What do you do when your social network ends up revealing racism in users' back yards?
That's the problem Nextdoor, a site that connects people who live in the same area, is trying to tackle. Think of Nextdoor as Facebook, but for your neighborhood: People sign up with their address and then share local news, reunite lost puppies with their owners and report potential safety or crime issues.
But Nextdoor has faced criticism for posts from some of the site's more than 10 million registered users that have veered into racial profiling -- especially concerning crime and safety alerts. In some cases, neighbors would flag "suspicious behavior" by noting the race of someone doing something like walking a dog or knocking on doors.
Community groups like Neighbors for Racial Justice in Oakland, Calif., are fighting back by raising awareness about the issue and rallying local leaders.
"All too often, 'suspicious behavior' descriptors racially profile neighbors lawfully going about their business," Oakland City Council Member Annie Campbell Washington wrote in a Facebook post about Nextdoor in January. "This creates harm for our communities and does not provide information that can be followed up on by neighbors or police in any meaningful way. In other words, it's all harm and no benefit."
Nextdoor, which operates formal partnerships with many local police departments, took the complaints to heart.
"As Nextdoor has become one of the places where neighbors talk about how to make their local communities better, it is natural for the issue of race to be discussed and debated," co-founder and chief executive Nirav Tolia wrote in a Wednesday blog post. "But it’s not acceptable when mentions of race take the form of racial profiling."
Over the last year, the site has made changes such as introducing a way to flag posts for racial profiling, explicitly outlawing such behavior in its community guidelines and adding a mandatory warning screen about the issue before users can post messages in their local crime and safety section, Tolia said.
And now Nextdoor has rolled out an entirely new system of checks aimed at weeding out racial profiling across all the 110,000 Nextdoor communities in the country. Posting about crime and suspicious activity is now a multi-step process for users that's more like filing out an actual police report. Nextdoor says the changes have reduced racial profiling posts by 75 percent in the areas where it was tested.
Under the new process, when users try to make a report, they first get a warning that racial profiling is prohibited on the site, explaining that descriptions of hair, clothing, shoes and things like tattoos are useful, but that identifying someone "solely by race is not."
On the section of the form that asks users to describe the person they're reporting, posters who only enter a racial descriptor are prompted to fill out at least two other descriptor fields -- like hair, shoes or clothing -- before they can move forward.
The company started testing the new process this spring after getting input from Oakland officials, Neighbors for Racial Justice and the civic group 100 Black Men and credits the activists for spurring progress.
Nextdoor is far from the only local app or network that has struggled to handle race relations. Last year, The Washington Post reported on how a messaging service developed by the Georgetown Business Improvement District and the D.C. police department prompted secret surveillance of "suspicious" black shoppers in one of the city's most elite neighborhoods.
Big-name social media sites like Twitter have also struggled with racist abuse. "Saturday Night Live" comedian Leslie Jones was temporarily driven from the service earlier this year after a barrage of racist harassment. Other services, such as Airbnb, are working on how to deal with the ways that racial bias affects their platforms.
But while Nextdoor has taken concrete steps to improve its service, it still has work to do. And not everyone involved in the process was totally satisfied.
"We’ve been doing the work of consultants for them, and they’ve been taking it as free, pro-bono, volunteer advice from the community," Audrey Williams, a founding member of Neighbors for Racial Justice, told Buzzfeed. "And we’ve been happy to give it, because it makes our lives better. But over time, it began to feel a bit like exploitation."
Still, Williams said, "it’s a win for us, and it’s a win for them.”