Uber has courted controversy since the ride-sharing company’s inception in 2009. At the time, it made sense that such a disruptive company would cause others concern, but these weren’t typical complaints, ranging from underpaying drivers to disturbing accounts of poor labor practices, all of which ultimately culminated in a class-action lawsuit in California that contended Uber illegally paid its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees (that suit, along with another in Massachusetts that argued the same provision, was ultimately settled, and Uber was allowed to continue using the designation ‘independent contractors’).
But as Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick continued to grow the company, Uber looked to advance itself as a leader amongst a new wave of monolithic tech companies—a group for which the phrase ‘don’t be evil’ might not share the same distinction.
That is, until this past weekend: During the rollout of the Muslim ban, otherwise known as Executive Order 13769 (which bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from the U.S. for up to 90 days, and disrupts off the United States’ refugee system for upwards of 120 days), the New York Taxi Workers Alliance declared a solidarity strike at JFK International Airport, the hub of the country’s protest against the ban.
It took one ill-advised tweet from Uber, which announced surge pricing had been suspended around the airport, to finally force the company to re-evaluate its business practices. More than 200,000 users—under the hashtag #deleteUber—removed the app from their smart phones, and Vice reported that officials within Uber grew increasingly worried that the social media-driven movement would have a ‘significant impact’ on the company’s U.S. operations. Just six days later, Recode’s Kara Swisher reported that Kalanick, who also serves on President Donald Trump’s business advisory council, had excused himself from the group.
According to Swisher:
…in a memo that Kalanick sent to Uber’s staff, he focused on issue that the company had with the ban against refugees and travel from seven Muslim countries and the implication that being on the council was a tacit endorsement of the policy. “Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” wrote Kalanick. “There are many ways we will continue to advocate for just change on immigration but staying on the council was going to get in the way of that.”
The outburst against Uber, culminating with Kalanick’s decision, is perhaps the clearest signal that we as a country are entering a new era of activism, one that will be marked as effective (rather than passive). There have been protests before last weekend’s, and there will be more in the coming weeks, but the swiftness with which Uber realized an error, and the masses were then able to force the company to alter itself, was unparalleled.
Protests have come and gone, and almost always on deaf ears: in 2014, scores protested the NFL’s Washington Redskins, a team which insisted on keeping its name despite the obvious racism (and in light of other teams changing their respective mascots). Nothing happened.
But with the rabid and forceful mobilization of the masses that intend to rightfully hold President Trump accountable, there is a sense that raising one’s voice will actually effect change.
Nordstrom’s, for example, is reportedly dropping Ivanka Trump’s label, after an aggressive campaign to boycott her clothing, shoe, and accessory line launched post-election. Racked reported:
The end of the partnership comes after months of the #GrabYourWallet campaign, which has been in full effect since October. Shannon Coulter and Sue Atencio, started the campaign after meeting on Twitter. Initially a Google spreadsheet of retailers that do business with the Trump family, from stores that carry Ivanka and President Donald Trump’s line, to businesses owned by the Trumps themselves, the list has since been moved to its own website, GrabYourWallet.org.
Since the campaign started, thousands have taken to Twitter to voice their support of the boycott…Nordstrom wouldn’t comment any further about the business decision, but it’s clear the boycott’s hurt the Ivanka Trump account at the 116-year-old Seattle-based retailer.
The links between social media and activism have been well-established prior to the rise of Donald Trump, but the United States has seemingly never met with such resistance from the proletariat, a shift that David Karpf, a professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, argues will only grow. From his new book, Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy:
The work of digital listening falls primarily upon the analysts, technologists, and strategists who are gathering the data and rendering them accessible. It is (to borrow a concept from Personal Democracy Media’s Micah Sifry) an atomistic form of engagement: we watch alone, we take action alone, we even share inspirational stories alone, clicking away at a laptop screen or mobile interface. Atomistic engagement can move fast and can be harnessed by smart, nimble nonprofits. But a deep, committed supporter base provides heft and force. The mightiest organizations in the years to come will harness both.