Categories: News

Local police should not be your go-to source for iPhone safety news

Some police departments say kids could be in danger of accidentally sharing their contact info using NameDrop in iOS 17. This isn’t exactly true. | Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A warning about the NameDrop feature on iOS 17 is just the latest in a long history of misleading Facebook posts from law enforcement.

Warnings about NameDrop, a feature on Apple’s iOS 17 that allows users to share contact information, have spread like an annoying chain letter across police department Facebook pages over the past few days. These warnings were misleading, but social media posts about online threats to kids don’t have to be true to get views.

Dozens of police departments, some getting thousands of shares and generating media coverage, posted nearly identical alerts claiming that NameDrop would automatically allow strangers to steal your personal information just by placing their phone close to yours. (NameDrop, as Wired explained, is enabled by default in Apple’s iOS 17 update, but sharing information between two unlocked phones requires users to actively consent to doing so in each instance, making a scenario such as the one described above virtually impossible.)

One post from the Watertown Police Department in Connecticut warned that “anyone can place their phone next to yours (or your child’s phone) and automatically receive their contact information to include their picture, phone number, email address and more,” so long as the phone was unlocked. This post alone was shared at least 1,500 times on Facebook and is cited in multiple local news segments.

The warning about Apple’s new NameDrop feature isn’t particularly interesting in isolation: a run-of-the-mill exaggerated panic about yet another digital danger facing children. But taken in context, it’s a great example of the role that law enforcement social media presences can play in spreading urban legends and moral panics, from viral teen challenges to THC-laced Halloween candy.

Rumors like these are probably getting shared, in part, for the same reasons they’re likely to be believed: Nobody wants to be the one who ignored a warning about a danger that led to a child being harmed. But also, this genre of legend gets views on social media, which can grow the influence and authority of the poster. And some experts are warning that there’s more at stake here than just the follower counts of a local sheriff’s department on Facebook.

Social media has helped local police more directly speak to the public without the filter of verification via media coverage, according to Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor of communications at Syracuse University. Like anyone else looking for social media engagement, police departments are incentivized to post things that get views. Sometimes, that can be pretty innocuous: a meme here, a cute pic of a police dog there. Other times, it includes amplifying moral panics. The effect is the same.

“I love a police dog too. But if you’re doing it to grow your audience on Facebook — which grows your police department in your local town bigger than the local newspaper’s Facebook page, if you even have a local newspaper now — then that’s a problem,” Grygiel said.

Police have long played a role in shaping and adding credibility to urban legends. Lynne McNeill, an associate professor of folklore at Utah State University, points to a number of examples from the 1980s centered around fears about “gang warfare,” she explained, including the “lights-out legend.” You’ve likely heard this story: Gang members are driving around with their headlights off, waiting to kill the next Good Samaritan who flashes their headlights at them. Over the course of her research, McNeill says she’s seen multiple examples of this unfounded legend appearing on flyers distributed by police as public service warnings.

But in the past two decades, social media has supercharged the role that local law enforcement and other government agencies can play in amplifying unverified stories and dubious rumors, allowing warnings to spread quicker and farther than a photocopied flier. A brief review of the dozens of posts by local police departments on Facebook about the NameDrop feature reveals how similar these posts read to one another, as though some departments were just copying and pasting portions of those warnings from each other, riding the wave of attention from local community to local community.

As unverified posts from authorities like these spread, they begin creating their own authority. Now, a random fear about a new iPhone feature or a recipe for NyQuil Chicken isn’t just coming from nowhere, McNeill noted. “When people share the news in the less authoritative realms of talk and conversation and rumor, then they have that referenced authority,” she said, whether it’s a local police station or the Federal Drug Administration.

The panic about NameDrop is, at least, relatively simple to debunk. It just requires a cursory look at how the Apple feature actually works. But sometimes, these stories contain just enough truth to make fact-checking difficult. McNeill brought up the example of the Momo Challenge, which caused a round of panicked warnings in 2019 about a “trending” game in which kids were being blackmailed into self-harm. By that point, the idea of the Momo Challenge had been around the internet for years and had been linked to as many as three deaths. Fears about it as an online trend in 2019 were entirely unfounded; the “trend” traced back to an anonymous post in a community Facebook group in the UK before being picked up by local news and law enforcement social media pages.

In theory, journalists could and should play a role in verifying these stories as they emerge from the official social media accounts of government institutions. But Grygiel’s research indicates that the opposite is happening in some cases. Local broadcast news increasingly seems to play a passive role in amplifying social media posts from police departments, they said. And while that might make it much easier for understaffed newsrooms to cover conversations happening within their communities, it’s also shifting the “watchdog” role of media away from local journalists and toward local police departments.

In any case, there are plenty of real things to worry about at the intersection of child safety and technology that don’t simply recycle the decades-old stranger-danger moral panic.

A version of this story was also published in the Vox Technology newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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