Community Matters: Nextdoor harms local democracy

Much of the misinformation floating upon the local Nextdoor platform emanates from this community’s strong anti-development faction, says Argus-Courier columnist John Burns.|

“We are taking active measures to reduce the spread of misinformation.”

--From Nextdoor’s policy statement

As Congressional lawmakers hear damning testimony on how Facebook’s amplification of election misinformation helped foment the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, little attention is focused on how another Bay Area social media company, Nextdoor, may have played a similar role in negatively impacting the 2020 Petaluma City Council election.

Internal company documents provided by whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen have exposed the social media giant’s failure to safeguard its users from hateful, deceptive content that helped drive Donald Trump supporters to assault scores of Capitol police officers while attempting to halt the constitutionally mandated certification of President Biden’s election victory.

Facebook documents also show the company was aware of extremist groups that were using its site to spread misinformation and hate speech aimed at polarizing American voters before the Presidential election.

Local resident Diana Gomez says Petaluma’s Nextdoor platform was similarly exploited to spread misinformation and vitriol in the months leading up to the city council election one year ago. Many false or misleading statements regarding certain city council candidates on Nextdoor, she says, interfered with the local election process in direct violation of the company’s stated policy.

Gomez, who spent decades working as a prosecutor in the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, had volunteered to be a neighborhood moderator on the local Nextdoor site whose “community guidelines” emphasize the importance of being respectful and not using hateful language. When Nextdoor users reported comments they felt violated these guidelines, moderators were expected to vote on whether the offending comment should be removed.

But in the months immediately preceding last November’s city council election, Gomez was troubled to see that many of her fellow moderators were not acting in an unbiased fashion to consistently and fairly enforce Nextdoor rules. Several fellow moderators, she says, had shown their support for candidates Brian Barnacle, Dennis Pocekay and Lizzie Wallack who were challenging the three incumbents: Mike Healy, Kathy Miller and Gabe Kearney. Gomez says those same moderators used their Nextdoor positions to promote the candidates they favored.

They did this, she says, by quickly removing posts critical of the challengers while allowing false or misleading posts about the city council incumbents to remain on the site. Cyberbullying, she says, was rampant.

“Allowing this hateful political discourse to go on unfettered was a disservice to the community,” Gomez told me.

Much of the offending election comments on Nextdoor amplified or expanded upon Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett’s pre-election attack on three city council colleagues who were running for re-election. Barrett had stated, without any evidence, that her colleagues were bought and paid for by building developers and implied they were so busy lining their pockets with campaign donations from developers that they had entirely forsaken the search for “viable traffic solutions, flood protection or adequate recreational facilities.”

This deceitful character assassination was loudly amplified on Nextdoor along with a flurry of misstatements regarding the controversial Sid Commons housing development project for which the three incumbents were pilloried for having approved earlier that year. Project opponents falsely claimed on Nextdoor that the solar-electric, middle-income apartment project was located in the flood plain (which it wasn’t) and would decimate an old oak forest when, in fact, every single large tree was to be preserved.

After opponents filed a lawsuit to block the project from being built, a judge ruled that their objections lacked any merit. Remarkably, the lead plaintiff on the suit is Beverly Alexander who also serves as a neighborhood moderator on Petaluma’s Nextdoor. While Alexander is perfectly entitled to express her opposition to proposed building projects, her political stance should have disqualified her as an unbiased moderator of a public forum to debate the development.

Much of the misinformation floating upon the local Nextdoor platform emanates from this community’s strong anti-development faction. Example: Nextdoor posters falsely accused city council member Dave King, who also voted to approve Sid Commons, of being a real estate attorney who allegedly uses his position on the city council to bring direct benefit to his developer clients. In truth, King is a labor law attorney and does not represent building developers.

Local NIMBYs have also used Nextdoor to falsely accuse the M Group--a private planning services firm that processes building development applications under contract with the City of Petaluma—of receiving “bonuses” when a project receives final approval. In actuality, no such kickback structure exists.

But the vast digital magnification of such specious assertions on Nextdoor has bred widespread animosity towards several competent local government officials who have served the public with integrity and dedication.

Just as Facebook was used to help spread Donald Trump’s Big Lie that election fraud had prevented him from being re-elected, local politicos appear to have highjacked the Nextdoor platform to broadcast the false notion that any Petaluma government official who approves a legitimate housing or commercial development application is somehow on the take.

This type of deception, it turns out, is undermining the democratic process here in Petaluma.

To learn more about why this is happening, I contacted Jenny Mayfield, Nextdoor’s director of public affairs, who invited me to send her my questions.

I wanted to know how Nextdoor selects and vets neighborhood moderators to ensure they are unbiased and will properly enforce its policies, particularly posts regarding future local elections. In light of what went wrong here in Petaluma, I wanted to know if Nextdoor was doing anything to fix its misinformation problem.

Ultimately, Mayfield answered none of my questions, instead sending me a blog post entitled “How Moderation Works on Nextdoor.” After reading it over carefully, it became clear that site moderation is fully controlled by local volunteers and that Nextdoor company officials play no active role in determining whether these volunteer moderators are acting fairly and without political bias.

Nextdoor may be a great place to find a lost dog, solicit a recommendation on a good plumber or sell a piece of used furniture.

But because the company is not abiding by its own policies to stop spreading misinformation and hate speech, it’s a terrible place to glean reliable information about local governmental affairs, especially elections.

John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at

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