Uber Pushes Corporate Activism in the Digital Age to the Next Level
Maybe you signed the petition, but now "Molly at Uber" won't stop robocalling.
I’ve been collecting examples of tech companies politicizing their users for two years, and there’s never been anything like Uber’s in-app protest against Mayor de Blasio.
If you’re here reading Civicist, you’re probably in favor of increased rates of civic engagement. In our representative democracy, we generally agree that citizens taking democratic action is a virtuous deed, whether it’s signing a petition, writing to elected officials, or best yet, according to conventional engagement wisdom, marching in the streets. But it’s time to consider how we feel when a technology company directly encourages its users to take the specific political action the company desires, because the practice is spreading quickly.
The most popular web applications boast over one billion users, with many more products reaching at least millions of people. The ability to ask so many people to take a specific, pre-determined, and coordinated political action is real power. In 2013, I began tracking emerging examples of companies mobilizing their customers toward political ends via their marketing emails and flagship applications, and the trend has only accelerated.
In 2012, Facebook published a study they conducted during the 2010 midterm elections. They showed that they could increase the likelihood of a user going to the polls by 0.39 percent that year if the user saw a dialog showing that their friends had voted. Micah Sifry has written about the impact of these and other, more subtle News Feed manipulations. For example, in the three months leading up to the 2012 election, Facebook boosted hard news stories in the News Feeds of some (1.9 million) users, which had a measurable impact on engagement and voter turnout.
Last year, Jonathan Zittrain played out a hypothetical scenario to suggest that if Facebook’s algorithms were influenced by the same partisanship with which we draw our actual electoral district boundaries, we could experience “digital gerrymandering,” without the ability to see the evidence. Specifically, Zittrain writes, “Digital gerrymandering occurs when a site distributes information in a manner that serves its own ideological agenda.”
The goal of the Facebook research study was to promote voter turnout among its users, even though some users did not see the treatment and therefore did not receive the boost in turnout. But today apps are driving their users—sometimes literally—to take specific political actions to achieve explicit political goals the companies wish to see by directly inserting those actions into the user experience itself. It’s not so much digital gerrymandering as it is digital ballot-stuffing.
Some of the interventions have been in support of values the companies seek to promote. OKCupid famously protested Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s support of Proposition 8 by detecting users’ browsers and then serving everyone on Firefox a letter asking them to switch to a gay-friendly browser:
By far the most potent example of companies mobilizing customers remains the SOPA blackout campaign, an unprecedented defense of the open internet driven primarily by a relatively small number of people with access to the homepages of major web properties. When the campaign launched back in 2011, I wrote about how the web was beginning to find its footing as a political force by driving their users to oppose the bills. Tumblr alone redirected enough users through their “call Congress” workflow to produce 87,834 phone calls.
Some tech companies have leveraged their users against political opponents outside of government. Around this time last summer, Amazon responded to Authors United with Readers United, invoking the historical disruption of the paperback novel in asking its customers to join their side and email the opposing CEO in their pricing battle with a major publisher.
Standing up for innovation (or against regulation, depending on you look at it)
The value that tech startups most often ask their users to defend is the value found in their own business models. As companies “disrupt” various industries, they face existential regulatory battles over their effect on contractor employees and the cities in which they operate. These are the battles in which some tech companies have been most eager to activate their customers and mobilize us to their defense.
In Aereo’s losing Supreme Court case against existing cable television regulations, the company sent a series of passionate campaign emails to users, not over civil rights or partisan politics, but in defense of what they perceived to be their right to re-transmit cable programming over the web. The emails pointed passionate users to the now-defunct ProtectMyAntenna.org.
The practice of activating customers has only intensified as “sharing economy” companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft fight for their very legality in cities all over the planet. Up against better-established and better-resourced industry groups, like traditional hotel and taxi interests, sharing economy companies are experimenting with increasing urgency by inviting their users to speak out and turn out in defense of their preferred terms of business.
In the short time I’ve been collecting such examples, Uber has taken the lead with the most consistently user-fueled advocacy. Perhaps the most aggressive instance of David Plouffe’s global campaign came this week when the company launched added the name of New York City’s mayor, “DE BLASIO,” to the menu of ride options seen by its New York City users. The “feature” is a bold app-based political protest, offering not “your ride, on demand,” but a hypothetical 25 minute wait time the company foreshadows if Bill 842, a cap on new vehicles, became law.
If you read the feather-light grey print, you’ll see that by signing the petition, you’re also agreeing to opt in to Uber’s “automatic telephone dialing system,” or robocalls:
By entering your contact information and clicking “Send Email,” you agree that Uber may use this information for various purposes relating to this petition, including adding your name, email address, telephone number, and/or zip code to an electronic petition, displaying your name on print materials, and sending a letter or email on your behalf to your local officials, which may include your full name, city, and/or zip code. You also agree that Uber may contact you via email, phone, or SMS (including by automatic telephone dialing system) at the email address or number provided, for purposes relating to this petition.
The in-app protest augments the more traditional elements of Plouffe’s campaign: paid TV ads featuring New Yorkers, press outreach, mailers, and robocalls, all promising double or triple the wait times and over ten thousand lost jobs.
Is everyone else in NYC getting nuisance robocalls from “Molly at Uber” complaining about DeBlasio? I count 7 or 8 so far.— Leo Carey (@LeoJCarey) July 20, 2015
Hey, lawyers out there, are there rules about this kind of thing?
In which instances do we applaud corporate intervention by user interface, and in which do we decry it? How aggressive a campaign should a publicly traded company present to its users? Are there legal limits to corporate-driven free speech? Nonprofits aren’t legally allowed to oppose specific legislation, but eBay can, as they did in 2013 when they emailed their users in opposition of the Marketplace Fairness Act, a proposed bill that would allow states to collect sales taxes on online businesses without physical locations in the state.
Curb (formerly Taxi Magic) provided its users ride discounts on Election Day 2014 to help get them to the polls. Uber also provided free rides to customers, as long as they were headed to the company’s demonstration. Are these digital advocacy investments, some of which surpass the efficacy of actual televised political ads, considered in-kind contributions? The new technological channels of political advocacy only complicate a democracy opened to corporate speech in the Citizens United decision. I’m not holding my breath that the FEC will figure this out in the 2016 election cycle, but I am curious what others think.
I’m in Austin to hear the Knight Foundation announce the winners of the Knight News Challenge, which will fund an entire class of projects and partnerships designed to inform and engage citizens about elections. It’ll be worth discussing that in addition to PACs and campaigns themselves, these civic and media efforts will increasingly be competing for voters’ attention with the apps on their home screens.