Using Technology to Hype Crime

Fear-mongering has always been profitable

created May 9, 2019

May 1, 2019 - - The Doorbell Company That’s Selling Fear


An Amazon-owned firm is hiring editors to push local crime news to its users.

When news organizations think about competition from tech companies, it’s usually in terms of the audience’s attention and advertisers’ dollars. But if Amazon has its way, a new sort of competition may be coming from a mixture of surveillance, fear, and doorbells.

A doorbell company wants to report crime news. It already is, actually. Several people on LinkedIn describe their jobs as “news editors” at Ring.

Crime has declined enormously over the past 25 years, but people’s perception of how much crime there is has not. A majority of Americans have said that crime is increasing in each of the past 16 years—despite crime in each major category being significantly lower today than it used to be.

These mistaken beliefs are driven largely by the editorial decisions of local media—especially local TV newscasts, which are just as bloody today as they were when murder rates were twice as high. There’s a term for it: “mean world syndrome,” the phenomenon where media consumption makes people see the world as more violent and dangerous than it really is.

And TV has historically been the worst offender; a body of past research has shown that people who rely on local TV most for their local news are more fearful of crime; that local TV’s crime news disproportionately shows black criminals and increases racial fears; and that the more local TV news you watch, the more fearful you get.

A report from Pew last month asked people about various topics in local news and asked both whether they thought they were important or interesting and, if so, why. Did they consume news about a topic because it was important to their daily lives; because it was important, but not to their daily lives; or just because they found it interesting?

Those surveyed overwhelmingly said crime news was important. But more striking is that so many of them said it was important to their daily lives. To put that in context, the top three “important to their daily lives” topics were weather, crime, and traffic. Weather and traffic really are important to your daily life! Figuring out what to wear or which route to take to work are very useful services that local news can provide. But local TV news has convinced Americans that stories of violence are news-you-can-use at the same sort of level.

In recent years, a number of newspapers have decreased the emphasis they put on crime stories in their coverage. There are a number of reasons for this shift. TV is always going to have an advantage when covering day-to-day crime. There are fewer reporters to go around than there used to be. And as newspapers have retooled for digital subscriptions over page views, crime news is less important to what they’re offering readers.

May 1, 2019 Hacker News thread related to the above story.

Top comment:

As if pushing ever more news of "crime" (much of which may be inconsequential, entirely non-criminal trivia, judging by the kind of material mentioned in the article) at the public will somehow make our society better/happier/safer.

Didn't Bowling for Columbine suggest that a key element in America's fear-driven and violent society, when compared to its northern neighbour, might be the extent to which US media already focuses on such reporting (if I remember right -- it's been a long time)? This sort of toxic, alarmist "news" is already poisoning our social fabric; so let's double down on it and focus even more on feeding people's fears. Great.

HN reply to the above comment:

The whole point is revenue not making society better/happier/safer. There is no money in the latter.

Another HN reply to the top comment:

Non-scared people buy less. That's all what number optimizers need to know.

HN comment:

More crimes news to keep people scared means bigger budgets for police/law enforcement=bigger gov contracts for Amazon.

But crime stats that show crime declining would imply fewer police are needed, or at least no increase in the police force.

May 9 2019 Mediagazer headline

Experts say apps like Nextdoor and Ring's Neighbors give people a false sense that the US crime rate is worsening even as violent crime reaches record lows"

Crime vs violent crime might be the key. Crime can include busting into a vehicle to steal some change. Crime can include breaking into a homeowner's garage to steal a bicycle.

Early this decade, my Stepdaughter drove an old Chevy Cavalier car while she attended the University of Toledo. One night, she parked the car on the street in front of our house. The next morning when she started her car, the sound was humorously loud. During the night, someone stole the car's catalytic converter. That's a crime.

Crime includes someone or a group of people breaking into our next door neighbor's home during a weekday seven years ago when our neighbors were at work, and the criminals stole a large screen TV from the wall, a laptop, and a few other things. The robbers went through the front porch window and out a side door. And on that day, the neighbors forgot to set their home alarm system.

Those are not violent crimes, but they are annoying inconveniences.

The May 9, 2019 Mediagazer headline point to this story, titled The rise of fear-based social media like Nextdoor, Citizen, and now Amazon’s Neighbors

Why people are socializing more about crime even as it becomes rarer.

The number of homeowners who have alarm systems with video cameras that can be accessed with phone apps is greater today than 10 years ago and even 5 years ago. I'm guessing that homeowners enjoy sharing what their cameras record.

May 9, 2019 HN thread, related to the story.

Twitter reactions attached to the Mediagazer link:


It's pretty brilliant. Local news used to scare people about local crime and then have advertisements for home security systems. Now that Amazon is in the act, they can recommend stuff to you right there.


Also - if you follow a Facebook page that literally posts nothing but unverified scanner traffic, you're going to think your community is a dangerous place. Good local journalism will put that in context for you. Get your info there instead.

The local journalism claim about providing context is debatable.


Crime is local and folks using these apps don't care about what crime levels were in the 70s, they care about crime now in their immediate area.


A reminder that local TV “news” (and newspapers in some cases) spent several decades making communities more afraid at a time when the crime rate was plummeting. They did it solely to make money, fueling terrible laws that eviscerated civil liberties, and helped demagogues.

Locally ...

May 2, 2019 - - Sylvania Township Police rolling out new crime app

A new app will allow Toledo and Sylvania Township residents to search and share info about real-time, local crime and safety information.

The two police departments announced separately Thursday they are joining the free Neighbors app by Ring, [Amazon] which allows users to receive real-time safety alerts from their neighbors as well as share their own crime-related texts, photos, and videos.

The May 2, 2019 Blade story failed to mention that Amazon owns Ring.

Feb 27, 2018 - - Amazon has acquired Ring to bolster its home security products

Amazon has reportedly agreed to acquire smart home company Ring for more than $1 billion, according to Reuters. Ring is best known for selling its connected doorbells, security cameras, and floodlights, while Amazon introduced its own line of smart home solutions last fall with the Amazon Cloud Cam and Amazon Key.

May 11, 2019

Toledo Blade opinion.

Manufacturing fear: Amazon scares consumers into buying security

Companies like Amazon will only serve to make problems worse if they exploit services like Ring to scare people into buying products.

With the ongoing technification of our lives, few industries have enjoyed more success than home security. So it is perhaps no surprise that Amazon, never a company to miss an opportunity to make some more cash, dove into the arena last year with its acquisition of Ring, a security-focused, smart-doorbell manufacturer.

One of the premier attractions of Ring is an app called Neighbors that allows users to report safety concerns, suspicious behavior, or strange persons in the neighborhood.

Now, according to a report by The Atlantic, Amazon is looking to add editors and writers to its Ring team to report crime news to its users.

This report makes plain Amazon’s intentions for Ring: to scare people.

The specter of crime has an interesting effect on the human mind. The rise of local TV news helped fuel the notion that Americans are surrounded by an endless stream of rapes, murders, and thefts. “If it bleeds, it leads,” the old adage goes.

In reality, there has never been a safer period in American history. Violent crime has fallen tremendously since 1980, and crime overall has hit historic lows in the past several years.

But this has not convinced most Americans. A 2016 Pew survey found that a majority of people believe crime has risen in each of the past 16 years, when in fact the numbers of every major crime have fallen.

And local media gets some or a lot of the blame. ??? Is this a reason why need local media?

Misconceptions about the prevalence of crime have only been exacerbated by the advent of social media. Facebook groups and online message boards have been devoted to dissecting the local police blotter or gossiping about neighborhood goings-on.

The neighborhood Facebook groups that provide so-called crime updates also seem to over-hype issues. I don't have a Facebook account, but in the past, my wife would mention what she saw posted to two area neighborhood Facebook groups. I'm unsure if she follows those groups anymore. At times, the information seemed dubious to me.

Amazon hopes that Ring and its Neighbor app can become a one-stop shop for this kind of hand-wringing. But the company’s addition of journalists, tasked with pushing out “breaking crime news alerts” to users, makes it clear that Amazon wishes to monetize peoples’ fear.

Setting the record straight on the levels of crime and the potential dangers to local communities is not going to happen quickly or easily. But companies like Amazon will only serve to make the problem worse if they exploit services like Ring to scare people into buying products.