07 Aug Sloppy Data & Hungry Press = Widespread Outrage
Are Uber drivers ganging up on you?
Or could it instead be a mix of sloppy data, weak research and frankly, a lack of critical thinking?
Uber has been having a rough ride lately. Almost every day a new story comes out criticizing the company’s practices, drivers, passengers, investors or even its regulators.
To face such scrutiny is actually good for all of us, given that Uber has an ubiquitous presence into our everyday lives. However, it is imperative that any inquisition is based on solid facts.
Such premise fell short last week. A viral publishing, claimed that Uber drivers have been allegedly “gaming” the app, by organizing rebellious events in an online forum bringing about real world consequences.
I was skeptical of the story from the very beginning, so I dove deep and found a classic example of the current phenomena involving the trifecta of questionable research practices, that leads to weakly produced news content, which in turn generates online hate.
The media stories claimed that researchers from the University of Warwick and NYU found “evidence” that Uber drivers were taking a stand against the company by organizing themselves, via a third party online forum. The plot would go like this: drivers would coordinate to turn off their apps at a scheduled time, which would reduce the number of available drivers, which, in turn, would trigger surge pricing, given the reduced supply of drivers against an unchanged demand of riders. That way, they could earn more money for each ride at the expense of passengers.
Just like news reports were quick to report the study without critically analyzing the data, so were the readers, who were upset by believing they were being overcharged, quickly turning to social media lynching, berating Uber drivers, calling for boycott and others ways to “fight them back”.
I e-mailed the researchers, but did not get any response prior to this writing. That did not stop me to think that scrubbing through data on an internet forum may provide enough anecdotal evidence for a high school paper. But not for an academic paper, much less to gather such international, widespread attention and clamor.
One of the key points of the research was the claim that this organized effort was a way to gain a sense of agency against their employer’s algorithmic management. Although I acknowledge that algorithmic management is an important issue of our times, and further investigation is warranted, the research fell short on academic and press standards, being based solely on anecdotal evidence.
The researchers reviewed 1,012 entries posted on UberPeople, an unofficial internet forum where anyone can write about Uber related matters. From that putative source, the research’s divulged a 626-word press release revealing “their findings”, which was quickly picked up by hundreds of media outlets worldwide, gaining viral status and earning global front page coverage on that day.
The press release did not contain an actual research paper detailing their findings, nor a dataset irrefutably substantiating their claims. The researchers did not provide any evidence if the allegedly mass surge events claimed on the forum’s posts ever took place, let alone how often and where. Uber did not comment or back the report either.
Although not impossible, executing a deliberate effort would be extremely challenging to implement. It would take an enormous amount of coordination to get several strangers to turn off their apps at a very particular location at a very particular time, via an asynchronous internet forum. Uber drivers don’t have a simple way to identify who their peers are: there’s not such a thing as a company directory; no internal messaging platform; no company parties; no water cooler meetings; no driver’s union. Even though that does not mean that such a feat could have been pulled in the past, all coordination effort would be to trigger a singular, local and temporary price surge event. The thought of multiple instances of such events, on a widespread, recurrent, cross-Atlantic basis raises red flags to the research and to the media eager to report it.
In the meantime, this doesn’t seem to be a scientific study. Nor news. Research on algorithmic management, including its dehumanization characteristics and ways that users are fighting back is welcomed. However, this seems to just another example of weak, non peer-reviewed science, based on sloppy data, that feeds a hungry press and generates internet anger on our post-truth world. – Dan
Keywords: Algorithmic management, research integrity, disinformation.