Nextdoor is supposed to be a forum for discussing neighborhood issues, a place where users can gripe about the potholes not being fixed or the split-bin food scrap program. But some people believe it is devolving into a soapbox for toxic political rhetoric, an echo chamber that stymies political dissidents.
With its Spartan interface and lack of bells and whistles, Nextdoor feels like a 1990s forum, a sort of retro digital salon that appeals to Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers who want a pared-back experience, one without all the white noise of social media. While Nextdoor might not be a colossus like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Tik Tok, its influence in Santa Clara is nevertheless significant, especially among older voters.
District 6 Council Member Anthony Becker and former Santa Clara City Council District 1 candidate Harbir Bhatia know this all too well. Both were suspended from the site during the 2020 election. Both believe their political opponents were attempting to weaponize the site to silence them.
“Nextdoor is actually, basically like mud. It is a swamp of negativity, very one-sided,” Bhatia said. “The people that were willing to get dirty in this swamp, they didn’t have any shame about their tactics.”
Nextdoor suspended Bhatia’s account for “bullying” and deleted her comments during the election last year, and it lifted Becker’s 14-day ban, also for “bullying and belittling others,” a day after the election.
But Becker and Bhatia see themselves as victims, apostates from commonly held political orthodoxy that has dominated local politics since Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s reign began. They believe they have been targeted by the very behavior of which they were accused. Becker said some people on the site just want to “stir the pot .”
Both said they were doing nothing more than defending themselves against attacks that propagated false information about them, something that is supposed to be against Nextdoor’s community guidelines.
“It is supposed to be a place for getting to know your neighbors,” Becker said. “It is a tool that is supposed to be getting people to get together, but it is a troll.”
Becker called the site “moderator friendly,” saying no one monitors how or why moderators opt to give users the boot. There is a mob, he said, that will rally against people with whom they disagree in a “coordinated and sustained way,” people who will intentionally post “provocative messages” to bait opponents into saying something they can latch onto and then go through with a “fine-toothed comb” to report opponents.
“Basically, they just want you to dig yourself a hole,” he said.
Bhatia’s political opponent Council Member Kathy Watanabe, is what Nextdoor calls, a “lead” for the Rivermark neighborhood. Bhatia says that exacerbated the problem when both women were vying for the District 1 Council seat in 2020.
In a text message to The Weekly, Watanabe said she has “not moderated anything on [Nextdoor] in close to 2 years as [she] felt it wasn’t appropriate” since her election, adding that she is “so busy” that she doesn’t have time for moderating as she did in the past. She declined to comment further.
However, Watanabe is still listed on the site as a “lead” for the neighborhood, which means she has the authority to moderate content there.
While Nextdoor is a great resource to connect with people who don’t use social media, Bhatia said there is little clarity surrounding who is banned and why. She said she is a strong believer in self-governance, but the oversight on Nextdoor is abysmal, echoing Becker’s assessment by calling the site “the wild, wild West” that allows those “promoting propaganda” to game the system — so long as they are in the political majority.
“There is no way that they should have the authority or delete your account … As a layman, it seems wrong because they are supposed to listen to the argument,” she said. “You have to have different layers of authority.”
Rob Jerdonek, a Santa Clara resident and member of the Rivermark Nextdoor group, said part of the problem with Nextdoor’s policy is transparency. When it bans users, those users likely have little to no idea why they are being banned — what policy they have supposedly broken — so they are unable to understand how to navigate the minefield of unacceptable discourse.
Political candidates who hold moderator status on Nextdoor should resign that status when running, he said. The Council should, he added, consider requiring council members to disclose any such positions they hold and, perhaps, pledge to resign that authority. Simply saying one is not moderating comments creates its own problem, Jerdonek said, likening the situation to a basketball game without a referee.
“It is not acceptable to claim you are not moderating but you keep the position as lead, because that just leads to chaos,” he said.
Jerdonek confirmed both Becker and Bhatia’s comments on the forum, agreeing with the assessment that the two were doing nothing more than defending themselves against accusations.
Another problem with enforcement, he said, is that Nextdoor removes all of a members’ postings if they are banned. He compared the practice to the way Big Brother rewrites history in “1984.”
“It is like you never existed,” Jerdonek said. “Removing an offending posting is one thing, but removing all posting is a little harsh. There is no justified reason for removing all their previous postings. That is part of the public record, and that is not a fair punishment for the crime.”
Bhatia said she sought insight from Nextdoor on why she was banned but got only terse responses. In an email obtained by The Weekly between Bhatia and Garrett Gonzales, neighborhood management operations manager at Nextdoor, Gonzales told Bhatia she was banned for commenting on the forum’s moderation, which is prohibited by Nextdoor’s guidelines.
He went on to write that “[Watanabe] can be a Lead if she’s moderating within the guidelines. At first glance, she hasn’t voted on any of your content, so it looks like she’s stayed completely out of it.”
The crux of the issue is semantics. How Nextdoor defines subjective terms such as “bullying,” “harassment,” “racism,” “hateful,” “misinformation” and “discrimination” is incredibly important. While Nextdoor is clear that content that violates its policy will get users banned, trying to pin down what those policies are getting at is like opening a Russian doll, with each layer containing another set of ill-defined terms.
For instance, the policy prohibits “racism,” “discrimination” and “hate speech.” However, examining the policies further, one finds a slew of other subjective terms such as “derogatory” or “dehumanizing terms” in defining what those terms mean. The best the policy does is provide examples, not definitions. While it allows promotion of Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, it prohibits discussion of Blue/All Lives Matter if they are “used to diminish racial equity.”
While Nextdoor has updated its policy since the 2020 election, sources for this story said the way enforcement is trending does not bode well for this year’s election.
A representative from Nextdoor declined an interview for this story.