It looks like Uber is trying to get back into the good graces of what it sees as a very specific demographic — people who like the American Civil Liberties Union on Facebook.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick published an internal memo about President Trump’s executive orders barring refugees, immigrants, and even legal US residents from seven Muslim-majority countries on the company’s website Saturday morning. That memo has also been published to Facebook, and Uber appears to have used Facebook’s interest-targeting tool to serve it with a preference for users who have expressed an interest in the ACLU.
Eric Beard, a Portland resident, told The Verge in an email that he is in his late twenties and has followed the ACLU Facebook page since 2011. He noted that he doesn’t “like” Uber or Travis Kalanick on Facebook, but that he is “interested in technology and how the sharing economy is reshaping our work force.”
The memo has also been promoted extensively on Twitter, with dozens of users calling Uber out for trying to weasel their way back into protesters’ hearts. However, interest-targeting parameters are not publicly visible on Twitter, so The Verge cannot determine how the ad is being served. A spokesperson for Uber was reached for comment but had not responded by time of publish.
To understand the irony of Uber gunning specifically for the hearts of ACLU supporters, you have to familiarize yourself with the timeline of a weird duel between the ride-sharing company and Lyft, its main competitor. Amidst this weekend’s massive airport protests against the Trump administration’s Muslim travel and immigration bans, the two were caught in a strange fight for public approval. It started when the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance announced on Friday that it would make no pick-ups at JFK airport for one hour in protest of Trump’s executive orders, citing solidarity with the affected.
Uber drivers continued making normal pick-ups during that hour and Uber announced half an hour later that surge pricing had been turned off at JFK. That tweet sparked accusations across Twitter of strike-breaking, undermining the collective action of workers, and endorsing what has been widely criticized as an immoral and stupid series of executive orders. That prompted the hashtag #DeleteUber to trend all weekend, alongside further commentary about Kalanick joining President Trump’s economic advisory team. Thousands of tweets and dozens of posts from celebrities encouraged people to delete the app and install Lyft instead, in what looks like a huge marketing windfall for Uber’s main competitor. Latching onto the swinging pendulum, Lyft then donated $1 million to the ACLU.
In one sense, it’s a little silly to think that deleting your Uber account right now is a principled stand in defense of workers — the taxi alliance’s boycott was an hour-long expression of solidarity, not a strike. And JFK fares are some of the most lucrative in New York, a big sacrifice for drivers who are already being lied to by their employers about whether or not they’ll take home a living wage. But in another sense #DeleteUber could be seen as the final straw for people who were already knowingly ignoring a lot of the company’s abuses: Uber has been roundly criticized and oft-sued for fraudulent claims about how much its drivers can reasonably earn; it’s constantly fighting for the right not to classify drivers as employees (because that means providing benefits and protections); and its vision of a future where public transportation is not a worthwhile investment at any level of government should be chilling to anyone without a six-figure salary. Those are just the worst among other ethically dubious practices.
It’s also a little silly to see Lyft’s donation as a big-hearted act of charity. It’s not a surprising move at all from a PR standpoint, and though the $1 million will do just as much good as anyone else’s million, it’s barely a drop in the well of Lyft’s capital reserves.
So it is, further, not surprising to see Uber using Lyft’s own tactic to try to claw back some ground. After Kalanick announced that Uber would put together a $3 million fund to assist drivers affected by the bans, he also condemned the president’s actions in strong terms. Targeting the ads to people who like the ACLU on Facebook would be a logical way to get these words in front of the eyes of the people who are most annoyed with the company. It’s also incredibly ill-considered given Facebook’s transparency about interest-targeting. Targeting the ads by city would probably have been nearly as effective without being anywhere close to as embarrassing.
Oh well! I guess now is not really the time to worry about which ride-sharing app is beloved by the people.