The Technology 202: Here’s what app downloads reveal about technology’s role in the protests
with Tonya Riley
Data about Americans’ app downloads reveal that technology is transforming the way people protest and witness civil rights demonstrations.
Crime-reporting apps, police scanners, encrypted-messaging and social networks that provide real-time updates about local news surged in popularity over the last week as protests in response to the killing of George Floyd in police custody gripped the nation.
The breakout tech is Citizen, a controversial app that provides alerts sourced from 911 calls and user reports.
People are flocking to the service to see maps of where protesters are gathering, view crowdsourced videos of demonstrations in real-time and track reports of looting in their neighborhoods. In just the past week, the app was downloaded by approximately 620,000 first-time users in the United States, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower. It ranked as high as the fourth-most downloaded app on Apple’s free app chart as of Tuesday, even though it is currently available in just 18 U.S. cities.
“More people have been downloading Citizen than ever before, and I think it’s just a reflection of the new world that we’re in,” Citizen chief executive Andrew Frame said in an interview. “Safety and accountability are becoming more important all the time.”
Americans have more access to real-time information online than ever before – which can be both a blessing and a curse during fast-moving news events.
Americans have had an unprecedented view into the protests this week, as the ubiquity of video cameras on phones and plethora of tools that make everyone a broadcaster transformed the way people watched this historic week of activism unfold. These tools can bring updates into the palms of people’s hands faster than traditional newspapers or cable news – but they’re also rife with unverified claims that can contribute to chaos and fear in uncertain times.
Citizen is grappling with the unique challenges of this moment, especially as it tries to keep up with the surge in users. Experts have warned that the platform is ripe for abuse. Its real-time reporting function can lead to false reports, and like many community reporting tools, there are concerns that people from minority communities could be disproportionately targeted on the service.
Frame tells me he’s addressing this by ensuring that human moderators review all user-generated content shared on Citizen.
“All of our user generated content is monitored 24/7,” he said.
Citizen – like some social networks – enables many people to share video from their phones of a protest or an event in real-time. Though that can be positive for the demonstrators in bringing attention to the protests and allowing them to capture any police misconduct, it also comes with privacy risks, especially as law enforcement uses video footage to track the unfolding events.
Frame said Citizen has no partnerships with law enforcement, but he acknowledges that the service is public, so anyone – police included – can access it. “The reason the protests erupted was because of camera footage capturing an injustice,” Frame said. “And so cameras can protect people as much as they can harm people.”
“For the most part, the protesters and the users are finding the cameras incredibly valuable, especially for the protection and accountability,” he said.
Here are some of the other apps that are surging in downloads this week, based on data from Sensor Tower.
Twitter’s popularity is spiking as people continue to seek real-time updates about the protests.
Twitter has long been a staple of protests — dating to the company’s early days during the Arab Spring. About 5.7 million people downloaded it for the first time around the world in recent days, sending it up the App Store rankings. Twitter was ranked No. 11 among top free iPhone apps in the U.S. App Store yesterday, up from No. 23 the week prior.
The Black Lives Matter movement has heavily utilized Twitter, and it was widely used to document the demonstrations that broke out nearly six years ago in Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown. However the app has changed significantly since then. At the time, you couldn’t use Twitter to capture, edit and post videos – the company rolled that feature out in 2015, after the events in Ferguson pushed it to develop those features. Live-streaming, which has been heavily used to document the protests in real-time, wasn’t incorporated directly in Twitter until 2016. Video is a much more powerful medium to document the protests than 140 characters or even photos in many instances, changing how people around the world are experiencing these events as they unfold.
Yet Twitter has struggled with misinformation related to the protests. Earlier this week, my colleagues reported how false claims about communications outages in Washington began to trend on the social network.
Protestors are embracing encrypted messaging to communicate securely.
The encrypted-communications app Signal has particularly has boomed as protesters try to evade law enforcement surveillance as they communicate about the logistics of where and when they’re protesting.
Some 135,000 first-time users in the United States in the United States have downloaded Signal over the past seven days. This figure represents growth of 165 percent from the previous week.
“Clearly the increased use of Signal shows a response from protesters and the population at large as a defense mechanism, reacting to the evaporation of anonymity,” Ilia Siatitsa, a lawyer and privacy advocate at the London-based non-profit Privacy International, told Quartz.
Signal appears to be leaning into this role, and it is rolling out features that could specifically be useful to protesters, such as a tool to blur faces in photos amid widespread concerns about police using facial recognition.
Police scanning apps are having a moment.
5-0 Radio Police Scanner and Scanner Radio are two of the most popular, as people turn to the apps to have real-time updates about police movements during the protests and stay on top of potential crime in their neighborhoods amid reports of looting. These offer a far less curated experience than Citizen, but can be useful to accessing raw information from law enforcement. Of course, police often respond to calls or incidents that are not significant, so some have cautioned that listening too closely can be anxiety-inducing and also lead to fears about unverified incidents. More than 1.3 million first-time users combined have downloaded the apps in the past week.
Social networking gets more local as people seek updates in their communities.
The hyperlocal social network Nextdoor has been downloaded 85,000 times by first-time users in the United States over the past seven days across the App Store and Google Play. This is an uptick of about 26 percent from the previous week. Neighbors by Ring, a social network for Ring security camera users is also seeing a surge, as a broad network of cameras throughout the country is being used to monitor protests, as my colleagues Heather Kelly and Rachel Lerman have previously reported.
These social networks can let people know what’s happening down to their block. In my own neighborhood in Washington, people are using the service to communicate about peaceful demonstrations and share updates on store closings. But law enforcement also is watching these networks, as Sarah Emerson has reported for OneZero, raising privacy concerns.
Everyone has a role to play in stopping falsehoods from spreading online, especially in the absence of aggressive action from lawmakers or the major tech platforms. My colleague Geoffrey Fowler has a guide of helpful tips out today about how you can prevent yourself from being a tool in the information wars – during the protests and beyond.
Our top tabs
YouTube is age-restricting news videos of George Floyd’s death.
The video platform requires users to sign in to their Google accounts to verify they are at least 18 years old before viewing the content, Rachel Lerman reports. The company added the warning to news videos uploaded by The Washington Post, the New York Times and NBC News earlier this week.
YouTube has long struggled to police how children use its service. The company’s current policies state that it age restricts content that have violence, disturbing imagery, nudity and harmful language.
“With 500 hours of video being uploaded on YouTube every minute, we rely on a combination of technology and humans to review videos,” YouTube spokesperson Farshad Shadloo said in a statement. “Sometimes content doesn’t violate our policies, but may not be appropriate for all audiences.”
But activists still say the company doesn’t go far enough to weed out hate speech and extremist content. Just this week, activists at Change the Terms pointed out that YouTube had allowed a live stream advocating for an armed response against protesters to remain up. (It was taken down Thursday.)
— Change The Terms (@changeterms) June 4, 2020
Facebook will begin identifying content from state-controlled media ahead of the 2020 election.
The labels will appear over the next week, according to a company blog. Later this summer, the company said it will begin blocking ads from foreign state-controlled media targeted at U.S. users “to provide an extra layer of protection against various types of foreign influence…ahead of the November 2020 election.”
Lawmakers praised Facebook’s move, saying it would help curb foreign interference in the upcoming election.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) called it “an important step to helping users stay vigilant against potential attempts by foreign adversaries to shape strategic narratives or spread disinformation under the guise of ‘independent’ journalism.”
Facebook and Twitter faced a reckoning over how to moderate state-controlled media when the companies discovered coordinated influence campaigns from state media in China last August. Twitter banned state-media ads in response. Facebook announced it would begin labeling state-run media accounts in October but delayed the release of the labels.
Facebook is still grappling with the fallout of its decision not to moderate President Trump’s inflammatory posts. One employee who quit over the decision spoke out in an interview:
Amazon reversed a decision to block the sale of a self-published coronavirus e-book after Elon Musk slammed the company on Twitter.
The Tesla chief executive joined an online chorus of critics who blasted the retailer’s decision, going so far as to call for Amazon to be broken up. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Time to break up Amazon. Monopolies are wrong!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 4, 2020
Conservative Alex Berenson tweeted that his booklet blasting the government for shutting down during the coronavirus crisis and the media’s coverage of the virus was banned early Thursday morning. Amazon spokeswoman Sarah Elison told Jay Greene that the book was originally removed in error.
But the company’s initial response to Berenson cited the company’s policies around referring customers to official health sources for coronavirus information. Berenson is not a doctor or a scientist, and some health-care professionals have challenged his claims about the pandemic.
The reinstatement of the book highlights a growing culture war over the government’s handling of the coronavirus, a debate in which Musk has become a symbol for reopening the country.
Conservatives who allege that the tech companies censor their views have also called for breakups of the tech monopolies.
Musk didn’t weigh in on Twitter after the reversal, but he did have this to say in response to a fan’s request that he start his own social media platform:
Jack is doing his best. I support him.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 4, 2020
The digital race to 2020
Chinese and Iranian hackers targeted the personal Gmail accounts of staffers in the Biden and Trump campaigns, Google revealed yesterday.
While there’s no indication of whether the hacking attempts were successful, it’s a potent warning that both countries are gearing up to disrupt the 2020 election, Matt Viser, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima report.
The hackers could be seeking to gain insights into the campaign or trying to obtain material to interfere in the elections, as the Russians did in 2016 when they hacked the personal email of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
“We are aware of reports from Google that a foreign actor has made unsuccessful attempts to access the personal email accounts of campaign staff,” the Biden campaign said in a statement. “We have known from the beginning of our campaign that we would be subject to such attacks and we are prepared for them.”
“Officials from the [Republican National Committee] have recently participated in briefings where we have been informed that foreign actors have made unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the technology of our staff members,” RNC spokesman Mike Reed said.
Hackers tied to Iran also went after campaign email accounts believed to belong to the Trump campaign last fall, Microsoft said at the time.
A trio of senators is criticizing AT&T for giving its own content an advantage by exempting it from streamers’ data caps.
AT&T told the Verge that HBO Max is paying for the streamed data, instead of having the data usage count toward users. But because AT&T is a parent company of HBO Max, the senators say the company is essentially paying itself while making consumers less inclined to stream rivals.
It’s the kind of scenario that advocates of net neutrality, which prevents Internet providers from prioritizing their own content, warned about when the Federal Communications Commission rolled back the order in 2018.
“This practice of allowing one arm of your company to ‘pay’ another arm of your company for preferential treatment attempts to mask its true impact,” Democratic Sens. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) wrote in a letter to AT&T provided to the Verge. “The Trump FCC may have gutted critical net neutrality protections, but AT&T nonetheless has a responsibility to avoid any policies or practices that harm consumers and stifle competition.”
Rant and rave
A measurement you never knew you needed. Writer Lizzie O’Leary:
Somehow in the middle of everything, pregnancy apps continue to be insane. pic.twitter.com/AmBCNqri8u
— Lizzie O’Leary (@lizzieohreally) June 4, 2020
Apple will offer coronavirus testing to employees who return to the office.
Some employees, including members of the company’s executive team, have already returned to campus, Mark Gurman at Bloomberg News reports. Testing is optional, but workers will be required to wear masks, and the company has closed a number of kitchens.
More coronavirus news:
- The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing, titled “COVID-19 Fraud: Law Enforcement’s Response to Those Exploiting the Pandemic,” for June 9 at 10 a.m.
- George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics will host a virtual forum on the coronavirus and social media disinformation on June 16 at 10 a.m.
Before you log off
Check in with your friends this weekend. Stay safe and we will see you on Monday.
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