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Tracing the spread of Uber rumors during the Paris terrorist attacks

Accused of both jacking up prices and suspending its service

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

In the midst of the chaos surrounding the terrorist attacks on Paris last Friday, rumors about Uber began to ping-pong across social media. Those rumors sparked a wave of anger which immediately put the ride-hailing company on the defensive, and cast a spotlight on its unique position in the tech landscape.

False reports that Uber was charging passengers 400 percent the normal rate, or had completely suspended its service in Paris were suddenly all over social media. The company moved fast to correct the record with the media, but on Facebook and Twitter the rumors began to take on a life of their own. Before long, Uber became a major target of anger and grief in the hours following the attacks.

To be clear, Uber says both rumors are false. Not only did it cancel surge pricing — the controversial feature in which fares increase during periods of peak demand — approximately 30 minutes after the first terrorist bombing in Paris, it also denies suspending its services. If anything, demand spiked during the chaos and drivers were in short supply, which may have contributed to the confusion. During the attacks, Uber's app displayed a "situation d'urgence" message from the French authorities notifying Parisian users to shelter in place.

Europe, and France in particular, is a complicated place for Uber

So how did the rumors start? A splash message about "service disruption" that preceded the emergency situation message may have set off the chatter that Uber was suspended. Time initially reported that Uber had ceased giving rides, and then changed its story after the company sought a correction.

The current version of the story, "Paris Attacks Briefly Disrupt Uber Service Amid Wider Transportation Chaos," has no correction appended, but Time's tweet about the rumored suspension is still up. A spokesman for the magazine told The Verge that a reporter reached out to Uber for confirmation, but whether the story went up before Uber had a chance to respond is unclear.

Tech Insider aggregated the Time story and included social media rumors that surge pricing of four times the normal rates was also in effect. After that story went up, Uber was powerless to stop the spread. And the company's harshest critics, many of whom are from the beleaguered taxi industry, were ready to stoke the flames.

"It's a real shame that some individuals are using such sad circumstances for their own purposes. The rumors are not true," Gareth Mead, an Uber official, told Quartz in an email. "To be absolutely clear: Uber immediately removed dynamic-pricing across France last night. The level of demand during such a terrible time meant that our partners were incredibly busy and constantly on trips. This remains the case today."

In reality, many taxi drivers and Uber drivers gave free rides to panicked Parisians. But tweets about benevolent Uber drivers — and there were some — don't tend to catch fire the same way tweets about price gouging do. And self-inflicted wounds from the past, such as the time Uber instituted surge pricing in New York during Hurricane Sandy, haven't made things easier for the $50 billion transportation company. The Hurricane Sandy incident led to an agreement by Uber to cap its surge pricing during emergencies, but that only applies in the US. (It's unclear as to why Uber hasn't extended that policy globally yet.)

Tweets about nice Uber drivers don't tend to catch fire

While Uber has made strides in its forever war against regulators and the industries it disrupts in America, Europe remains a very hostile place for the company. European authorities continue to crack down on the service, and it's unclear whether its strategy of setting up shop in cities illegally, waiting for Uber fever to spread, and then working out a deal with officials after its dominance has been established will work in a continent with much stronger history of labor protections and corporate regulation.

Of course, Uber wasn't the only entity to get swept up in the storm of erroneous information that spread across social media platforms in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Feeds were overflowing with false stories and photos, like the Eiffel Tower going dark for the first time in 126 years (the lights always go dark at 1AM) or a massive rally gathering in the heart of Paris (the rally was from earlier this year). And in the days that follow, more false reports will be retweeted and reposted ad infinitum in the echo chamber that is the internet, stoked in equal parts by xenophobia, ignorance, and the ease in which such falsehoods can be spread using technology.

Uber is already confronting a host of complicated issues in Europe, but especially France, where protests against its service fueled violent clashes between taxi drivers and police, and ultimately led to the arrests of two of the company's executives. Caught up in the protests, singer Courtney Love called it a "war zone" — a statement that in hindsight seems eerily more descriptive of Paris today than earlier this year.