I know we’ve had a lot of dystopian moments recently, but millionaires personally deploying their apps to hunt down houseless people falsely accused of starting wildfires spreading in a drought-stricken landscape is really up there. And that’s exactly what happened this week, according to new reporting from the Verge.
Citizen, an app that sends out safety alerts, sent a notification to users in the Los Angeles area with a photograph of a man the app said was a suspect in starting the Palisades Fire on Sunday. It offered $30,000 in reward money for anyone who provided information that led to his arrest. The man was captured by police Sunday evening, but he was released after the authorities determined that there was no conclusive evidence that he was involved. (Another unhoused man was later arrested and charged with starting the fire.) Since city and county officials had asked residents to download Citizen to help the city track the spread of covid-19, and an estimated 860,000 saw the photo of the falsely accused man.
Following the incident, Citizen said in a statement that the company was “actively working to improve our internal processes to ensure this does not occur again” and that the incident “was a mistake we are taking very seriously.” But Slack records reviewed by the Verge show that Citizen’s CEO, Andrew Frame, personally encouraged the manhunt as an exercise of the app’s powers and offered $10,000 of his own money to catch an arsonist “as a test.” (The reward was later raised.)
“This is a great transition of Citizen back to active safety,” Frame wrote on Saturday. “We are not a news company. We are safety and we make this sort of heinous crime impossible to escape from. That needs to be our mindset.” The Verge reports that Frame owns a mansion in Bel Air, which he bought in 2011 for $5.5 million, around 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from where the fire was burning.
“We need to build this into the product and we will,” Frame wrote of the cash reward. Citizen, it cannot be repeated enough, was initially called Vigilante.
The Palisades Fire began burning through the Pacific Palisades and Topanga Canyon neighborhoods last week, eventually scorching more than 1,000 acres, forcing some to evacuate and putting the region under an air quality warning. The fire was more than 70% contained as of Friday morning, a week after it began. With California once again in the throes of a crippling drought, Los Angeles and other parts of the state almost certainly have more of this in-store as fire season gets underway in earnest.
Last year was California’s most destructive fire season on record. That included the Bobcat Fire, which burned more than 100,000 acres in Los Angeles county in one of the biggest fires in the city’s history. The extreme drought and intense wildfire conditions are both hallmarks of how climate change has altered the state, even as humans and infrastructure play a greater role in igniting fires.
The Citizen clash illustrates the rising tensions over people experiencing houselessness in Los Angeles as another disastrous wildfire season looms over the city and the state at large. The Los Angeles Fire Department said earlier this month that the number of fires related to homeless encampments has almost tripled over the past three years. (The LAFD began categorizing fires in this manner just three years ago.) Arson or human influence are just two of many causes of runaway fires—officials say the Bobcat Fire was caused by trees coming in contact with electrical wiring—that can then spread rapidly in a dry landscape. However, it seems like people in Los Angeles are jumping at the chance to blame unhoused people for fires. Earlier this month, residents of the wealthy Venice neighborhood gathered to mourn a dog killed in a house fire, which they blamed seemingly without evidence on a homeless encampment.
The Verge reports that while it’s unclear where Citizen sourced its bad information from, a now-deleted Facebook post from a residents’ association in the area may have contributed to the spread of misinformation. “It appears as though a homeless man living in our hillsides with a criminal past has planned out a wild rampage,” the Pacific Palisades Residents Association wrote on Saturday. “We cannot take the risk of allowing more homeless in a neighborhood with such a fragile environmental landscape.” (The average price of a home in the neighborhood is more than $3.4 million.)
“Those people all live there and their homes/families are being threatened,” The Verge reports Frame wrote in Slack of the Facebook post. “There is a huge cohort of engaged users who want to help.”
Rich people using their powerful tech company to goad the masses into targeting a houseless man for a fire whipped along by climate change—just another Friday in the 21st century, folks. Cheers!