The Citizen App is building a paranoid, profitable future.
6 min read

The Citizen App is building a paranoid, profitable future.

And to be honest, I have a very bad feeling about this.
The Citizen App is building a paranoid, profitable future.

(Die deutsche Version findet ihr hier.)

There is a new kind of social platform gaining momentum and it sneaked under my radar. See, I'm just a bloke from good old Europe that publishes ideas and half-baked thoughts about how to not totally fuck up this great social experiment called civilization, so that shouldn't really surprise anyone. Most of the time I have very sensitive filters for every new kid on the social media block because whatever cultural, digital, and societal shift happens in the US, it's probably a good indicator of what is going to happen over here with a slight delay.

And this one gave me some decent stomach ulcers.

Think about every negative social aspect that Alex Jones, Breitbart, Fox News and right-wing propelled hate speech has brought to the world, multiply it with 1 million and you get a slight idea of what a society could look like if these new fear-based networks are getting real traction. Maybe you already guessed it.

Yep. We are screwed.

Citizen is a crime-reporting app that is growing a user base of freaked-out customers. It wants to scale to a „vertically integrated, 24-hour news-and-reporting network for crime, which, by offering constant notifications, live media, and premium protection services, including in-person private security, (and) hopes to monetize the fears of an uncertain public.“ It's building a paranoid, profitable future. And the monetization part is what scares me the most.

„The app has been notorious almost since its inception. On Citizen, which disseminates frequent notifications drawn from police scanners, user reports, and other sources, one can feel as if danger is ever lurking, from violent crime to fires to exploding manhole covers. The app is purportedly designed to promote safety and situational awareness, but it creates something else: paranoia and uncertainty.“

„To the man who is afraid, everything rustles.“
— Sophocles

Right now, the Citizen userbase is nothing compared to a social network behemoth like Facebook, which hit 2.8 billion active users in Q1/2021. But just think about it for a brief second: What would happen if the Citizen network is gaining momentum and scales up to maybe just one-thousandth the number of active Facebook users? Even then the social impact would be devastating.

Imagine that close to 3 million self-styled true crime detectives would roam the cities and neighborhoods, driven by Fomo-hope of turning their private investigations into cash through the widest possible reach and a constant stream of attention-grabbing „crime stories“. Whether this news is right or wrong is secondary. And so is the resentment that is stirred up against marginalized groups and socially already stigmatized parts of the population.

„Oh, see this black person over there? I don’t know his face. Does he even belong in this neighborhood? He looks suspicious, maybe he is concocting something right now? There MUST be something to it! Let’s chase him down!“

Fortunately, no one has died yet as a result of the Citizen's investigative hunches. But it almost happened.

Wait, that sounds kind of familiar.

I was born and raised in Germany and I can't help but see a connection to the past: the machinations of the Gestapo and the Stasi.

Both were state institutions responsible for the control and surveillance of citizens. Anyone who expressed criticism of the system in public during this time, or who only aroused suspicion of thinking or plotting something wrong, disappeared into the torture prisons of these services. The perfidious thing about the surveillance services' system was the network of informers they operated. Every citizen could — and some were forced by extortion — help with the surveillance of his fellow men. Successful informers who were loyal to the system were rewarded with various bonuses; they were promoted in their jobs or given priority in car purchases (which could take up to 15 years in the former GDR). Thus, every citizen was suspected of being an informer himself. This part of our country's history was a period full of subliminal fear and permanent mistrust, even towards members of one's own family, friends, or spouse.

Drawing comparisons with past events or even parallels is always to be done with caution because one must never disregard the context. Of course, these two former German authorities cannot be directly compared to what the app Citizen does or could do. What I want to show are two examples from the recent past of this country, with the help of which the effects can be illustrated when large parts of the population are themselves part of the surveillance system.

Our present society has entered a phase that is unprecedented in human history. Today, it is possible for a handful of private companies to guide and manipulate people's social discourse and socio-cultural development not only within a country but on a global scale. And it has already been shown multiple times that the constant drumbeat of fear-based, adrenal media can have a very real and ugly impact on reality and people’s life.

In my view, we have reached the point where these networks have to take responsibility. Can this be something like a digital version of the International Court of Justice in The Hag? Maybe. Unfortunately, the scope of this institution is still insufficient today.

So, I come up with three ideas on how to deal with this upcoming nightmare. Feel free to share your own thoughts and ideas about what could be a proper reaction to a network like Citizen.

1. Change the monetization model

I believe that the monetization model that underlies most of the current digital services is a real system failure. The autonomous AI that is often blamed for its hate speech-boosting job in the background and crafting our timelines accordingly act only as an amplifier of symptoms. It is working that way because of the parameters that we have set. People's attention is sold to advertisers and the more people's attention a company can bundle and activate, the higher the advertising revenue. But what if the tables were simply turned? Why can't I as a user be paid for giving away MY attention and thus my lifetime? Impossible to imagine?

Or if to stay with Citizen's example, the person who is „rewarded“ is not the one who posts the most stories and messages and has the greatest engagement, but the one who has actually contributed to the completion of real crimes? Just a thought.

2. Respond with a counter-network

Okay, maybe I'm a little naive now, but I still want to believe that the best remedy against disinformation is broadly distributed counterinformation. The trick is to land in people's minds with enough critical and factually based counter-arguments about an issue, i.e. to use exactly the network effects that in their negative form contribute precisely to undermining democracies worldwide. How to do that? I have no idea. Maybe it doesn’t even work.

As I said, perhaps I'm thinking too naively. If the open market regulates the balance of supply and demand, then the content that achieves a higher level of group acceptance always prevails. Reduced mental models, negative information, and extremist beliefs spread more easily than „reality-stuff“, which is usually somewhat more differentiated, multi-layered, and not always quite so clear (and sometimes just plain boring). People also have an insatiable appetite for entertainment and „good stories“, whether through fear or exaggeration. The reality, as true as it sometimes is, is usually a rather banal thing.

A critical, well-informed counter-public can be an excellent tool against the dismantling of our fundamental values. And I'm not talking about schools or parenting or education. I'm talking about the images we model, about direct contact and dialogue with people. I am talking about critical thinking for oneself, about the ability to admit and endure other opinions. I am talking about the assumption of good faith. I am talking about the behavior of all of us because this is something we can control and change.

3. Shut it down!

I'm really pretty much the last person to approve censorship measures, but there are good reasons as a tolerant society to not accept intolerance. If all of the suggestions are not incentive enough, then we probably have to go thermonuclear and erase these networks. Seriously, it’s time to amp up the game (I’m looking at you, Google and Apple). Developing the technology and infrastructure, then sticking some TOS-notes on it, that literally no one ever reads, sitting back and saying „all fine, the market will take care of it“ is about as contemporary as building a V12 combustion engine into a city SUV at the dawn of what may be the last climate catastrophe of human civilization. It's about time that you, dear tech giants, leave your superficial naivety behind and admit to yourselves that you have been acting politically for a long time. So, kill the Citizen app!

4. Just in case that none of the above will work.

Hi Elon, any updates on Mars resettlement city? Unfortunately, there will be also people on Mars and, to be honest, our planet is fine.

The people are fucked.

(Image credit: Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash.)


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