Authorities in Los Angeles announced on May 17 2021 that they had arrested a suspect in an arson investigation, around 48 hours after a “safety” app had posted a photograph falsely identifying a man as the possible culprit.
Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said in a press conference that the fire had not killed anyone or destroyed any homes. However, the blaze displaced hundreds and burned through more than a thousand acres in the Pacific Palisades area within 48 hours of first being reported. Mayor Eric Garcetti said at the same press conference that the fire was at “zero containment.”
On May 15 2021, journalist Cerise Castle reported that the aforementioned “safety” app, which is named Citizen, had offered a $30,000 reward to users who could provide information leading to an arrest.
Castle also reported that while a host on an app encouraged users to “to get out there and bring this guy to justice,” false information presented as “tips” was broadcast on the platform.
Kate Cagle of Spectrum News later reported that Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department officials detained someone whose photograph was allegedly shared on the app in connection with the fire, but let them go, citing a lack of evidence. One official said that the activity on the app was potentially “dangerous.”
Citizen sent a statement to NBC News saying:
Once we realized this error, we retracted the photo and reward offer. Safety has always been, and remains, our top priority. Yesterday, we lost our way. We’ve learned from this, and we will be better. We unequivocally discourage anyone from putting themselves in danger or interfering with first responders’ work, and condemn all forms of violence.
A spokesperson for Citizen sent us a separate statement referring to broadcasts on the platform as “OnAirs,” saying:
During the incident, we received tips that police were searching for a person of interest who may have been responsible for starting the fire, along with a photo of the individual. OnAir is a new product with strict validation protocols, which we failed to follow. We publicly posted the photo and offered a cash reward for information without formal coordination with the appropriate agencies. Once we realized this error, we immediately retracted the photo and reward offer. We are actively working to improve our internal processes to ensure this does not occur again. This was a mistake we are taking very seriously.
Ultimately, the safety of our users is always our top priority. With that in mind, we hold ourselves to the highest editorial standards. We have an extensive set of guidelines developed with feedback from seasoned professionals in media and law enforcement. We take great care to differentiate incidents and describe them accurately and objectively. Further, all user-generated content is monitored by a highly-trained, 24/7 team of moderators.
Citizen has yet to respond to our questions regarding how these moderators are trained, or whether they can identify the people who provided their guidelines, or whether they plan to compensate the person falsely identified by their users on-air.
While references from the fire have allegedly been deleted from the app, Citizen has contined to promote “updates” on the blaze on its Twitter account. Citizen did not respond when we asked why it continued to do this.
The tech news site The Verge reported on May 21 2021 that the app’s founder, Andrew Frame — who allegedly owns a mansion within 10 miles of the fire’s location — offered to pay $10,000 for the capture of the person responsible:
“Let’s find this guy, activate safety network completely,” Frame wrote, according to screenshots of internal Slack messages obtained by The Verge. “This is a great transition of Citizen back to active safety. We are not a news company. We are safety and we make this sort of heinous crime impossible to escape from. That needs to be our mindset.” The bounty was later raised to $30,000.
According to the site, a spokesperson for the app “denied any personal motivation and said Frame’s current residence was not threatened by the fire.” We contacted Citizen asking if Frame was following the app’s purported guidelines when he made that offer; if he will be subject to sanctions from the app if he did not; and if he planned to offer that $10,000 to the person wrongly identified on the app.
The same day that Frame’s involvement in the Pacific Palisades incident was revealed, Vice reported that a vehicle bearing the app’s name was spotted in Los Angeles:
Citizen confirmed the vehicle is part of a pilot program in the city for its employees, but refused to provide any specifics on what the vehicle was for. It appears the vehicle is connected to a private security company that describes itself as a “subscription law enforcement service.”
Vice further reported that Citizen is testing a program allowing users to summon “private security” companies in lieu of actual law enforcement:
The broad master plan was to create a privatized secondary emergency response network,” one former Citizen employee told Motherboard. Motherboard granted multiple sources anonymity to protect them from retaliation from the company.
“It’s been something discussed for a while but I personally never expected it to make it this far,” another Citizen source told Motherboard.
On its website, Citizen bills itself as an app that gives users “a way to use their phones to protect a neighbor, to prevent a tragedy, and to count on one another.” The website contains several photographs of Black people. However Frame is a white man. As Philadelphia magazine reported in February 2020:
When the app was first introduced in New York City in 2016, it wasn’t called Citizen; it was dubbed Vigilante. A launch video, since de-listed from the company’s YouTube page, feels like the opening sequence for an episode of “Law and Order: SVU:” A man in a hoodie stalks a woman walking under a bridge as yellow-tinted fog circles the street. She calls the police. Cut to the Vigilante headquarters, where an employee monitoring the 911 feed blasts out a warning: “Suspicious Man Following Woman.” Two men see the notification, drop what they’re doing, and jump into action. By now, the guy has the woman pinned up against her car. And just when the graphic scene reaches its unnerving peak, the two men pull up, before police arrive, phone cameras broadcasting. The criminal runs away. Vigilante justice has been served.
Apple later removed Vigilante from its app store. However, as Citizen, it is currently available for download by both Apple and Android cell phone users. After reports surfaced of Citizen broadcasting wrong information regarding the Pacific Palisades fire, journalist Alissa Walker noted on Twitter that Garcetti, along with Los Angeles County leadership, had encouraged residents to sign up for a separate app, Citizen Safepass, as part of a contract-tracing program to monitor the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the area.
According to a statement posted on the Los Angeles County website:
SafePass will allow users to self-report their symptoms for COVID-19 and receive notifications and alerts directly from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. All contact tracing data is anonymous, private, encrypted, and deleted after 30 days by Citizen. Officials encouraged residents to download the app to expand local efforts to track COVID-19 for L.A. County’s 10 million residents.
We have contacted both county officials and the fire department seeking comment.
The New York Post reported in July 2021 that the app had quietly posted job ads seeking “field team members” to broadcast livestreams from local emergency scenes in New York City, “covering the event as news” and pushing them to interview law enforcement or witnesses as if they were legitimate journalists. One ad for the position remains active on journalismjobs.com, listed as a freelance position with “Flyover Entertainment.”
That site’s founder, Dan Rohn, would not confirm or deny that the ad belonged to Citizen but said that journalismjobs’ policy was to “let the job seekers decide,” noting that his site also hosts job postings for the Epoch Times, which has a history of pushing conspiracy theories.
“We obviously leave it up to the job seekers to decide if they want to apply somewhere,” he told us. “We don’t discriminate against an organization getting something wrong.”
Update 5/18/21 11:58 a.m. PST: Updated with comments from Citizen.
Update 7/26/21 1:30 p.m. PST: Updated with note on a new job posting for Citizen and comment from journalismjobs.com.