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#DeleteUber exposes Uber’s serious loyalty problem

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Preexisting status as a lightning rod made it an easy target for a backlash

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Over the weekend, the hashtag #DeleteUber, in which people posted screenshots of themselves deleting the app in protest of Uber’s response to the refugee crisis, went viral. This happened despite the ride-hailing company’s effort to out-empathize its tech rivals by pledging to compensate drivers stranded overseas and set up a $3 million legal fund for affected drivers. In fact, Uber’s response only seemed to enrage the internet even more, as scores of customers and celebrities gleefully posted images of them banishing the app from their phones.

Much of the ire stemmed from Uber’s decision to suspend surge pricing during a taxi strike at JFK airport in protest of President Trump’s immigration ban, prompting accusations of strikebreaking. Uber later apologized, while claiming it technically didn’t break the strike because its tweet suspending surge pricing went out at 7:36PM, over 30 minutes after the strike ended.

Not that any of these people deleting Uber really needed an accurate excuse to, well, delete Uber. The strike they allegedly broke only lasted an hour. And aside from one picture of a seemingly empty Terminal 4 tweeted by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, it’s unclear how many taxi drivers actually participated in the strike. Also, since when is there so much solidarity with taxi drivers? Wasn’t Uber’s rise in popularity in part because people hated riding in yellow cabs?

What’s clear is that Uber’s reputation to a lot of people is garbage. No question, the service is insanely popular: millions of people use it or drive for it, and it’s fundamentally changed the way people all over the world get around. But a not-insignificant portion of the app’s userbase sees it as a necessary evil. They don’t own a car and public transit can be shitty and unreliable, so they swallow their discomfort and use Uber because it’s fast and it works.

But Trump’s immigration ban proved to be a tipping point for many people, and one that also exposed Uber’s fundamental weakness: its customers aren’t as loyal as the company thinks.

Protestors Rally At JFK Airport Against Muslim Immigration Ban Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

“Boycotts are a classic way to hold powerful actors to account,” Brishen Rogers, a law professor at Temple University who studies the social cost of ride-sharing, told The Verge. “Given the competition in this market right now, I don’t see how deleting Uber will harm drivers. Many if not most drivers already work on multiple platforms, so if they receive fewer fares from Uber they’ll just switch over the Lyft or another provider. So the campaign will likely do more harm to the company than drivers, which is what most people probably intend.”

The grassroots backlash spread like wildfire thanks also to Uber’s CEO and the company he keeps. Back in December, Travis Kalanick was named to a panel of economic advisors to Trump, along with other chief executives like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, GM CEO Mary Barra, and Disney CEO Robet Iger. And yet we haven’t seen any #DeleteGM or #DeleteDisney campaigns in the wake of their involvement. Only Uber is so unlucky, it seems.

While Lyft was making headlines (and nabbing new customers) by pledging to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union, Kalanick was promising to scold the new president about his controversial and divisive immigration order at a meeting in DC on Friday. This wasn’t the response many users were hoping for.

“I understand that many people internally and externally may not agree with that decision, and that’s OK,” Kalanick wrote in an internal Uber memo obtained by BuzzFeed, with regards to his involvement in the Trump advisory group. “It’s the magic of living in America that people are free to disagree. But whatever your view please know that I’ve always believed in principled confrontation and just change; and have never shied away (maybe to my detriment) from fighting for what’s right.”

The only problem is that many people on the left believe there can be no “principled confrontation” with someone as unprincipled as Trump. And that’s why this backlash against Uber, as compared to past backlashes, is so significant. Last year, Uber rebranded itself to highlight its focus on cities, under the assumption that the ride-hailing company’s future growth depended mostly on large urban centers. Now those cities are the frontline of the anti-Trump movement, and Uber is at risk of alienating its core customer base by continuing to act as if Trump is someone who can be reasoned with.

“Civil Rights Groups to Uber CEO and Others: Step Down from Trump's Business Council,” reads one email subject line that went out to reporters. Uber’s preexisting status as a lightning rod made it an easy target for a backlash. Recall that in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, rumors spread that Uber was charging passengers 400 percent the normal rate, or had completely suspended its service. The rumors turned out to be false, but it highlighted how people are predisposed to assume the worse about the ride-hailing service.

For years, the company has picked fights with local governments and taxi owners, warred with drivers and unions over its labor practices, and alienated riders by generally being a dick to everyone in its relentless quest to dominate the global ride-sharing market.

Which is not to say that Uber isn’t trying to act more responsibly and less tone deaf. Today, after a weekend of negative headlines, the company opened a 30,000-square-foot facility in Queens for drivers to take classes or get free medical exams. But the company is caught in a bind, because what drivers really want is for Uber to rise its fares to allow them to earn more. And more expensive trips could further alienate riders, many of whom already assume that Uber underpays its drivers.

Uber is probably hoping to ride out this current wave of discontent, and the early numbers seem to support the theory that this could all blow over. Over the weekend, #DeleteUber was sent out by 3,945 users in 5,116 posts, with a potential 27,746,787 impressions, according to Keyhole. And while Lyft has moved up slightly in the rankings in terms of app downloads, Uber remained at the top in both Travel and Maps and Navigation categories, according to App Annie.

But that doesn’t reflect the long-term damage this could do to Uber’s business, especially if customers turn their purchasing power into a litmus test for Trump’s policies.

“The reality is that people build ethics into their market decisions all the time,” said Rogers, the Temple University law professor. “We reward people who demonstrate some commitments to us, and punish those who don’t. A lot of the time that happens almost subconsciously, but there is a rich literature in behavioral economics playing it out. It becomes most apparent when large companies make themselves targets by violating social norms.”

Correction: President Trump’s economic council includes this list of chief executives. A previous version of this story misstated the names.