What app downloads tell us about how protesters are organizing.
As protests against police brutality have swept across the United States, Americans’ app downloads have shifted. The list of most popular apps right now offers a glimpse into how people are using technology to take action.
After the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last week, people have flocked in record numbers to police scanner apps, where they can listen in on law enforcement’s radio communication. They’ve also rushed to download Signal, a secure messaging app, and Citizen, a community safety app that sends out police alerts. Meanwhile, earlier this week, Twitter was being downloaded more than Facebook and Instagram, which normally isn’t the case.
Since May 25, Citizen has been downloaded 234,000 times, and Signal has been downloaded 121,000 times in the US, according to Apptopia. Both are continuing to set daily download records. Earlier this week, Citizen was the fourth most downloaded iOS app of any kind, according to App Annie.
Signal was the eighth most downloaded social networking app on Tuesday, and ranked around the top 100 for apps overall.
Apptopia also reports that the top five police scanner app downloads rose by 125 percent this past weekend compared to the weekend prior.
People are likely using these apps in a number of ways, including but not limited to tracking or participating in protests. Police scanners as well as Citizen offer a way for protesters to stay ahead of planned police action and to understand in real-time what police are up to. People have long used police scanner hardware to follow crime, but this new generation of apps brings that technology to more lay users. They also more easily pull together law enforcement transmissions from a wider variety of sources and locations. However, police have become wary of scanners in recent years, and some departments are migrating over to encrypted communication technology.
Citizen is not a police scanner app, per se, but it can serve a similar purpose. Usage among protesters would also represent a bit of an evolution for Citizen. The first iteration of the app launched in 2016 with the mission to “open up the 911 system” so that “everyone can do their part.” Many, including the New York Police Department, argued at the time that the app encouraged vigilante justice — it was literally called Vigilante — and it relaunched in 2017 as Citizen. Since then, Citizen has been criticized for fear-mongering, among other things, though the app has continued to grow. It’s currently available in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.
The vast majority of updates on Citizen come from employees who monitor various publicly available police and fire department transmissions and then post select incidents on the app and notify nearby users. Citizen also encourages users to comment on and record footage of crime and safety incidents that happen nearby. That video could potentially help protesters, as well as uninvolved residents, find real-time, on-the-ground information about what’s happening with protests. Of course, many people are likely using these apps passively to monitor what’s going on in their neighborhoods amid protests and police action.
Citizen was temporarily removed from the Google Play store yesterday but has since been restored. Recode contacted both companies, but neither Google nor Citizen would explain why it was removed or restored. Citizen did highlight its “core mission is to foster transparency and accountability between civilians and law enforcement” in a statement to Recode.
“People are utilizing Citizen to stay safe and aware of what’s happening in their cities with real-time safety alerts and broadcasts,” the company said. “They’re checking the app to read updates on curfews, watch others’ videos, and post live broadcasts from protests.”
The utility of encrypted messaging apps like Signal is more straightforward. Signal is basically a messaging, calling, and video app whose encryption keeps people’s communication hidden in the event that their phones are stolen, hacked, or confiscated by police. Protesters around the world have long used these apps to communicate with one another safely and without fear of increasingly possible police interception. Signal and its UK-based competitor Telegram proved essential in the 2019 Hong Kong protests, where protesters were especially fearful about state surveillance. Some Hong Kong protesters even resorted to mesh messaging apps that work without an internet connection, though it doesn’t seem anxiety about police snooping has gotten that serious in the US yet.
Signal became one of the top 10 most downloaded social apps on iOS yesterday for the first time, according to data from App Annie. The app often sees spikes in downloads during tumultuous political times, but the last time Signal downloads ranked nearly as high was on the day of President Trump’s inauguration.
Then there’s Twitter, which has played a part in activism and breaking news since it launched over a decade ago. Twitter gained new prominence in organizing and information-sharing during the Arab Spring, and later become a key tool for protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, during the summer of 2014. There, people on the ground also used the Twitter-owned — and now shuttered — Vine app to coordinate actions and broadcast their messages.
Facebook-owned Instagram has played its part as well, functioning as a broadcasting tool for Black Lives Matter activists. However, things went somewhat awry on the platform during a “Blackout Tuesday” campaign this week, when millions of users posted images of solid black squares as a way to protest against police violence. Many also tagged their posts with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, a move that inadvertently pushed down important communiqués from protesters and instead replaced them with a sea of black boxes.
These apps are gaining popularity as people veer away from perennially popular apps like Facebook. The company is currently facing a #deleteFacebook campaign thanks to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to take down a post by President Trump inciting violence against protesters.
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Author: Rani Molla