Uber’s Unethical Astro-Turfing: A Sign of Things to Come?

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Companies that resort to ‘astro-turfing’ – artificially building faux-grassroots movements to push a corporate-friendly agenda — are nothing new. Exxon-Mobil’s longtime funding of climate-change deniers and the smoking industry’s use of false science to hide the negative effects of tobacco are just two examples of how companies manipulate the public debate to increase their own profits. Other companies have been known to hire fake protestors, spend millions on “grassroots” organizing and hire actors to appear as concerned citizens in advertising.

Technology, though, is changing how companies interact with customers and providing a way for companies to directly interact with users. Uber, this past month, took advantage of its customers in New York City through misinformation and fear tactics.

Uber leveraged the power of its app to prompt a social-media assault. The company added a “de Blasio’s Uber” feature so that every time New Yorkers logged on to order a car, they were reminded of the mayor’s threat to cap the number of Uber vehicles (with a message reading “NO CARS — SEE WHY”) and were sent directly to a petition opposing the new rules.

The result? Around 17,000 messages sent to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. For what? Uber wants the freedom to pick up as many people as it can in New York City without having to follow the same rules and regulations as New York taxicabs. Even though it is a multibillion-dollar company that’s far, far bigger than any taxi company (many of which are independently-operated small businesses), Uber painted itself as a victim and told users to fight back against “special interests,” despite all the evidence that the biggest special interest in this fight is … none other than Uber itself.

This manipulation shouldn’t surprise anyone, because Uber is, by nearly most measures, a company that ranks horribly on most corporate responsibility measures. It spends heavily on lobbying against regulations, resists tooth-and-nail any attempt to be help accountable for the actions of its workers, and doesn’t have any corporate foundation to speak of.

Uber has a charity page – but it is sparse, has no real focus, and is aimed more toward getting people to use its app for rides to events, like San Francisco’s Gay Pride Festival, rather than providing real assistance to worthy causes.

Instead of trying to work with taxi drivers, many of whom have been adversely affected by the rise of Uber, the ride-sharing company demonizes them with websites and targeted messaging. Now, through its app, Uber is trying to put its users against taxi drivers and city officials under the veil of “freedom” and “access.”

The irony of riders taking action in support of a $50 billion company aside, this is worrisome for many reasons. Firstly – there are many causes out there that are worthy of civic engagement, many of which we cover right here at TriplePundit: climate change, drought, human rights. New York City, where Uber’s astro-turfing took place last week, is facing huge challenges with regards to police brutality and racial profiling. By focusing the attention of its users, and the media, onto an issue that only benefits itself, it is diverting the potential of technology to spread awareness of the real challenges facing New York City.

Uber is a ride-hailing app, and nothing more. By manipulating its users to supporting a cause that benefits itself, Uber is showing its true colors. In a world where we need more people to act on genuine issues, and where technology can help engage people on those issues, Uber is pointing its app backwards, using it for the same purposes that Big Tobacco did back in the 1960s and ’70s — profits. That is why the company added features that allow users to interact with Mayor de Blasio — but good luck finding a way to contact Uber.

The worst part? It worked. Uber was able to get New York City to delay regulations that would have adversely affected its business: a dangerous precedent for app users everywhere.

Image credit: Jason Tester

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.