In May 2021, crime tracking and neighbourhood watch app Citizen offered users a bounty of $30,000 to track down an arsonist on live video. “Find this fuck,” CEO Andrew Frame wrote in a Slack thread along with a picture of the man which was livestreamed on the app. In the hours that followed, however, the app discovered that they’d sent a mob of civilians after the wrong suspect. Two months later, the same app is now hiring New Yorkers to broadcast crime scenes and other public emergencies as regular bystanders.
Dubbed as “the most powerful safety app for today’s world,” Citizen monitors 911 communications to provide real-time safety alerts, updates on natural disasters and lets users both broadcast and watch live videos of incidents happening near them. According to its description on Google Play, the app’s notifications have previously “urged people to evacuate burning buildings, deterred school buses from nearby terrorist attacks and have even led to a rescue of a 1-year-old from a stolen car.”
“Citizen may notify you of a crime in progress before the police have responded,” the description continues. “It’s meant to protect you and your community—please use it responsibly.”
In June 2021, the Daily Dot spotted a man named Landon who happened to livestream from multiple crime scenes in one day. Landon was written off as a mere coincidence until the Daily Dot discovered six additional videos of the user broadcasting from other public emergencies. He seemed more than just a concerned citizen at this point. One month later, the New York Post reported a user named Chris who biked around the Bronx and livestreamed at least six different emergencies on the app. Citizen later confirmed that both Landon and Chris were working for the app’s ‘Street Team’.
“Citizen has teams in place in some of the cities where the app is available to demonstrate how the platform works, and to model responsible broadcasting practices in situations when events are unfolding in real time. We believe these teams will ultimately help guide our users on how to broadcast in an effective, helpful and safe way,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. The company admitted to housing Street Teams since the app’s launch. The spokesperson also added how it’s never tried to hide this fact from the public.
These jobs are however not listed on Citizen’s website. Instead, they’re posted on the career board JournalismJobs.com by a third-party recruiter called Flyover Entertainment without any mentions of Citizen. The now-deleted job posting seeked “field team members” to work for an unnamed “tech company with user-generated content.”
“You will be live-streaming from your phone straight to the app, covering the event as news,” the listing continued, adding how field members would be “dispatched” to cover events, including dogs locked in cars and house fires. “You’ll report what you see. In the event that witnesses, police officials or other parties to interview are available, you must take the initiative to interview them for app viewers.”
The listing quoted $250 per day for ten-hour shifts in Los Angeles and $200 per day for eight-hour shifts in New York. “Other top 10 markets will be added soon,” the listing added. Applicants were further asked to submit a short 90-120 second video, “simulating coverage of such an event.” “In LA, you will also find your own driver. Once approved by the hiring company, your driver is paid $175 per day plus mileage (.56 cents per mile) by the app.”
However, TechCrunch found an NYU Journalism website that shared a similar listing and included the company’s name. Citizen confirmed to TechCrunch that both—the unnamed and named—listings were for the app’s Street Team.
“Broadcast journalists have experience in broadcasting safely and responsibly. This is a requisite for our Street Team members,” the spokesperson said. When asked why these jobs were posted on third-party job boards and not on Citizen’s own website, the spokesperson explained that it was because Citizen specifically wanted to find journalists. “However, it could presumably also find journalists on its own website,” TechCrunch noted.
Apart from the $30,000 ‘accidental’ bounty raking in 1.4 million views, Citizen has had several issues in the past with unconfirmed crime alerts in neighborhoods. In 2018, the app reported a tiger loose in Manhattan which turned out to be a raccoon. In 2019, New York City Councilman Justin Brannan slammed the app in a BuzzFeed News op-ed, accusing Citizen of “scaring the hell out of people” for sending out alerts based on 911 calls without corroboration. Earlier this year, the company started testing “on-demand” security vehicles in Los Angeles as a solution to public safety.
The app was also kicked off the App Store one week after its launch in 2016 for violating a clause in Apple’s App Developer Review Guidelines that an app shouldn’t be “likely to cause physical harm from its use.” A year later, however, the app rebranded itself as Citizen, added disclaimers that no one should interfere with a crime scene and reentered the App Store—currently encouraging untrained civilians to engage in mob justice with paid incentives as a disastrous substitute for local journalism.
“Broadcast Yourself,” urges YouTube’s official slogan as 500 hours worth of content is being uploaded to the platform this very minute as we speak. Encouraging users to share parts of their lives with others, the slogan highlights broadcasting’s potential for creators to amass a loyal fanbase en route to mainstream success. But what happens when a group of live streamers—due to low viewership and donations in gaming streams—decide to switch up their content and foster a murky online subculture altogether? Introducing ‘trash streaming’, a growing trend among Russian streamers that pushes legal boundaries in order to stand out on various platforms.
The idea behind trash streaming is ‘fiendishly’ simple: invite a few friends over, get drunk, start a live broadcast and ask viewers to donate in exchange for carrying out the dares they suggest. This may sound like a rough-yet-explicit sketch of most live streams out there, but what really drives trash streams into a subject of concern is the type of dares suggested and carried out.
Featuring a group of alcohol-induced streamers, trash streams are usually set up by an individual who hosts what are known as “trash parties.” Inviting other participants to engage in dares, the group ultimately split the earnings among themselves after a trash stream. Bidding as much as 15,000 Russian rubles ($205) per dare, these streamers are often suggested to engage in bare-knuckle brawls with others, rotten eggs fights, extinguishing cigarettes on their bodies and jumping from third-floor balconies for viewers to witness. It doesn’t stop there. Over the past year, trash streamers have undergone a concerning shift into a list of verbal and sexual assault cases.
During a trash stream in October 2020, blogger Andrei Burim (popularly known as Mellstroy) invited a group of women to a party in Moscow and offered to split the revenue gathered in exchange for collaborative dares. During the broadcast, however, Burim repeatedly slammed a 21-year-old model’s head against a table. As of today, the blogger is awaiting a trial for assault. Although YouTube blocked his main channel, where he had amassed a following of 500,000, Burim now streams via his backup channels while publishing exclusive content on Telegram.
Another case involves Ivan Pozharnikov, a thrash streamer famous for mocking homeless people in exchange for donations from viewers. With more than 700,000 views on his YouTube channel, the streamer admits to filming such videos with the aim of “re-educating the homeless.” One of his victims is a 32-year-old Yaroslavl native, Valentin Ganichev, who allegedly takes part in various trash streams where he is pelted with eggs, doused in cold water and even buried alive—all in exchange for a meal and a roof over his head. On most streams, Ganichev is either drunk or out of his mind on drugs while pleading for help during the dares. This led many viewers to believe he was being forced into participation. Following an official police investigation, however, Ganichev admitted to being a volunteer for trash streams.
One of the most shocking incidents in the subculture involves trash streamer Stanislav Reshetnyak, popularly known as Reeflay in the community. In December 2020, Reeflay locked his pregnant girlfriend, Valentina Grigoryeva, out on the balcony of his apartment in sub-zero temperatures. Dressed only in her underwear, Grigoryeva quickly succumbed to hypothermia as the streamer then proceeded to drag her body into the apartment and call for an ambulance. The entire event—from being paid $1,000 by a viewer to inflict abuse on his girlfriend to the police arriving in his apartment and declaring Grigoryeva dead—was broadcasted live on his YouTube channel. The trash streamer is currently sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter.
According to Slangit, trash streaming started out as an online trend in the mid-2010s on streaming platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Considered as a “marginal spin-off from the world of video game broadcasts,” trash streamers majorly consist of gamers who have migrated to the uncensored eco-system of YouTube following their permanent bans on Twitch. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have further propelled viewers towards trash streams as a form of entertainment in itself. The demand, in this case, is born out of an amalgamation between lonely viewers and ‘streamer boredom’—both seeking a sense of community.
So, what is the appeal for such streams among its audience exactly? Imagine commenting under a live stream of your favourite celebrity. Now imagine them noticing your comment and reading it out loud and live on-air. Trash streams essentially build on this interaction—taking it to a level where they are even ready to break laws to fulfill the challenges assigned by you.
“I was attracted by its real emotions,” said Anton, a 25-year-old security guard. In an interview with Russia Beyond, he admitted to falling down the rabbit hole during a work shift “out of sheer boredom,” “You can watch it endlessly, it’s just like real life.” For 19-year-old Nikita, trash streams are a hangout where streamers are very likely to listen and respond to whatever he has to say. According to a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Polina, trash streams used to be funnier despite their bad taste. She highlighted how “there were lots of funny jokes about the death of a participant’s mother” where viewers sent in donations with comments saying that it was his mother communicating to the streamer from the other world.
While Polina cracked up after recounting this incident, Anton was quick to break down in sobs. “They should all be locked up except for Valentin Ganichev (the 32-year-old homeless volunteer for trash streams mentioned above), who’s mentally ill. It’s nothing but sadism in the highest degree,” he added in the interview. Another fan of trash streams, nicknamed ‘xbpm_music’, claimed that the broadcasts have helped him “pine less” for his homeland. “It’s fun for me to see typical Russian idiots,” he said. “Sometimes I look at them and think: ‘Damn, I really need to do something good, otherwise I’ll become like them.’ Motivation or what?” he philosophised.
“Getting pleasure from watching violence is a mental disorder,” said Alena, a practising psychologist, in the interview with Russia Beyond. In her opinion, trash streamers satisfy both their own need for savagery and that of their audience. The psychologist equated an average viewer to an armchair boxer “who would probably beat his wife but knows that she would go to the police.” She also explained how the audience often includes those who have been previous victims of assault and humiliation themselves. “Understanding that ‘I’m not the only one with a grievance’ helps many to crawl out of the pit of despair,” the psychologist added.
Another psychologist, Lyubov Kalinovskaya, highlighted how viewers are the main participants in trash streams since they ultimately control the actions carried out by streamers. This, in turn, pushes viewers down a lane where they vicariously realise and re-evaluate their own ambitions. “For many, trash streams are unique because they guarantee reality and no one ever knows how it will end. That creates a thrill for the viewer like ancient Romans enjoyed deciding the fate of a defeated gladiator,” said Kalinovskaya.
On the other side of this equation, the appeal backing streamers essentially lies in trash streaming being considered as “a form of voyeurism thousands are happy to pay for.” In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Vasilyenko, an ex-porn actor and reality TV show contestant admitted to launching his trash stream network in January 2020 to “capitalise on the interest in his persona.” When Russia went into lockdown in April, Vasilyenko left his job and began streaming full-time, playing video games during the day and inviting friends for alcohol-fueled dares at night. “It was easy money,” he said. Streaming under the name ‘German Yagodka’, Vasilyenko makes 8,000 rubles ($109) per day on YouTube—worth half of a cashier’s monthly wage—despite having a mere 4,500 subscribers. In essence, the trash streamer admitted to being paid to have fun with friends without having to venture out.
The rise of trash streaming can also be traced back to the competition on various streaming platforms. “The competition is fierce—you have to do something radical to stand out,” said Konstantin Gabov, a sociologist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, to Radio Free Europe. “And in Russia, perhaps due to a low quality of life, people are ready to do it and others are ready to pay for it.”
Multiple accounts of deaths and violent assaults ensuing trash streams have prompted the government to crack down on the trend altogether. On 16 December 2020, the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament proposed a ban on trash streams. An active part of Russia’s wider turn towards internet censorship, the ban also mandates punishment of up to six years for those who violate the same.
Given how the authorities previously failed to ban the controversial messaging app Telegram from the country, however, experts—as well as the streamers themselves—believe that the initiative is doomed. The list of reasons also includes the vagueness of the trend in terms of defining it legally. “Banning trash is like trying to ban fake news,” said German Klimenko, a digital entrepreneur and former adviser to Putin, in an interview with Rappler. “No one can even agree on a definition of what this stuff really is.”
While YouTube and Twitch constantly cracks down on such content, some live streams manage to evade restrictions. Even if their channels end up getting blocked on these platforms, trash streamers often operate using alternate, backup channels to circumvent the ban. They also upload exclusive content to Telegram and other file hosting services. “The only way to ban trash streaming would be to convert Russia’s internet into something more like Cuba’s or North Korea’s,” Klimenko concluded.
Although all efforts have the potential of ending up in vain, the Russian government is committed to cleansing the internet of trash streams with various legislations. According to The Sun, the government is currently considering forcing live streamers to register as individual entrepreneurs—making them pay taxes on donations and allowing the police to track them.
Trash streams essentially incentivises the boundaries of what’s considered legal and safe. Every time a trash stream is cut off from mainstream viewing, it only prompts two others to pop up on alternate platforms. It also makes one wonder about the lengths the trend would go to before it ultimately dies down. “It probably won’t be long before we see a professional studio production, shot from a first-person perspective, allowing the viewer to ‘try on’ the role of the murderer or victim, not just be a watcher,” a psychologist shared in the interview with Russia Beyond.
The fact that more than 2,000 hours worth of content has already been uploaded to YouTube while you read this article doesn’t seem to help this case either. Because no matter how wild the content is, it will always find an audience.