Sloppy Data, Hungry Press, Widespread Outrage

Sloppy Data, Hungry Press, Widespread Outrage

Are Uber drivers ganging up on you?

Or is it sloppy data, weak research and lack of critical thinking doing so?

Uber has been having a rough ride lately. Almost every day a new story comes out criticizing the company’s practices, drivers, passengers, investors and regulators.

That is actually not a bad thing: having such a tremendous and disruptive presence into our everyday lives, its legitimate and healthy for the company to face such scrutiny.

However, as for everything else, it is primarily important for news to be based on facts.

But last week’s viral publishing on how Uber drivers have been allegedly gaming the app, illustrated some of the critical issues involving questionable research practices, clickbait press and the quick widespread of outrage and hate online.

The report this time was about how professors from the University of Warwick found “evidence” that Uber drivers have been attempting to regain a sense of agency against Uber’s algorithmic management by coordinating, via an internet forum, to go offline en masse in order to force surge pricing on the app, which, in turn would allow them to make more money on a ride.

Their “research findings” went viral, gaining global front page coverage. Yet the news was based solely on a 626-word press release, where the professors reveal that they found out about this driver’s led “rebellion”, by reading 1,000 tell-all posts on an open internet forum.

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.

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 to berate the drivers, calling for boycott and others ways to “fight them back”.

Although the actual study were not published as of this writing, the red flags for the professor’s claims are blaring. 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 attention.

Also, although not impossible, the idea of such deliberate coordination is extremely challenging to implement, making the claims even more dubious, given the app has safeguards to prevent that from happening, and knowing that violators are punished by being permanently expelled from the app.

Also, what a lot of people may not realize is that Uber drivers do not exactly know 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.

It would take an enormous effort to coordinate dozens of strangers at a very particular location at a very particular time, via an asynchronous internet forum, in order to trigger a singular, local and temporary price surge event.

Even though that does not mean that such a feat could have been pulled before, the thought of that being a widespread, recurrent practice is borderline ludicrous.

Unless the researchers were able to analyze application logs from thousands of drivers they could prove such collusion.

In the meantime, this is not a scientific study. Nor news. It is just bad science based on sloppy data, that feeds clickbait press and generates internet anger on our post-truth world.

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