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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.
No, there wasn’t a huge mayonnaise spill on the Delaware waterfront on Tuesday, despite the news spreading across social media as people shared a screenshot from the Citizen app.
“God has answered my prayers,” commented one apparent mayo lover on the report, which stated “Large mayonnaise spill, lanes closed” at 1800 Columbus Blvd. “This story has been whipped into a frenzy!” said one commenter on an Instagram screenshot of the alert. “What the Hellman’s?” asked another, replying to one of many Twitter posts. Someone joked about mayonnaise prices going up, another put out the call for “large mops for cleanup on aisle 1800.”
But as is often the case with the app’s alerts, the mayonnaise spillage was entirely unfounded.
That’s according to a first-hand survey of the area — and city officials, who were none too pleased.
The Streets Department confirmed to Billy Penn that after hearing about the potential mess, a crew was sent out. But there wasn’t anything to clean. “They didn’t see anything at the scene,” said a sanitation worker who answered the phone Tuesday afternoon, requesting anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press.
“Like, why would you do that?” the sanitation worker said, adding that this was “the last thing” the department needs on a Tuesday afternoon. “I think it’s just trolls, trolling the internet. Some people find it humorous, some don’t. I don’t.”
The Citizen app, which launched in NYC in 2016 and came to Philadelphia in 2019, has long been a source of controversy, because there’s no verification process from local authorities for the information it spreads, often clouding a chain of communication with totally baseless reports or skewed facts.
PPD Officer Miguel Torres also confirmed the Philadelphia Police Department hadn’t received notification of any such incident, despite the Citizen alert’s claim that police had “arrived on the scene.”
“If we get anything, we put it out there,” Torres told Billy Penn. “If it’s not being put out on our channels, that’s usually a sign” it’s a false alarm, he said.
After this article published, one Billy Penn reader did report they had seen something that matched the alert. Around 11:45 a.m., said Leah Pitt, who was jogging by at the time, there was “a pallet of mayo jars spilled at the intersection in front of Home Depot. I assumed it had just fallen off of a pickup truck or something,” she said. “Not a massive mayo spill but definitely a mayo spill.”
Developed by American tech incubator sp0n, the intent of the app was to “[open up] the 911 system,” according to company founder and software developer Andrew Frame. The initial version of the app – then dubbed Vigilante – received immediate criticism that it encouraged racial profiling and enabled mob justice. Citing safety concerns, Apple pulled the title from its app store a mere 48 hours after its debut.
The app relaunched in 2017, rebranded as Citizen and retooled with increased safety messaging to discourage direct involvement with active crime scenes, and its popularity took off. Less than a year after expanding to Philly, Citizen reported having 225,000 local users here.
Critics note that anyone who wants to create a stir can post anything they want. In 2021, Citizen CEO Frame used the app to “identify” a suspected arsonist and announced a $30,000 bounty on the individual’s head, sending a notification to 849,000 app users in Los Angeles. After having his image blasted online for 15 hours, the man was detained by police — and quickly released when they determined he was not a suspect.
Despite its unreliability, the app does serve a function for some. One Philadelphia reddit user noted it’s their go-to when seeking answers to questions like “were those gunshots or fireworks,” or “what’s that smell?” For others, the convenience isn’t enough to allay concerns.
The app maker has reportedly been trying to move into providing on-demand security services, per emails uncovered by Vice in March 2021. Citizen later said it had abandoned those plans but wouldn’t rule out future partnerships along those same lines.
Updated April 28