Nextdoor Has Stopped Recommending Political Groups to Users

Another social network slowly backs away from political groups after the U.S. Capitol riot

Nextdoor recently stopped recommending political groups to its users, OneZero has learned. The company had not publicly disclosed this change, but confirmed it when asked on Wednesday.

“We stopped allowing political groups in the main feed in mid-January,” Nextdoor spokesperson Edie Campbell-Urban told me via email. “The change is permanent.”

The move is significant because the company’s guidelines prohibit posts or threads about national politics in the main feed, so groups are the primary forum for these discussions.

Previously, Nextdoor regularly recommended political and other groups to all users in a module titled “Groups Near You” that appears periodically in the main feed.

Eliminating political groups from those recommendations signals an effort by Nextdoor to further distance itself from politics and reinforce its identity as a “neighborly” network where people connect over everyday needs, hobbies, and local issues rather than political causes or ideologies. It may also point to an emerging trend of social networks pulling back on political group recommendations in the wake of the U.S. Capitol riot. Facebook announced a similar move last week.

Political groups have not been banned from the platform, however, and can still be found among the menu of local groups in the “Groups” tab of the app. Groups on Nextdoor can be either public or private, as on Facebook.

Nextdoor has tens of millions of users and has grown during the pandemic. It is reportedly considering going public at a valuation of $5 billion. I wrote last week about how it has become a force in local politics, filling some of the vacuum left by the contraction of local newspapers, even as it tries to eschew national politics. The company relies on unpaid local volunteers, called neighborhood leads, to moderate these sometimes-contentious conversations.

Nextdoor told me the move to stop recommending political groups was not prompted by any particular event or political development, and was simply about making sure the app feels welcoming to all. There may be truth to that. For example, a screenshot shared with OneZero by a third party showed how a new Nextdoor user moving to a right-leaning city was greeted with recommendations to join a slew of pro-Trump and anti-liberal groups, which might be a turnoff to a left-leaning user.

But the move also came at a time of heightened media scrutiny of various social media platforms in the wake of the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6. In the weeks after the insurrection, private groups on Facebook and other platforms were identified as hubs for right-wing organizing and conspiracy movements such as QAnon and Stop the Steal. On January 13, The Verge’s Makena Kelly reported that some of Nextdoor’s moderators had been pushing the company for months to explicitly ban QAnon content, and had been frustrated by what they perceived as the company’s failure to crack down on the movement. Recode’s Rebecca Heilweil had previously reported in October 2020 that QAnon groups were flourishing on Nextdoor ahead of the presidential election.

On the same day the Verge story ran, Nextdoor published a blog post strengthening and clarifying its moderation policies for groups, focusing on those that promote violence or misinformation. It did not mention any changes to its policies around political groups more broadly. Campbell-Urban declined to say exactly when it stopped recommending political groups, but it appears to have been shortly thereafter.

Two weeks later, on January 27, Facebook made headlines when CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced it would no longer recommend political groups to users. “This is a continuation of work we’ve been doing for a while to turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversations,” Zuckerberg said at the time. The Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Horwitz reported this week that Facebook knew that its push to make groups a core part of the network was enabling extremist organizers and is now reassessing the entire product in the aftermath of the Capitol riots.

Asked how it distinguishes political groups from other neighborhood groups, Nextdoor said it is using a combination of internal moderation, reporting by users and moderators, and keyword blocking, a rudimentary form of automated moderation that simply looks at whether a group uses certain words that Nextdoor has flagged as likely to indicate a political focus. That patchwork approach suggests the blocking of political groups from recommendations is likely to be imperfect. Motivated users may try to evade the ban by forming political groups with euphemistic, coded, or innocuous-sounding names, a strategy that has worked even on platforms with more sophisticated moderation systems.

Identifying and discouraging political content has already proved a challenge for Nextdoor. Last year it faced criticism because its moderators were deleting posts related to the Black Lives Matter movement as violations of its prohibition on discussions of national politics. Nextdoor responded by explicitly categorizing Black Lives Matter posts as local in nature and directing moderators to allow them.

Nextdoor is hardly the only social platform that’s struggling to keep political controversy at arm’s length. TikTok and Twitter have banned political advertising, and YouTube demonetizes “sensitive” and “controversial” content. Nextdoor may have an advantage over some of these platforms in that its localized networks naturally limit both the size of groups and the potential for posts to go viral.

My own quick review of Nextdoor’s available groups in two different cities turned up relatively few political groups, and none with more than 1,000 members. The largest groups available to Nextdoor users in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood appeared to be “Free Stuff,” with 5,374 members, and “Chicago Buy Sell Trade or Giveaway,” with 2,342 members. The largest group with an even tangentially political topic appeared to be a private group called “Chicago Anti-Racism on Nextdoor,” with 1,207 members.

Still, a quick Twitter search makes it clear that divisive groups exist on the platform. One user noticed a “Straight Pride” group in their town, while another found “a bunch of conspiracy groups” as recently as January 31, and suggested that some were QAnon-affiliated. In some cases, Nextdoor’s Twitter account has responded to those Twitter complaints, asking for more information so the company can investigate.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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