Right-wing news sites, PR firms, and an online 'cultivated troll army' are all reportedly helping Uber and Lyft's push for Prop 22, which would classify drivers as contractors

  • Right-wing news outlets, a social media mob, and public relations firms hired by Uber and Lyft are playing a role in the tech firms' attempt to keep paying drivers as contractors, per a CNET report.
  • Uber, Lyft, Postmates, DoorDash, and Instacart created and funded Proposition 22 to be exempt from AB5, a California law passed in late 2019 that forces them to pay gig workers as employees.
  • The report comes as the companies ramp up efforts to push Prop 22 past the finish line in the upcoming November election.
  • "This effort is an attempt to exploit workers who are without any labor protection, which is what the California Supreme Court and the legislature are concerned about. These companies are trying to muddy the waters," Stanford law professor William Gould told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Uber and Lyft have reportedly aggressively ramped up efforts to promote Proposition 22, a controversial ballot measure in California that would let the firms continue paying drivers as contractors, not full-time employees.

Per a Friday report from CNET's Dara Kerr, the makers of the measure — Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, and Postmates — have poured at least $201 million into their Yes on Proposition 22 campaign and have hired 18 public relations firms, three of which have a track record of working for Republican candidates and conservative causes, for opposition research, social media management, and other tasks.

Conservative news outlets and ardent online opponents to Assembly Bill 5 — the law passed in September that forced Uber and Lyft to pay their drivers as employees — are also contributing to get Prop 22 over the finish line. And as one expert told the outlet, the PR firms are resorting to what seems to be "targeted harassment as a service" to get the job done. Many list social media as part of their skill set, per the report.

"It's clearly a coordinated campaign," William Fitzgerald with the strategic advocacy firm The Worker Agency told CNET. "What Uber is doing now with this is way further than anything I've seen. It's a totally different ballgame."

Uber and Lyft did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment. 

Online users have propagated the false claim on social media that a University of California Hastings law professor named Veena Dubal authored AB5, per the report. Dubal is an outspoken supporter of the law, but the author is actually Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. Dubal told the outlet that she's been subjected to social media harassment, and a Twitter user posted Dubal's home address online in late March. One of the PR firms also submitted a public records request to access Dubal's email communication with labor activists and unions.

Conservative news sites like Communities Digital News and RedState have written articles decrying AB5 and have incorrectly cited Dubal as the author of the law, per the report. Communities Digital News writer Jennifer Oliver O'Connell and RedState Deputy Managing Editor Jennifer Van Laar have taken part in speaking out against both Dubal and Gonzalez online along with the rest of the anti-AB5 community. A Yes on Proposition 22 campaign spokesperson told CNET that it hasn't paid or supported the outlets and their writers in their anti-AB5 reportage.

There's also a growing online network of Facebook groups and pages, websites, Twitter and Instagram accounts, and YouTube channels trained on condemning AB5, per the report. 

University of Utah assistant professor Marshal Steinbaum co-wrote a letter to Congress that states how Uber and Lyft drivers should be classified as employees. Steinbaum told CNET that he's been fielding social media jabs as well from anti-AB5 activists, a community that he referred to as "a cultivated troll army."

'These companies are trying to muddy the waters'

Uber and Lyft have pushed back hard on AB5, which would dole out a serious blow to business models built around paying drivers as contractors. Doing so has allowed them to skirt hefty labor costs, and some drivers have accused the firms of exploiting them to save a buck, as Business Insider's Tyler Sonnemaker reported. Upgrading them to employee status could add up to 30% in labor fees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The firms maintain that drivers enjoy the flexibility they have to work when and how they please, a freedom that they say is stripped by AB5. Uber and Lyft — along with DoorDash, Postmates, and Instacart — created Proposition 22 as a means to exempt themselves from the gig work law.

"This effort is an attempt to exploit workers who are without any labor protection, which is what the California Supreme Court and the legislature are concerned about," Stanford law professor William Gould told Business Insider. "These companies are trying to muddy the waters."

AB5 impacted not just ride-sharing drivers but independent contractors across the news, trucking, and other sectors. Although the law was designed so that employers would hire more contractors as employees, some freelancers in various industries pushed back on AB5. Freelance journalists, for example, claimed their careers would suffer since AB5 capped the number of submissions they could send to editors at 35 per outlet. Subsequent amendments have been made since then, including one that is currently in the works, AB 1850, that would exempt news professionals.

A group of freelancers has also formed online to advocate for the repeal of AB5, referring to themselves as the "Lollipop Guild," according to the CNET report. The lollipop reference likely harkens back to a May hearing for an AB5 amendment during which Democratic State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson said, "I appreciate the frustration people have. It's kind of taking away the lollipop that they had, the ability to decide essentially when they worked."

 

Gonzalez, the California assemblywoman who penned AB5, has admitted herself that the law wasn't perfect when it passed last September, according to CNET. And Gould similarly told Business Insider that he doesn't "think this legislation is perfect by any means."

"They made a great effort, but they didn't really provide all these exemptions," Gould said.

Uber and Lyft are now fighting tooth and nail for an exemption. But Gould said Uber and Lyft's money and connections have given them an advantage, helping them stay fairly unregulated. 

"It stands to reason that some of these companies have very deep pockets and they are able to spend — you see all the propaganda they put together," Gould said.

Californians will vote on Prop 22 in the November election.

Read the full report on CNET here.

Axel Springer, Insider Inc.’s parent company, is an investor in Uber.

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