This ride-hailing PR pitch shows platforms and digital campaign ‘dark arts’ want democracy to be pay to play
A UK PR firm pitching to run an account for Ola has proposed running a campaign to politicize ride-hailing as a tactic to shift regulations in its favor.
The approach suggests that, despite the appearance of ride-hailing platforms taking a more conciliatory position with regulators that are now wise to earlier startup tactics in this space, there remains a calculus involving realpolitik, propaganda and high-level lobbying between companies that want to enter or expand in markets, and those who hold the golden tickets to do so.
In 2017 Estonia-based ride-hailing startup Taxify tried to launch in London ahead of regulatory approval, for example, but city authorities clamped down straight away. It was only able to return to the UK capital 21 months later (now known as Bolt).
In Western markets ride-hailing companies are facing old and new regulatory roadblocks that are driving up costs and creating barriers to growth. In some instances unfavorable rule changes have even led companies to pull out of cities or regions all together. Even as there are ongoing questions around the employment classification of the drivers these platforms depend on to deliver a service.
The PR pitch, made by a Tufton Street-based PR firm called Public First, suggests Ola tackle legislative friction in UK regions with a policy influence campaign targeted at local voters.
The SoftBank-backed Indian ride-hailing startup launched in the U.K. in August, 2018 and currently offers services in a handful of regional locations including South Wales, Merseyside and the West Midlands. Most recently it gained a licence to operate in London, and last month launched services in Coventry and Warwick — saying then that passengers in the UK had clocked up more than one million trips since its launch.
Manchester is also on its target list — and features as a focus in the strategy proposal — though an Ola spokesman told us it has no launch date for the city yet. The company met with Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, during a trade mission to India last month.
The Public First proposal suggests a range of strategies for Ola to get local authorities and local politicians on-side, and thus avoid problems in potential and future operations, including the use of engagement campaigns and digital targeting to mobilize select coalitions around politicized, self-serving talking points — such as claims that public transport is less safe and convenient; or that air quality improves if fewer people drive into the city — in order to generate pressure on regulators to change licensing rules.
Another suggestion is to position the company less as a business, and more as an organization representing tens of thousands of time-poor people.
Public First advocates generally for the use of data- and technology-driven campaign methods, such as microtargeted digital advertising, as more effective than direct lobbying of local government officials — suggesting using digital tools to generate a perception that an issue is politicized will encourage elected representatives to do the heavy lifting of pressuring regulators because they’ll be concerned about losing votes.
The firm describes digital campaign elements as “crucial” to this strategy.
“Through a small, targeted online digital advertising campaign in both cities, local councillors’ email inboxes would begin to fill with requests from a number of different people (students, businesses, and other members of [a commuter advocacy group it proposes setting up to act as a lobby vehicle]) for the local authority to change its approach on local taxi licensing — in effect, to make it easier for Ola to launch,” it offers as a proposed strategy for building momentum behind Ola in Manchester and Liverpool.
Public First confirmed it made the pitch to Ola but told us: “This was merely a routine, speculative proposal of the sort we generate all the time as we meet people.”
“Ola Cabs has no relationship whatsoever with Public First,” it added.
A spokesperson for Ola also confirmed that it does not have a business relationship with Public First. “Ola has never had a relationship with Public First, does not currently have one and nor will it in the future,” the spokesman told us.
“Ola’s approach in the UK has been defined by working closely and collaborating with local authorities and we are committed to being fully licensed in every area we operate,” he added, suggesting the strategy it’s applying is the opposite of what’s being proposed.
We understand that prior to Public First pitching their ideas to a person working in Ola’s comms division, Ola’s director of legal, compliance and regulation, Andrew Winterton, met with the firm over coffee — in an introductory capacity. But that no such tactics were discussed.
It appears that, following first contact, Public First took the initiative to draw up the strategy suggesting politicizing ride-hailing in key target regions which it emailed to Winterton but only presented to a more junior Ola employee in a follow-up meeting the legal director did not attend.
Ola has built a major ride-hailing business in its home market of India — by way of $3.8BN in funding and aggressive competition. Since 2018 it has been taking international steps to fuel additional growth. In the U.K. its approach to date has been fairly low key, going to cities and regional centers outside of high-profile London first, as well as aiming to serve areas with big Indian populations to help recruit riders and drivers.
It’s a strategy that’s likely been informed by being able to view the track record of existing ride-hailing players — and avoid Uber-style regulatory blunders.
The tech giant was dealt a major shock by London’s transport regulator in 2017, when TfL denied it a licence renewal — citing concerns over Uber’s approach to passenger safety and corporate governance, including querying its explanation for using proprietary software that could be used to evade regulatory oversight.
The Uber story looks to be the high water mark for blitzscaling startup tactics that relied on ignoring or brute forcing regulators in the ride-hailing category. Laws and local authorities have largely caught up. The name of the game now is finding ways to get regulators on side.
Propaganda as a service
The fact that strategic proposals such as Public First’s to Ola are considered routine enough to put into a speculative pitch is interesting, given how the lack of transparency around the use of online tools for spreading propaganda is an issue that’s now troubling elected representatives in parliaments all over the world. Tools such as those offered by Facebook’s ad platform.
In Facebook’s case the company provides only limited visibility into who is running political and issue-based ads on its platform. The targeting criteria being used to reach individuals is also not comprehensively disclosed.
Some of the company’s own employees recently went public with concerns that its advanced targeting and behavioral-tracking tools make it “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech”, as they put it.
At the same time, platforms providing a conduit for corporate interests to cheaply and easily manufacture ‘politicized’ speech looks to be another under-scrutinized risk for democratic societies.
Among the services Public First lists on its website are “policy development”, “qualitative and quantitative opinion research”, “issues-based campaigns”, “coalition-building” and “war gaming”. (Here, for example, is a piece of work the firm carried out for Google — where its analysis-for-hire results in a puffy claim that the tech giant’s digital services are worth at least $70BN in annual “economic value” for the UK.)
Public First’s choice of office location, in Tufton Street, London, is also notable as the area is home to an interlinked hub of right-leaning think tanks, such as the free market Center for Policy Studies and pro-Brexit Initiative for Free Trade. These are lobby vehicles dressed up as policy wonks which put out narratives intended to influence public opinion and legislation in a particular direction without it being clear who their financial backers are.
Some of the publicity strategies involved in this kind of work appear to share similarities with tactics used by Big Tobacco to lobby against anti-smoking legislation, or fossil fuel interests’ funding of disinformation and astroturfing operations to create a perception of doubt around consensus climate science.
“A lot of what used to get sold in this space essentially was access [to policymakers],” says one former public relations professional, speaking on background. “What you’re seeing an increasingly amount of now is the ‘technification’ of that process. Everyone’s using those kinds of tools — clearly in terms of trying to understand public sentiment better and that kind of thing… But essentially what they’re saying is we can set up a set of politicized issues so that they can benefit you. And that’s an interesting change. It’s not just straight defence and attack; promote your brand vs another. It’s ‘okay, we’re going to change the politics around an issue… in order to benefit your outcome’. And that’s fairly sophisticated and interesting.”
Mat Hope, editor of investigative journalism outlet DeSmog — which reports on climate-related misinformation campaigns — has done a lot of work focused on Tufton Street specifically, looking at the impact the network’s ‘policy-costumed’ corporate talking points have had on UK democracy.
“There is a set of organisations based out of offices in and around 55 Tufton Street in Westminster, just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, which in recent years have had an outsized impact on British democracy. Many of the groups were at the forefront of the Leave campaign, and are now pushing for a hard or no-deal Brexit,” he told us, noting that Public First not only has offices nearby but that its founders and employees “have strong ties to other organisations based there”.
“The groups regularly lobby politicians in the interests of specific companies or big industry through the guise of grassroots or for-the-people campaigns,” he added. “One way they do this is through targeting adverts or social media posts, using groups with benign sounding names. This makes it hard to trace the campaign back to any particular company, and gives the issue an impression of grassroots support that is, on the whole, artificial.”
Platform power without responsibility
Ad platforms such as Facebook which profit by profiling people offer cheap yet powerful tools for corporate interests to identify and target highly specific sub-sets of voters. This is possible thanks to the vast amounts of personal data they collect — an activity that’s finally coming under significant regulatory scrutiny — and custom ad tools such as lookalike audiences, all of which enables behavioral microtargeting at the individual user/voter level.
Lookalike audiences is a powerful ad product that allows Facebook advertisers to upload customer data yet also leverage the company’s pervasive people-profiling to access new audiences that they do not hold data on but who have similar characteristics to their target. These so-called lookalike audiences can be tightly geotargeted, as well as zeroed in on granular interests and demographics. It’s not hard to see how such tools can be applied to selectively hit up only the voters most likely to align with a business’ interests.
The upshot is that an online advertiser is able to pay little to tap into the population-scale reach and vast data wealth of platform giants — turning firehose power against individual voters who they deem — via focus group work or other voter data analysis — to be aligned with a corporate agenda. The platform becomes a propaganda machine for manufacturing the appearance of broad public engagement and grassroots advocacy for a self-interested policy change.
The target voter, meanwhile, is most likely none the wiser about why they’re seeing politicized messaging. It’s that lack of transparency that makes the activity inherently anti-democratic.
The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee raised Facebook’s lookalike audiences as a risk to democracy during a recent enquiry into online disinformation and digital campaigning. It went on to recommend an outright ban on political microtargeting to lookalike audiences online. Though the UK government has so far failed to act on that or its fuller suite of recommendations. (Nor has Facebook responded to increasingly loud calls from politicians and civic society to ban political and issue ads altogether.)
Even a code of conduct published by the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) emphasizes transparency — with member organizations committing to “be open and transparent in declaring their name, organisation and the interest they represent”. (Albeit, the IPRA’s member list is not itself public.)
While online targeting of social media users remains a major problem for democracies, on account of the lack of transparency and individual consent to targeting (or, indeed, to data-based profiling), in recent years we’ve also seen more direct efforts by companies to use their own technology tools to generate voter pressure.
Examples such as ride-hailing giant Uber which, under its founding CEO, Travis Kalanick, became well known for a ‘push button’ approach to mobilizing its user base by sending calls to action to lobby against unfavorable regulatory changes.
Airbnb has also sought to use its platform-reach to beat against local authority rule changes that threaten its ‘home sharing’ business model.
However it’s the opaque tech-fuelled targeting enabled by ad platforms like Facebook that’s far more problematic for democracies as it allows vested interests to generate self-interested pressure remotely — including from abroad — while remaining entirely shielded from view.
Fixing this will require regulatory muscle to enforce existing laws around personal data collection (at least where such laws exist) — and doing so in a way that prevents microtargeting from being the cheap advertising default. Democracies should not allow their citizens to be mirrored in the data because it sets them up to be hollowed out; their individuals aggregated, classified and repackaged as all-you-can-eat attention units for whoever is paying.
And likely also legislation to set firm boundaries around the use of political and campaigning/issue ads online. Turning platform power against the individual is inherently asymmetrical. It’s never going to be a fair fight. So fair ground rules for digital political campaigning — and a proper oversight regime to enforce them — are absolutely essential.
Another democratic tonic is transparency. Which means raising awareness about tech-fuelled tactics that are designed to generate and exploit data-based asymmetries in order to hack and manipulate public opinion. Such skewed stuff only really works when the target is oblivious to what’s afoot. In that respect, every little disclosure of these ‘dark arts’ and the platforms that enable them provides a much-needed counter boost for critical thinking and democracy.