidden drugs in mole holes, outrage at the phrase “trick or treat,” and the fabrication of a fictional alcoholic beverage known as “Leem” (it is important to note that Leem is a type of soil). Yes, most of these posts were quickly discovered as fake, and the accounts were blocked, but for the short time that the posts were up, a few people believed each one. As with my turtle post, there were actual people agreeing and telling anecdotes about how they’ve heard middle schoolers talking about Leem. While it might seem funny that someone tricked a few adults into believing that kids were getting drunk off soil, it can be dangerous.
What does it say about our community if we can convince part of our decision-making population of insane things, armed with nothing but a stock photo and a generic name? Imagine if we were trying to convince NextDoor of something less insane; for example, the validity of Joy Langley’s Cornell degree. People communicated on NextDoor, refuting the articles published about her degree or supporting their validity. Regardless of which is true, the problem still lingers: people believe what is written on NextDoor. When Langley’s lack of credentials was finally revealed, Daniel Thompson wrote: “Why did it take ND and a blogger to prove this?” By choosing to cite NextDoor instead of the more thoroughly researched article published by the Seattle Times, Thompson’s post reveals a deeper issue. Whether it’s an essay against I-90 tolls or a pot roast recipe, people believe what they read on NextDoor.
In a time when many adults can marginalize CNN and Fox as “fake news,” it is shocking that so many people believe arguments with little to no sources on a local social media website. While some stories on CNN or Fox have little to no bearing on the north Mercer Island community, the falsehoods that are being spread on NextDoor directly affect Mercer Island. Looking at the example of Joy Langley, the fake journalism on NextDoor could affect who sits on city council in the near future.
Phrases like “I heard this thing on NPR” or “I read it on NextDoor” lead to the distribution of misinformation. Because Mercer Island’s older residents grew up in a generation where fake news wasn’t on every Facebook feed, they are less aware of how local and pernicious its effects can be. Parents opining on local issues, just as much as a student writing an English paper, need to be aware of inaccurate sources, especially in a public forum like NextDoor.