Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and Instacart are innovating yet again. First they disrupted labor law, misclassifying full-time workers as independent contractors and stripping them of hard-won benefits and protections. Now they’re pioneers on a new frontier, where multibillion dollar corporations pay expensive campaign operatives to encourage targeted online harassment of private citizens who criticize them.
At the moment, rideshare and delivery app companies are locked in a cage match with the state of California. Last year California passed AB 5, a bill that tightened the definition of independent contractors in a way that excludes their app drivers. Uber and Lyft refused to comply with the new law and skated by until last month, when a judge ruled that they needed to reclassify their workers as employees within ten days. The companies appealed the ruling, and even threatened a capital strike if they didn’t get their way. Another judge has ruled that they can continue normal operations until mid-October. As the weeks tick by, the pressure mounts.
The corporations’ rationale for fighting back so hard is transparent. Uber and Lyft want to be exempt from laws that guarantee workers health benefits, overtime pay, reimbursement for work expenses, paid time off, workers’ compensation, protection from discrimination, and unemployment benefits should they find themselves out of work — because following these laws costs money they don’t want to spend.
Rideshare and delivery app companies are engaged in an existential battle for their right to continue misclassifying their workers as independent contractors, which is the basis of their entire business model. Now Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates (which was recently bought by Uber), and Instacart have put all their eggs in the basket of Proposition 22, a ballot measure that essentially overrides AB 5.
Prop 22 is up to the people of California to decide, and it lives and dies by public opinion. To shape it, these companies have enlisted the services of public relations firms with few scruples and a diverse array of tactics — including, according to an explosive report at CNET, encouraging targeted online harassment of individuals who speak out against the measure.
The Lollipop Guild
Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart have together thrown over $100 million into the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign. A large share of that money, according to records obtained by CNET, has gone to retain the services of eighteen consulting firms. Among them are several PR firms whose past clients include long lists of Republican candidates and large corporations seeking to crush regulatory legislation. These firms have been conscripted to handle tasks for the Yes on Prop 22 campaign ranging from opposition research to press outreach to social media.
In practice, it appears that the activities of these firms has led to harassment of individuals who advocate for the rights of rideshare and delivery workers.
The CNET report tells the story of employment labor law professor Veena Dubal, a vocal proponent of AB 5 and critic of Prop 22. A few months ago, Dubal was falsely identified as the secret author of AB 5 in a series of denunciatory posts published on right-wing websites. As a result of this coverage, Dubal came to the attention of a group of aggressive anti-AB 5 Twitter users who sometimes call themselves the Lollipop Guild, a reference to a quote by AB 5’s actual author, state assembly member Lorena Gonzalez.
The Yes campaign encouraged these users to harass Dubal. When she began blocking Lollipop Guild and anti-AB 5 accounts, the official Yes campaign Twitter account, which is run by a consulting firm called Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks, tweeted, “If you’ve been blocked by Veena Dubal reply with your screenshot below!” The official campaign account then began retweeting screenshots from people who had been blocked by Dubal, encouraging others to engage in behavior that would earn them a similar screenshot as a badge of honor.
The harassment escalated, and Dubal’s home address was posted online. She reported this to the police, who took it seriously enough to patrol her block. When CNET sought to contact the woman who posted Dubal’s address, a freelance translator, they received a response from a nationally recognized lawyer with a long list of high-profile conservative clients — suggesting possible coordination between individuals associated with the Lollipop Guild (many of whom appear to be real people with authentic grievances) and the network of consulting firms hired by the Yes campaign.
If that wasn’t enough, another PR firm working for the Yes campaign called MB Public Affairs filed a public records requests with Dubal’s employer, asking to see “all emails, text messages and other written communications between Dubal and members of 25 different driver groups, labor organizations, nonprofits, unions and consultancies,” CNET reports. After that, a complaint was also filed against Dubal with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging that she was engaged in “lobbying violations.”
The intense and sustained negative attention overwhelmed Dubal and started wearing her down. “I’ve tried to maintain a strong face through all of this, but it has really been traumatizing and difficult,” she told CNET. “Frankly, I didn’t realize until now why this kind of harassment is so common and so effective in silencing people.”
Targeted Harassment as a Service
Dubal isn’t alone. As the Prop 22 fight has heated up, these tactics have been used on other opponents of the ballot measure, including economists who recommend employee reclassification and labor activists who drive for the companies pouring money into the Yes campaign.
“We’ve seen a lot of disinformation-as-a-service campaigns,” Zarine Kharazian, assistant editor at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told CNET. “This seems to be targeted harassment as a service, which is an adjacent but distinct phenomenon.”
The purpose of coordinated online intimidation tactics like these is twofold: to turn public opinion against advocates of a particular position through character assassination, and to psychologically torment and exhaust those individuals, making them reluctant to continue advancing their position. It’s a smart play, demonstrating that campaign operatives are watching what works to persuade some people and silence others on social media, and then harnessing and enacting those behaviors toward their own ends.
Campaign consultants have likely been using these kinds of social media mob intimidation tactics for a while. In fact, many people who were active on Twitter during the Democratic presidential primaries suspect this kind of thing was happening under our noses earlier this year. Even so, the fact that these are the tactics being used in a life-and-death campaign bankrolled by some of the most powerful companies in the world is a bad omen, and should serve as a warning.
Given what’s at stake, it’s hardly surprising that Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart are pulling out the big guns on this campaign. The fact that this is what the big guns look like in 2020 indicates that there’s more of the same on the horizon. In view of this trend, activists, journalists, and academics need to learn how to distinguish tactics like these from ordinary online controversy — and develop best practices for standing their ground.