On Tuesday, Viviene Huston was scrolling through her Nextdoor feed to see what was new in the Morningside neighborhood of Atlanta, where she lives, when she realized that there were “zero” posts referencing “Black Lives Matter,” despite five days of demonstrations. Perplexed, the 21-year-old decided to make her own post.
“I haven’t really seen many or any posts about why the protests and vandalism occurred. Please take this time to educate yourselves on why this is all happening. Please take the time to educate yourselves on why people are walking through the streets chanting black lives matter. If it makes you uncomfortable, if you feel the need to say ‘all lives matter’ in return, please take the time to understand why that is counterproductive. I will not say more because I have a feeling it will be censored but if anyone would like to DM me about how they can help, how they can donate, or links to educate themselves on, feel free to,” she wrote.
An hour later, it was gone.
“After that, I realized we were really being censored and it was because we were saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’” the restaurant server told BuzzFeed News. She logged on to Twitter to write to Nextdoor, when she saw the popular social networking platform had tweeted a statement on Sunday with the same sentiment as her post. “Black lives matter. You are not alone, everyone should feel safe in their neighborhood,” read the post from the official Nextdoor account.
Infuriated, Huston messaged one of her community moderators, which the company calls leads, and asked why her post had been taken down. In correspondence reviewed by BuzzFeed News, a co-lead said her post violated multiple community guidelines. One flagrant violation, the co-lead said, was that it was not a “local” or “regional” post about political topics, but instead pertained to “national and state,” politics that “extend beyond the local area.” The moderator also cited a policy against soliciting donations, and pointed to a third: “Don’t use Nextdoor as a soapbox.”
For years, critics have charged that Nextdoor built a platform that amplifies unwarranted fears among the white and wealthy, perpetuating narratives of fear and racism and enabling citizen policing, despite its claim that “by bringing neighbors together, we can cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on.”
And while the company may be officially saying that it supports the Black Lives Matter movement, this week, many of its volunteer moderators took a contrary position, stifling conversations about race, police, and protests while removing comments and postings with the very phrase the company had tweeted just three days ago.
A Nextdoor spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company was taking those concerns about Black Lives Matter moderation seriously. “We encourage all members who believe their posts or comments align with our Community Guidelines but were removed to report the matter to us so we may investigate and restore, as appropriate,” they said.
Calling the moderators’ explanation “bullshit,” Huston said that protests were happening in her city, making it very much a local issue in Atlanta. Regarding the supposed policy about donations, she said she had previously posts for weeks soliciting charity to help those impacted by COVID-19.
“What guidelines did I break by speaking about what is going on in the world at this moment? Why was I censored?”
“I think the only difference was that I put Black Lives Matter,” she added.
“It’s disgusting that Nextdoor has this whole thing about Black Lives Matter, but when we actually wanted to have conversations about it and educate people we weren’t allowed to,” she told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. “The fact that a community leader is able to delete this content says a lot. I live in Atlanta. Where are all the black people in my feed? Why do I only see white people stuff in my feed?”
In California, other people using Nextdoor posed the same question. While private companies have no obligation to allow for untrammeled speech on their platforms, some of those who had been moderated said it was hypocritical of Nextdoor to publicly say that it supported diversity while its own moderators were aggressively using the site’s rules to clamp down on discussions about race.
On Tuesday, Dylan Hailey, a 26-year-old security engineer from Alamo, California, wanted to show his support for the protests happening in his community. After reading a post on Nextdoor asking for people of “wealth and privilege” to acknowledge the systemic racism highlighted by demonstrators following the police killing of George Floyd, he commented “#BlackLivesMatter.”
Within an hour, his comment was removed.
Like it did for Huston, Nextdoor notified Hailey via email that the comment violated company guidelines, which stated that users should “be helpful, and not hurtful” and otherwise refrain from discrimination, attacks, or insults.
Hailey was confused. “My message was simple: Black Lives Matter,” he told BuzzFeedNews. “I don’t see how that can be a hurtful message according to their policy.”
Within communities on Nextdoor, designated moderator leads have the ability to vote on content after people flag it, allowing it to stay or be removed after judging it based on guidelines set forth by the company. It’s unclear how the platform chooses its leads.
Hailey said he initially commented on a post made to Nextdoor tagged to the neighborhood around the Round Hill Country Club, a wealthy area whose average resident on Nextdoor is 59 years old. That post, titled Black Lives Matter, started after other residents said they were concerned about the threat of looters targeting neighboring areas in response to a planned protest against racial injustice and police brutality, Hailey said. (That demonstration was postponed, although another peaceful protest took place.)
Hailey made his comment in support of the original post, which asked people to consider their privilege. Within an hour, his comment was removed. Other comments that mentioned the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” including at least one that was sympathetic to law enforcement, were also taken down.
“The words they say on Twitter are the same ones they ban on their own platform,” said Hailey.
After BuzzFeed News reached out to Nextdoor about the removal of posts, a member of the company’s support team emailed Hailey apologizing for removing his comment.
“While #BlackLivesMatter is a national movement, we made a decision to allow discussion of this in the newsfeed because it has important implications at the neighborhood level. Because this is a recent change, there is some confusion on the platform, and many members may not realize that it is OK for discussion of this topic to be in the newsfeed,” the member wrote.
In nearby Oakland, Deleana Seymour, a 47-year-old consultant, said she was suspended from the platform for 48 hours for calling out what she termed “racists on Nextdoor,” who made charged comments about the protests and rioting that took place there.
“You’re definitely showing your ‘panties’ more than usual over the protests,” she wrote in her post. “We SEE you.”
Within hours, Seymour’s comment was flagged by community leads for violating rules about keeping conversations “civil and respectful.” It was the first time she’s ever had a comment removed, she told BuzzFeed News, noting that she had previously been a Nextdoor lead in another community before moving to a different neighborhood within Oakland.
“People of color get their comments reported on quite a bit,” Seymour said. “If you call out racism or intolerance, you’re going to get reported.”
She said that she had previously experienced a pattern of racial profiling on the platform.
“A lot of people’s main goal on Nextdoor is to report so-called suspicious people in the neighborhood,” Seymour said. “They’re always African American and they always look ‘suspicious.’ These things happen to my son in his own neighborhood.”
In Southern California, two residents in the Santa Monica area told BuzzFeed News that their comments in favor of Black Lives Matter and the ousting of Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore after his controversial comments over the death of George Floyd had been removed.
One woman, who declined to be named, said that leads in her neighborhood circles kept deleting her post on “recalling the chief of police.” Frustrated, she could not understand the reasoning behind it, or how her remark violated Nextdoor’s policies.
And while the dissonance between the platform’s professed values and its moderators’ actions was pronounced early this week, there were signs that the two had drawn closer to each other.
After going back and forth with her community leader, Nextdoor restored Huston’s post on Tuesday. In a message, the community leader told her that corporate leadership “may agree with you and reinstate your post.”
By Wednesday, Huston’s Nextdoor app was pinging with new comments from dozens of people, thanking her for her message, expressing relief that it had been restored, and asking how they could help.
“I got a lot of positive messages from the community. One person wrote, ‘Thank God. Finally! Where has this been?’” she said. “It helped start a conversation about race and allowed us to be able to talk about it freely — with no censoring.”