Arlington, VA

When it was founded, the Arlington Neighbors Helping Each Other Through COVID-19 Facebook group was an uplifting place where local residents could ask for help, share information, and connect with one another.

Now, as with just about any online forum of a certain size, the events of 2020 have darkened the skies over the formerly sunny space.

Contentious arguments break out, public shaming is a common occurrence, and at least one member had her employer contacted by someone upset at a post.

Granted, there are still plenty of heartwarming, helpful and innocuous posts. In fact, there are more posts than most people can keep track of — everything from school opening discussions to questions about car dealerships. But the darker side of online forums has nonetheless crept in.

“I think that there has been an increase in divisiveness,” conceded Kellen MacBeth, co-founder of the group, which now has more than 11,000 members. “It is likely driven by several factors — the increased size of the group and that the ‘coming together’ attitude that characterized March and much of April has been wearing off.”

“When the pandemic first hit, people were scared, searching for answers, and ready to help each other survive,” MacBeth continued. “Now that it’s become a somewhat ‘regular’ threat, people have settled back into routines less focused on getting through a crisis as a community and more so just trying to live life in this new normal. We also saw that as the size of the group increased, you inevitably get trolls and other people who join and don’t share the group’s values.”

The divisiveness isn’t just about the group’s size and the pandemic’s progression, though. It’s also about the many unknowns still surrounding COVID-19, leading to a cacophony of competing warnings and indignations, as well as the politicization of the virus. And it’s about those other big 2020 news stories: the Black Lives Matter movement and mass protests, and a heated presidential election.

Even though Arlington is a progressive stronghold, with social justice signs common even in the yards of the county’s more conservative neighborhoods, BLM-related posts in particular seem to frequently lead to online confrontation.

Last week Arlington Magazine published an essay by local resident Olamide Goke-Pariola, who recounted the vitriol she faced while “talking about racial justice and challenging my mostly white neighbors to think critically about their role in white supremacy” in the group.

“They consistently dismissed my lived experience,” she wrote. “One neighbor even told me my comments were ‘noise.'”

The “Arlington Neighbors” group is not alone in turning into a dumpster fire at times, however.

Things got so bad at the popular Fairlington Appreciation Society neighborhood Facebook group, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, that its moderators shut it down for good. Before it closed, the group hosted battle royales on posts about social justice, with online shouting matches that were a digital counterpart to the battle over signs on a bridge playing out in the physical world nearby.

Even the usually chipper Mothers of North Arlington email listserv started to see moms turning on one another. The group faced accusations that it was dismissive of calls for social justice during the George Floyd protests and that it deleted a Black woman’s Facebook post on the subject.

ARLnow has seen its own share of added divisiveness. A half dozen commenters have been permanently banned for a pattern of racist comments over the past couple of months. Others have been placed on comment timeouts for engaging in extended flame wars. And there has been an uptick in criticism of our articles, with commenters on the site and Facebook questioning our coronavirus reporting and savaging our reporting about multiple COVID-19 cases at a private swim club.

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Morning Notes

Online Forums Devolve into Shouting Matches — Falls Church News-Press columnist Charlie Clark writes about how a Nextdoor post about kids not wearing masks during a baseball game erupted into a barrage of insults and debates among neighbors. Nextdoor is not alone in becoming a forum for heated local debates on hot button issues: last month the popular Fairlington Appreciation Society Facebook group shut down after flame wars broke out over issues related to the Black Lives Matter protests. [Falls Church News-Press]

Virtual ‘Arlington Cares’ Event Tomorrow — “This free, virtual event will recognize the 2020 Community Service Award Winners and remind us of the importance of serving others. A heartwarming opportunity for all ages that will celebrate the overwhelming goodness that is within our community.” [Event Calendar]

Reduction in Homelessness Prior to Pandemic — “For the 20th consecutive year, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) Homeless Services Planning and Coordinating Committee has conducted a regional Point-in-Time (PIT) enumeration of the area’s residents experiencing homelessness and those who were formerly homeless. This year’s enumeration and survey occurred on January 22, 2020. Arlington saw a 7-percent reduction in overall homelessness, down from 215 persons in 2019 to 199 in 2020.” [Arlington County]

More Flood Damage in Waverly Hills — “After countless floods in Arlington’s Waverly Hills neighborhood soaked his basement, Tom Reich finally ordered a custom-made waterproof door to protect his home’s bottom level.
On Tuesday, the day before it was scheduled to arrive, yet another storm dumped buckets of rain on the region — and especially on 18th Street North. There, overwhelmed storm water mains sent three feet of water coursing down the street.” [Washington Post]

Beyer Furious at Response to Shooting Inquiry — “‘For nearly three years Bijan Ghaisar’s family and community have sought answers from federal authorities about why these officers killed Bijan and what consequences they will face. This response which tells us nothing after an eight-month delay is an insult to the people we represent,’ said [Rep. Don] Beyer. ‘The contempt such a pathetic answer shows for public transparency and accountability is unacceptable and will further damage the standing of the U.S. Park Police at a time when the region’s trust in them is already at an all-time low.'” [House of Representatives]

Report Businesses Flouting the Rules, Gov. Says — “As Virginia starts seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Ralph Northam reiterated Friday what has become a familiar message about limiting crowds, washing hand frequently and wearing face coverings. But he added a new fourth point: Report businesses flouting the rules to the local health department.” [InsideNova]

Freddie’s Closes Temporarily — “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to close temporarily. One of our employees has tested positive for COVID-19. We are actively reaching out to customers and staff who may have been in contact since Wednesday July 8. We are beginning the process to have the restaurant fully sanitized so we may safely reopen as soon as possible.” [Facebook]

Nearby: MoCo Starting School Year Online — “Montgomery County students will begin the next academic year online, with a phased approach to bring them back to school buildings part-time by the end of November, according to the school district’s draft plan released Saturday.” [Bethesda Magazine]

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Morning Notes

Lopez’s Dream Act Passes House — “In a landmark session, the Virginia House of Delegates today voted for the first time to approve HB 1547, a bill which would expand in-state tuition eligibility to undocumented students at Virginia’s public colleges and universities. The bill, also known as the Virginia Dream Act, was introduced by Delegate Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington) and passed after many years of advocacy and hard work.” [Press Release]

One-Time Arlington Startup Founder Convicted — “A jury convicted CommuniClique founder and former CEO Andy Powers of six out of eight counts Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The jury found Powers guilty on three counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud, according to court documents… Powers was based for years in Reston and Arlington before moving to Los Angeles in August 2018 as the head of what he billed as a communications and tech platform.” [Washington Business Journal]

New Funding for Local Startup — “The Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) today announced that CIT GAP Funds has invested in Arlington, VA-based HyperQube, a cyber range as a service offering that enables enterprises to quickly and easily build an exact copy of any IT infrastructure.” [Globe Newswire via Potomac Tech Wire]

FYI Tipsters: We Can’t Open Nextdoor Links — Here at ARLnow, we appreciate everyone who emails us or sends us anonymous tips about possible stories. Recently, tipsters have started frequently sending us anonymous tips that link to a post on Nextdoor. The problem is: Nextdoor is a private, neighborhood-based social network and we can’t open the links. Please send us screenshots of posts instead.

Nearby: Falls Church Fire Cause — “Yesterday’s house fire at 400 S. Oak Street was accidental. ‘It’s not confirmed, but the cause could be a space heater plugged into an electrical power strip,’ said [fire official Henry] Lane. ‘If so, this is part of a bad national trend. Power strips cannot handle the demands of a space heater. People should plug them directly into an outlet.’ The damage to the property is valued at $150,000.” [City of Falls Church]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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The Arlington County Police Department has a new social media platform over which it can share information directly with residents.

The department is partnering which Nextdoor, a neighborhood-oriented social networking site built to connect residents in specific communities across the country.

“I believe this particular program offers unique opportunities we haven’t had in the past,” Arlington Police Chief Jay Farr said in a press conference Wednesday. “This is going to allow us to focus specifically on neighborhoods and concerns in those neighborhoods that are of interest to that particular community.”

However, Nextdoor is not new to Arlington County. According to the company, 73 of Arlington’s civic associations — about 88 percent of neighborhoods — are already represented on the network, and many have been for a few years.

For example, Marcia Burgos-Stone started a Nextdoor page for Columbia Forest shortly after she moved there.

“I wanted to know who my neighbors were, but I moved in and I didn’t really see, talk to or meet any of them,” she said. “It’s a way to help people out, plan social activities and share information. It brings people together.”

ACPD’s district teams will use Nextdoor to share crime and safety information with residents in specific neighborhoods. The department already does that by communicating with civic associations, condo associations and local email listservs, and Nextdoor is seen as another tool for getting information out to the public.

According to Nextdoor Senior City Strategist Joseph Porcelli, the department will operate on Nextdoor for Public Agencies, an interface specifically for government agencies that is also free.

“The interface allows the department to post messages to one, many or all of the neighborhoods in the county, and they can use that to inform residents about things that are happening in those neighborhoods,” Porcelli said. “There can also be a dialogue and conversation around that because it’s individual members of the departments who will be posting.”

Chief Farr emphasized Nextdoor will not be monitored 24/7 and it should not replace calling the police non-emergency line (703-558-2222) to report suspicious activity or 911 in case of an emergency.

Since residents must verify their address in order to join a neighborhood’s page, police officers and officials will not be able to see what residents post on the site — unless they’re specifically replying to a police post or including ACPD in a post.

The “neighborhood watch” functionality of Nextdoor — discussing crime and suspicious activity — is one of its most-touted features, but it has also subjected the company to criticism. Concerns about racial profiling on the site have bubbled up over the past year, in places like Oakland, California and Seattle, Washington. The phenomenon is not exclusive to Nextdoor — around the same time, some businesses in Georgetown were also accused of racial profiling on a different sharing app.

Chief Farr said the department will deal with such issues, if any arise, the same way it does on its other information-sharing platforms.

“Just like in the way you can post anything you want on our Facebook page or on our Twitter page, we don’t erase the negative comments, but we don’t engage in the negative commenting,” he said.

Porcelli said Nextdoor is aware of the issue and is working to combat it.

“We consider any kind of profiling absolutely unacceptable, and we take actions to address that with members who choose to participate in that way,” he said. “We’re working with our product to experiment with new ways to help people make sure what they’re communicating on the platform is neighborly, respectful and constructive.”

Porcelli noted that Nextdoor employees don’t monitor neighborhood activity, but said all members have the ability to flag messages they think are inappropriate. “Nextdoor leads” –neighborhood page founders and power users — also have the opportunity to remove such conversations.

At least in the case of Columbia Forest, Burgos-Stone said she hasn’t seen that kind of activity on the site.

“People are people, and people behave in certain ways, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the website,” she said. “I think it’s more important that people will feel safer and have accurate information when it comes to any kind of police activity in our area. Accurate information is the best information.”

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Morning Notes

Arlington House at dawn (Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf)

County Apologizes for Political Facebook Post — Arlington County has taken down and apologized for a Facebook post that some called inappropriate. “No support or endorsement was intended” the county said of the post, which linked to an article about an Arlington County Democratic Committee resolution calling for a change to the Washington Redskins team name. [Facebook]

Arlington to Partner with Nextdoor — The Arlington County Police Department will be holding a press conference Wednesday afternoon to announce a partnership with Nextdoor, a private social network for neighborhoods. The partnership will help “build stronger, safer communities with the help of Arlington residents.” Nextdoor has been criticized recently for becoming “a bastion of racial profiling.”

Bluemont Residents Concerned About Big Ballston Development — The Bluemont Civic Association is expressing concern over a massive proposed development on the western side of the intersection of N. Glebe Road and Wilson Blvd. The development proposal calls for 483 apartments in a building with a grocery store and other ground floor retail. [Curbed]

Arlington-Built Satellite Blasts Off to Space Station — A tiny satellite built by elementary students at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington is part of the cargo of a rocket that launched into orbit Sunday, bound for the International Space Station. [CBS News, Space.com]

‘Arlington Tech’ School Proposal — The Arlington School Board has signaled that it’s ready to move forward with the establishment of “Arlington Tech,” a high-technology coursework initiative to be located at the Arlington Career Center. [InsideNova]

Anti-Hunger Effort Draws Big Crowd — More than 1,000 people gathered at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center gym over the weekend to put together 100,000 meals for starving children around the world. [NBC Washington]

Arlington’s Official Song Turns 45 — “Arlington,” the official song of Arlington County, recently turned 45 years old. The song was written by a local clergyman and adopted as the county’s official song in 1970 with the encouragement of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. [Arlington County]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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