Getting to the Bottom of #DeleteUber

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“In January of 2017, Uber broke up a Muslim taxi strike by dropping its surcharges. In the midst of controversy surrounding the immigrant ban, this action pushed many users to delete their Uber accounts and switch to Lyft.”—The Daily Tar Heel

“Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times. Please be patient.—Uber NYC”

“BREAKING: NYTWA drivers call for one hour work stoppage @ JFK airport today 6 PM to 7 PM to protest #muslimban! #nobannowall.”

“Lyft donates $1mil to ACLU while Uber doubles down on its support for Trump. #DeleteUber”

“Don’t like @Uber’s exploitative anti-labor policies & Trump collaboration, now profiting off xenophobia? #deleteUber”

After Uber New York City tweeted at 4:36 PM on January 28th that they would be turning off surge pricing for pickups at JFK Airport, a Twitter media campaign #deleteuber caused over 200,000 subscribers to delete their accounts.

Although it is impossible to say why each of the 200,000 subscribers deleted his account, those initially tweeting #deleteuber claimed that Uber, by turning off surge pricing for pickups from JFK, was trying to interfere with a spontaneous NYC taxicab strike at JFK from 6 to 7pm. The strike had been planned to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. The subsequent frenzy caused #deleteuber to trend on Twitter throughout the day on the 29th, which ultimately resulted in the mass boycott.

More recently, under pressure from public scrutiny caused by the #deleteuber phenomenon, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick removed himself from Mr. Trump’s economic advisory council, a decision the CEO defended fervently in a letter to Uber drivers released after the backlash. Mr. Kalanick wrote: “Whatever the city or country—from the U.S. and Mexico to China and Malaysia—we’ve taken the view that in order to serve cities you need to give their citizens a voice, a seat at the table.” Mr. Kalanick then vowed to compensate Uber drivers affected by the executive order. In addition to this compensation, Mr. Kalanick set aside a $3 million fund the to pay legal expenses of affected drivers.

Mr. Trump signed Executive Order #13769 on January 27th on the day before the taxi strike. The purpose of the order was stated as an effort to prevent citizens of certain terror-prone countries from entering the United States until vetting practices could be carefully examined.

The order included a temporary ban on immigration from the countries Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. These countries were designated as high-risk for terrorist activities under Department of Homeland Security statute, not under the Trump Administration, but under in the Obama Administration. The so called “Muslim ban” was not a ban of any particular religion or even particular country, but rather a 90 day suspension of entry of aliens from countries deemed high-risk in the DHS statute (Sec 3c.), a statute predating Trump.

So while supporting the executive order is a perfectly reasonable position to take—one that Uber did NOT take—to some on the left, even the slightest indication of support for a policy associated with the Trump Administration becomes grounds for all-out war.

Reporters at Merion West determined that an individual with approximately 47k followers by the name of Dan O’Sullivan was the first to tweet #deleteuber in a reply to Uber New York City. Only one hour after Uber New York City announced it was dropping the surge and twenty minutes before the taxi strike even began, Mr. O’Sullivan replied, “Congrats to @Uber_NYC on breaking a strike to profit off of refugees being consigned to Hell. eat [expletive] and die.” His second reply, an hour later, contained the first instance of the hashtag after the executive order was passed: “Don’t like @Uber’s exploitative anti-labor policies & Trump collaboration, now profiting off xenophobia? #deleteUber.”

(When Merion West asked Mr. O’Sullivan if he would to comment for this article, he responded with two insulting emails to that he then retweeted to his followers. Both Mr. O’Sullivan and many of his followers then made vulgar comments—many too inappropriate to repeat—about the appearance and personal background of the reporter).

A brief word about how Uber’s business model works:

Uber is a car-sharing service run by a mobile app on which one can call for a ride to come to a current GPS location, or any other location. Drivers are private contractors who give rides to passengers for financial compensation. Uber takes a cut from every fare. Uber prices the fares at a flat rate depending on the duration and mileage of the trip. During times of high demand, the flat rate is increased by a certain multiplier, called “surge pricing,” a feature which Uber may turn off. This multiplier is calculated from the ride demand, that is, how many drivers are able to give rides as compared to how many riders are looking for rides in a given location. Uber drivers are then able to see the surge multipliers of nearby locations on a map, and they are given the opportunity to drive to locations with high surge rates. In other words, surge pricing is an incredibly innovative feature that equilibrates supply with demand, allowing for maximal market efficiency in the Uber network. It is because of this market efficiency, as well as a number of other reasons, that Uber fares are generally much lower than their taxi competitors.

When Uber NYC turned off surge pricing rates at JFK, the company actually disincentivized Uber drivers from picking up passengers at the airport, as Uber drivers would be better off picking passengers in areas with surge pricing or at least as well-off by driving in other non-surge areas given the ruckus occurring at JFK. Thus, it is more than a stretch to say that Uber was “profiting off of xenophobia.” This is simply untrue. If anything, Uber was losing revenue. But without question, Uber, by turning off the surge pricing, aided the taxi protesters. Not only were passengers unable to catch taxis from the JFK from 6-7pm, but they would have found great difficulty in calling an Uber since demand far exceeded the supply—and Uber drivers were not allowed to charge higher fares, as they normally would.

Many news outlets, including the Daily Tar Heel, drew similar conclusions to Mr. O’Sullivan about Uber’s motives. The New York Times was the first to legitimize the accusation that Uber “intended to profit” from the New York City taxi protest, concluding in its report by stating: “…Uber’s long history of being aggressive and developing a reputation as a bully of the transportation industry has come back to bite it at the worst possible time.”

Some secondary news outlets, such as the Daily Tar Heel, took it so far as to claim that Uber singlehandedly “broke up a Muslim taxi strike by dropping its surcharges,” urging its readers to practice so-called “ethical consumerism,” and to “use our dollars as a form of advocacy.”
Some Uber customers who chose not to delete the app cited general skepticism of claims that Uber intended to profit from the boycott while many reaffirmed the advantages of the ridesharing app over traditional taxi companies. For others, such as economist Paul J. Voss, Uber offers the possibility of employment to anyone with access to a car and the will to work.

Tweet #deleteuberscam and tag @merion_west this week if you found this reporting interesting.

Hans Riess graduated from Duke University with a degree in mathematics and is working towards a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He is interested in applying concepts from mathematics to theories of optimal political decision-making.

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