DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom

Illustration for article titled DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom
Screenshot: Dash Community NY

Last year, in a feat of astonishing greed, Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash poured $200 million into buying a law that safeguards their profits and screws their struggling workers. Their sinister ballot measure Prop 22 passed, and it’s practically unrepealable; now they’re lining New York state politicians’ pockets, and yet again, gearing up for what looks like another round of belligerent propagandizing. DoorDash has released a dreary website nearly identical to a Prop 22 campaign platform. The purpose is ominously vague.

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For a sense of what New York is in for, the companies had threatened to leave California leading up to the Prop 22 vote. They predicted mass job loss and the elimination of schedule flexibility, and they plastered their messaging on delivery bags, astroturf mailers, and in their apps. They retained a big tobacco PR firm, allegedly launched a harassment campaign against a professor, and poured substantial contributions into the Republican Party.

As a result of the measure’s passage, the companies are exempt from paying workers for the large chunk of time spent waiting for rides, full reimbursement for expenses, overtime pay, or sick leave. They’re protected from unionization and from paying out hundreds of millions in unemployment insurance to the state.

High off the win, the companies almost immediately announced a crusade. “Going forward, you’ll see us more loudly advocate for new laws like Prop 22,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in an earnings call last year. “We think that Prop 22 has now created a model that can be replicated and can be scaled,” Lyft’s chief policy officer Anthony Foxx told the Washington Post.

Next stop is New York. As previously reported, Uber and Lyft’s PACs spent millions of dollars on down-ballot Democratic candidates in the 2020 election cycle. (Uber’s PAC New Yorkers for Flexible Work paid out $440,000 to Red Horse Strategies, a consulting firm often retained by Democratic campaigns, concentrated on turning red districts blue. Lyft’s PAC alone, New Yorkers for Independent Work, poured $2.5 million worth of digital ads and mailers into 13 candidates, only three of whom lost. Gizmodo has compiled a list of Lyft’s contributions here.)

Now DoorDash seems to have recycled a marketing initiative Uber set up leading up to Prop 22: a site populated with video testimonials in which workers voluntarily praise the corporation. (Just how voluntary the act would be is an open question.)

In April, DoorDash launched “The New York Dasher Community,” which at first glance looks to be a windswept social media platform specifically for New York-based Dashers, but was launched using Countable, a platform for campaign sites. Make sense of this:

DoorDash is committed to protecting the flexibility and independence of Dashers, while also ensuring you receive protections tailored to the unique nature of work on platforms like DoorDash.

Join the New York Dasher community to meet your fellow Dashers, stay informed on the latest policy news, and make your voice heard!

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“Meet” people is a very loose interpretation of what you can do with limited tools provided. You may set up a profile, but you can not DM. Users can technically follow each other, though they can’t find each other through a useful discovery mechanism. You can post content, but not on your profile or a user forum. You can comment, but only under limited DoorDash-sanctioned blog posts. (“This is a great initiative!” “Monica” screams.) All the action is on pages with DoorDash literature, though even that is minimal.

Mostly, you may also post a video responding to one of two prompts—“Tell us why you Dash!” and “How are you navigating COVID-19?”—and your video will appear with a DoorDash watermark, stacked over nearly identical videos from other DoorDashers. DoorDashers express their gratitude for DoorDash during the pandemic, they tell us that they paid off bills with DoorDash earnings, and they love that DoorDash offers flexible hours for caretakers. There are five videos at this writing. Their solitary profiles hang in limbo, searchable only by clicking through the names on their videos.

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The “resources” advertised amount to a couple of blog posts trumping up negligible one-time covid-19 “assistance” for the sick and a brief $200 cash incentive program for workers who make at least 450 deliveries per month.

Unclear why the above description would inspire any soul on Earth to join the platform. When asked, a DoorDash spokesperson clarified that this is not a social media platform per se:

DoorDash has always worked hard to educate Dashers, merchants, and consumers on issues that impact them and ensure their voices are heard, which is exactly why we built this site: for Dashers to access information, and serve as a tool to collect and share their perspective on why they Dash. As is clearly evident on the site, there is no functionality to communicate directly with lawmakers and there never has been since it launched. This website is not specific to any legislation, issue, or policymaker, and suggesting otherwise is simply untrue.

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The site does not currently promote one specific issue, but Gizmodo found a clue behind the scenes indicating the site’s intended audience. When we navigated to two different blog posts on the site, network requests included names and URLs for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York State Sen. George Borrello, both of whom have expressed interest in making the companies pay their fair share. From what we could tell, the inclusion doesn’t serve any practical purpose, more like very specific leftover junk.

Illustration for article titled DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom
Screenshot: Dhruv Mehrotra
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Illustration for article titled DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom
Screenshot: Dhruv Mehrotra

On April 22, a spokesperson confirmed that they’d just left those bits of detritus in there:

Ever have a guest find old leftovers in your fridge that never got thrown out? Today, we learned of some backend code language on our New York community website that was never functional but was leftover from when our vendor demonstrated the many bells and whistles available to us, including lawmaker messaging, that we decided wasn’t necessary for this effort, and why you don’t see it anywhere on the site.

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The explanation makes sense, technically, and also as a hypothetical function DoorDash might consider if, say, it wanted to sway political winds in DoorDash’s favor. Borrello proposed legislation that would ban app-based delivery services like DoorDash from raising fees for businesses above pre-pandemic rates. Last year, in his state of the state address, Cuomo compared the gig economy to sweatshop labor, accusing companies that mislabel workers as contractors of committing “exploitative, abusive” fraud which he pledged to end.

The site’s privacy policy also explicitly states that your personally identifiable information will be shared with lawmakers. “For instance, if you send a message to your lawmakers when sharing your voting preference or advocating on issues, and include your email address and name, that information will be made available to us, the organization, and your lawmakers,” it reads. When a registered user attempts to change their address, light gray disclaimer text informs you that “US Representatives require your mailing address to validate that you live in their district.” (Unlike the code, DoorDash did not update this after an inquiry from Gizmodo.)

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Illustration for article titled DoorDash Quietly Astroturfing in New York as Gig Economy Laws Loom
Screenshot: Whitney Kimball

The potential lawmaker targeting was far more overt on Uber’s nearly identical site incidentally included drivers praising the company while specifically plugging Prop 22, many of them addressing the legislation and governor directly.

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Near the end of the Prop 22 campaign, drivers filed a lawsuit accusing Uber of coercing them to create videos with in-app prompts, or else face a higher likelihood of losing their accounts if the company cut its workforce as a result of a Prop 22 failure. Their complaint read:

...Uber inconsistently threatens that unless Proposition 22 passes, Uber will cut its driver workforce in California by 70 percent, or fire everyone and rehire some. As a result, drivers reasonably believe that if they want to be among the 30 percent of drivers who are either retained or rehired as employees, they must have affirmatively supported Uber’s Yes on Prop 22 campaign by preparing videotaped and written messages of support and “correctly” answering Uber’s survey questions.

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Uber’s attorneys called the claims that Uber misled drivers “completely baseless” and said that drivers provided “no evidence that any driver was treated adversely based on their response to the poll.”

DoorDash confirmed to Gizmodo that it had solicited the videos but didn’t specify whether it would filter critical speech, saying that it hadn’t had to, and also Dashers are free to submit feedback through other company channels.

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Countable, also Uber’s platform, presents Uber’s site as a “success story.” The company claims on its site that “Uber and its drivers recorded hundreds of videos” which “resulted in tens of thousands of page views.” But only 19 videos appear on the site today. Gizmodo asked both Uber and Countable why hundreds of videos do not appear on the site and what drove the traffic. Neither returned request for comment. It remains unclear how or why the 19 videos would be considered a “success” in pushing Prop 22 over the goal line. Compared to Uber’s massive mailer and ad push the site felt sort of like a side dish of “digital” from an expensive marketing menu. It’s the kind of wager the group of companies might make, given that campaign finance records show that Lyft was willing to shell out $12,000 on a website for failed New York State Assembly member Joe Lentol.

The DoorDash site expands on a growing foundation for a New York statewide campaign, like a pseudo-progressive coalition site, “New York Coalition for Independent Work” whose members include Instacart, Uber, DoorDash, and Lyft. It is explicitly devoted to implementing similar legislation to Prop 22. 

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“In November, millions of Californians went to the polls to vote Yes on Proposition 22 which guaranteed app-based workers could remain flexible and independent while accessing historic new benefits and protections,” the site reads, adding that the coalition will “continue to stand with workers to ensure they are guaranteed the flexibility to work when, where, and for however long they choose, while also gaining the protections and benefits they deserve.”

As we’ve written extensively here, Uber and Lyft often use “flexibility” and “benefits” as smoke and mirrors to make it sound like the systemization of employment status would make drivers overall worse off. When New York City passed a wage floor for drivers, in 2018, Uber and Lyft complained that rides would be prohibitively expensive for riders. It made hours slightly less flexible for drivers, but a study by leading rideshare economy researcher Michael Reich showed that drivers had to work fewer hours overall because they made more.

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Like California, New York’s lawmakers seem uncomfortably close to protecting gig workers from exploitation. Like California, New York lawmakers have proposed implementing the “ABC test”—a three-pronged series of qualifications for “independent contractors” that prevents companies from shrugging off employer responsibilities so long as workers are performing labor that’s essential to the company’s everyday functions—on the city and the state levels.

New York state residents are going to hear about flexible hours and wild statistics about mass layoffs and a threat that the companies will leave New York. We might hear about that from our representatives who claim to be pro-union and pro-immigrant, and we’re curious what excuse they might have for advocating for multi-billion dollar companies who’d rather enrich private lobbying firms than pay their fair share. Gizmodo has reached out to the Lyft-sponsored elected officials listed above. None returned our requests for comment.

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Additional reporting by Dhruv Mehrotra.

Staff reporter, Gizmodo. wkimball @ gizmodo

DISCUSSION

dripad
TheDoctor

Gotta love the hypocrisy of these so-called “blue states” and their big stand for unions and workers, but ready to screw over the small time worker. What freakin’ Democratic party is this? Crony Democrats? It goes with my theory that Democrats as a whole will never embrace socialism because God forbid they screw the corporate dollars that fund them.