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Crime & Courts

Alaskans are deluged with social media posts on crime. What’s it doing to us?

Tisha Victory is an administrator of the crime-tracking Anchorage Scanner JOE Facebook group, which has more than 46,000 members. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Tisha Victory's phone never stops.

The 39-year-old stay-at-home mom, a frank, down-to-earth redhead, was standing outside her parents' ranch home on a quiet road north of Anchorage while her son played in the yard. Behind her stood the family's horse, content in its paddock, framed by a stretch of open spruce bog crowned by mountains.

Highway traffic rumbled by in the distance, but otherwise the scene was as peaceful and removed from the whir of life in Alaska's biggest city as a back road in Chugiak can be.

But the pink and purple phone in Victory's hand wouldn't quit dinging, delivering a constant stream of Anchorage's troubles.

Victory is one of a few administrators of a crime-tracking Facebook group called Anchorage Scanner JOE, a free-for-all virtual jamboree of mostly unvetted on-the-scene reports, tips, links and commentary about crime in Anchorage.

The page is a minute-by-minute chronicle of Anchorage residents' anxieties about public safety. On any given day, its content might include posts on stolen trucks, shots fired, rants about junkies, snippets of surveillance footage, alerts about missing teenagers and the whims and jokes of the page's original founder, a Hooper Bay transplant who goes by Joe Nuyalran.

Tisha Victory checks the Anchorage Scanner JOE Facebook page on her phone. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Victory checked her phone: The group has more than 46,000 members — more people than are signed up for the Anchorage Police Department's Nixle public safety alerts.

The group is growing fast. According to Victory, more than 4,000 people have joined in the past two months, which she thinks is due to increased fears over crime. Every day, between 40 and 100 new posts hit the page, with Victory approving most of them unless they are obscene or fall too far astray of page guidelines.

Living out in the country with her parents and son, Victory spends her days immersed in this world of social media crime tracking, from the time she wakes up to hours after her son goes to bed.

"I'm on it all the time," she says.

She admits she's extreme.

But she is far from alone: Never before have people in Anchorage had so much access to so much information — and misinformation — about crime and safety.

The group is only one source of a stream of information that trickles into users like an IV drip: the screen of the phone they grab on the bedside table when their eyes open in the morning is loaded with a few Nixle alerts about carjackings and traffic accidents; the Facebook feed they check before breakfast contains six posts about stolen cars. On Nextdoor, a neighbor reports a suspicious character casing cars parked on a street nearby.

As one police officer put it, Anchorage residents are "marinating" in information about crime.

But what is it doing to us?

A steady stream

Academics have barely scratched the surface on the subject, said Troy Payne, a criminologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.

But one recent study found a direct link between how much time people spend consuming social media about crime and how they feel about their communities, he said.

The relationship was pretty clear: "People who use social media are more likely to feel unsafe," Payne said.

Take a person living in a hypothetical utopia where there's only relatively minor crime, Payne says: "Those people, when they walk out their front door they don't see any crime. But when they look on their Facebook feed, or Nextdoor, they see crime all over the place."

Instead of feeling unsafe when you become a victim of crime or your neighbor does, you can vicariously experience that loss of safety through what happened to someone else. Now repeat that 10 or 15 or 50 times a day, Facebook post by Nextdoor update by Nixle alert.

Instead of being told on the nightly news broadcast or via a newspaper article, you can hear it repeatedly, all the time.

"It can have this really strange distorting effect on how we view the world," Payne said.

In some categories such as car theft, crime really is increasing in Anchorage. Pair the two together and you have the perfect environment for people to perceive crime as pervasive, Payne said.

"At the same time, people really are experiencing some crime types more and then seeing them more frequently on Facebook. It really can drive this fear."

In 2010, there was no such thing as Anchorage Scanner JOE, Nixle or Nextdoor. People mostly learned about crime in Anchorage from traditional media sources or their friends and neighbors.

But a small group of scanner enthusiasts wanted more. In 2011, Anchorage Scanner JOE started as a way for people in Anchorage to follow along with the police scanner.

It grew out of curiosity, said Victory: When people see a half-dozen police cars zooming down a road, they want to know what's happening. Most of the time those calls don't end up getting reported in traditional media.

In 2016, the city stopped allowing the public to listen to the police and emergency scanner traffic, citing officer safety and privacy laws. By then, people were posting on the Scanner JOE dozens of times a day with their observations and questions about crime in Anchorage.

"We became the scanner," Victory said.

Anchorage police officer Ben Yoon conducts a traffic stop on Minnesota Blvd in September. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As crime — or at least the perception of crime — has increased in Anchorage, so has the page's membership.

While the Scanner JOE page is by far the biggest, it's far from the only one. Victory also follows a dozen other community Facebook groups that track crime, from an Eagle River group to Kotzebue.

Around the country, active crime watch Facebook groups exist. But most are much more localized than the Anchorage group, and have memberships a fraction of the size.

From scanner to Nixle

In the last four years, the way police communicate with the public has undergone a profound change, too.

In January 2014, the Anchorage Police Department started using Nixle, a system to send out alerts directly to subscribers. Before that, crime information was typically filtered through press releases that went to the media or by the words of a department spokesperson.

Today, the department sends out five or more alerts per day. Recent posts included "tips for having a Boo-Tastic Halloween!" as well as an arrest in a child pornography investigation, a car theft arrest, a locate for a missing elderly man, a fatal hit-and-run and the arrest of a couple accused of passing counterfeit money.

About 46,000 people have subscribed to APD Nixle alerts in Anchorage, spokesman MJ Thim said.

Thim says the department uses Nixle text alerts, the kind that show up on your phone's home screen in the middle of the night, primarily to communicate about situations where the safety of the public is in danger or police need people to take some kind of action — be on the lookout for a suspect, avoid an area or be aware of a threat.

The department also uses the tool to showcase arrests made in car theft rings and other crimes, usually through emails rather than text alerts. With either tool, the department can set the agenda for what their subscribers — and the media — know about daily police activity.

More and more, people are approaching the Anchorage Police Department to verify what they've seen in the free-for-all spaces offered by social media.

The Anchorage Police Department gets calls "all the time" about things people see on Facebook or other social networks, said Thim, a former broadcast journalist.

"It comes in through the dispatch line. It comes into my office. People will call or email us and say, 'Hey, do you know what's going on?' — they want to send me a link or screenshot. And a lot of times it's misinformation."

Facebook is the information Wild West, Thim said.

"There are no rules."

'You know too much'

Albert Whitehead was one of Anchorage's earliest adopters of Nextdoor, a private social network app for neighborhoods that requires members to verify their addresses.

He had a perhaps unique reason for wanting to know his downtown Anchorage neighbors better: Someone tried to break into his pet reindeer's enclosure. When police came to talk to him, he realized that even in the dense, walkable neighborhood of South Addition he couldn't list more than five of his neighbors by name.

"I thought, 'How can I know my neighbors better?' " he said.

Facebook was not the answer, he thought — he calls it "Fakebook" because you can get away with a fake name. Nextdoor, which requires users to verify their addresses, seemed like an ideal solution.

That was back in 2013. Whitehead has championed Nextdoor to community council groups and has maintained a direct, if unpaid, relationship with the company, which is based in San Francisco. Today, Whitehead thinks Nextdoor probably has about 30,000 members in Anchorage, though the company won't release exact numbers.

The company says the largest neighborhood groups in the city by membership are Huffman/O'Malley, Abbott Loop North, Sand Lake West, Old Seward/Oceanview and Bayshore/Klatt. The most active groups by number of posts are South Addition, Scenic Foothills, Government Hill, Abbott Loop North and Rogers Park.

The good part, says Whitehead, is Nextdoor really does let you know what's happening on your block in a granular, specific way: If someone's cat goes missing or a moose is hanging around the neighborhood playground, somebody will post about it.

"The bad part is you know too much about your neighborhood," Whitehead said.

If someone looks in your neighbor's alleyway in a suspicious way or walks through their yard, it's also likely to end up in a Nextdoor post.

"It was all goin' on before, but we just didn't know about it."

Posts are constant and often vague: In one recent Midtown post, a person complained that a motion-activated light turned on at night: "Just a warning, we had a creaper (sic) in the neighborhood last night by Dimond and C Street."

Does speculating about suspicious people walking down alleys help in any concrete way? Or does it promote paranoia that actually estranges neighbors from one another?

It's a fine line, Whitehead said.

"If it's being aware you can't keep your kid's bicycle in your yard without it being stolen, that's one thing. But if it's paranoia where you barricade yourself and lock the doors with a rifle, that's bad."

Mark Hall has always known plenty about the dark side of Anchorage: As a firefighter, he ran calls all over town for decades, responding to emergencies and tragedies one shift at a time. Hall was the Anchorage Fire Department chief from 2009 to 2011 and retired as a battalion commander after a 25-year career.

In his retirement, he closely tracks Anchorage crime via social media: Nextdoor, Nixle and Facebook.

With all the sources of information available to him, "it's pretty much inundation," he said.

Already that day, he'd read about a daylight armed robbery on Nixles, plus a few Facebook and Nextdoor posts.

"I just read one this morning on Facebook about a lady walking in the afternoon, who got stalked by a man. She's got video of it," he said.

As a retired emergency first responder, Hall feels like more information gives him more agency. When police put out a bulletin about a black Mercedes-Benz wanted as part of a carjacking investigation, he kept an eye out for it.

"If I can be an asset, I want to be," he said.

The desire to be involved or to help control crime is a theme expressed across all the social media platforms.

In some cases the virtual neighborhood watch has taken on a new, unruly life in the streets: a new genre of stolen vehicle recovery groups that grew out of Facebook crime-tracking.

Doria Clark, Daniel Miller, Floyd Hall, Chad Martin and Candis Bishop wear T-shirts supporting Hall at his arraignment on a reckless driving charge on Oct. 3 at the Nesbett Courthouse in Anchorage. (Michelle Theriault Boots / ADN file)

Members, led by budding Anchorage folk hero Floyd Hall, actually go out and hunt down stolen vehicles.

Troy Payne, the UAA criminologist, says he believes the stolen vehicle chasing is a bad idea that could lead to violent confrontation.

But he gets why people want to do it.

Being a victim of crime makes people feel powerless, he said.

"What groups like that do is let people feel like they have some power in that situation," he said. "And that makes a lot of sense to me."

Even Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, an Anchorage Republican who represents an East Anchorage district that includes Muldoon, says Nextdoor has made her a bit wary of her routine of door-to-door walks in her district.

"I wouldn't normally feel so worried about going out and walking unescorted," she said. "But it's kinda hard to ignore when every hour or so you're hearing from somebody — I get Nextdoor — about gunfire on Grand Larry, robbery on such and such a street, somebody casing somebody's home. That's bound to make you a little bit nervous."

If it's making her nervous, it's definitely making her constituents nervous, she said.

"That's all anybody wants to talk about — crime. That's what's on everybody's mind. People are very worried. How can you not be worried?"

Val Svancara's interest in social media crime tracking started when her partner's bike was stolen from a locked shed in their yard. Svancara, a University of Alaska Anchorage employee who lives in Spenard, joined a bunch of crime-tracking groups, plus Nextdoor, in hopes that a post might help recover the bike.

Her partner doesn't do social media.

"He would probably say my anxiety has grown because I know a lot more of what's happening. I get it, he's probably living a happier life — an 'ignorance is bliss' sort of thing," she said.

But Svancara says all the information has enhanced her opinion of her home. Neighbors in Anchorage are clearly looking out for one another, she said.

"My perception is that crime has increased because I'm now being exposed to every little thing that happens. It's encouraging to see neighbors keeping an eye out for each other."

A productive member of society

Back at Tisha Victory's house, things are getting dramatic on the Anchorage Scanner JOE page with a dispute over a banned member. Direct messages are making her phone ding like an alarm.

Though Victory saturates herself in information about crime, she says she hasn't personally been a victim of a major crime herself. And though she grew up in East Anchorage, she rarely ventures to the city.

"Just for appointments or to visit my family," she said.

The reason? She doesn't feel safe.

"There's always something crazy going down — a person on drugs on the side of the road or something," she said.

Victory also has another reason for devoting so much of her time to crime tracking: She says she was once addicted to drugs. She was never a thief or a criminal, but her ex-husband was, she says.

"Part of me feels guilty for how some people in my circle acted," she said.

Connecting with people — mostly strangers — to offer what she sees as valuable information is a service she can provide. The Scanner JOE page makes her feel "like I'm actually being a productive member of society."

And for a mother of a young child living in an out-of-the way place, Facebook offers an outlet of companionship.

"I spend more time talking to people online than I do in my daily life," she said.

Plus, Anchorage needs it, she contends.

"When someone gets their stolen car back, or a missing kid gets found," she said, "it's enough to restore your faith in humanity."

Does she ever just think about turning it all off?

Sure, she says. To relax, she looks at a Facebook group called The Last Alaskans, where people post recipes for birch syrup and pictures of mountain sunrises and moose.

"It's drama-free," she said.

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