In the last few years, I’ve become interested in what I think of as shadow mobilisation: assembling people under false pretences and/or in a way intended to create a misleading impressions of the mobilisation. This is often framed in terms of astroturfing – fake grass roots – however it appears to me to extend beyond this. It would be a mistake to see it as a new thing but it might be out present conditions are making it easier and more likely.

It implies a relationship between the instigators and those mobilised, either through manipulation or reimbursement, which is fundamentally asymmetrical. One group has the capacity to plan, enact and reflect on these mobilisations while the other is a mereaggregate, induced to action on an individual-by-individual basis, furthering an agenda which might cohere with their own individual concerns but has no basis in collective concerns. In this sense, shadow mobilisations are a facimale of collectivity. 

If we accept the adequacy of this concept, it raises many questions. Foremost amongst them though is how widespread such shadow mobilisations are, as well as the conditions which facilitate this. I’ve come across examples in many sectors and I wish I’d been recording these systematically. The most recent comes in Anna Minton’s Big Capital, an illuminating study of how global capital is transforming London. From loc 1281-1297:

In a House of Commons debate in 2013, Labour MP Thomas Docherty, a former lobbyist, shared with Parliament some of the techniques of his former colleagues, recounting stories of lobbyists being planted in public meetings to heckle people who opposed their clients’ schemes. His stories chime with a wealth of anecdotal evidence of dirty tricks, including fake letter-writing campaigns and even actors attending planning meetings. Martyn, a film maker from Brighton, described to me how he had been offered ‘cash in brown envelopes’ to attend a planning meeting and pose as a supporter of Frank Gehry’s controversial plans for an iconic new development of 750 luxury apartments on the seafront. He remembers how ‘at least five of us’ from the drama school where he was studying were approached by an events company and asked if they’d like to participate. ‘We were told to go there and shout down the local opposition to the development. A couple of people were pointed out to us –residents, leaders of the local opposition –and we were told to be louder than them and be positive about the development. We were paid on exit, cash in hand, I think it was £50 or £100. I was there and I’m not proud of it. It is something that horrifies me,’ he said. 36 In Parliament, Docherty described dirty tricks as ‘utterly unacceptable’, although ‘not a crime’.

While each particular case of this manipulation of the planning process occurs on a small scale, it reflects an asymmetry we can see in other cases of shadow mobilisation. Residents who coordinate their action, potentially constituting an organised collective in the process, confront organisations which deploy their resources towards drowning this nascent collectivity through a shadow mobilisation. As Minton points out, such activity sometimes occurs alongside organised harassment, suggesting the ethical climate in which shadow mobilisation is seen as a viable strategy by those pursuing private profit.

One of the most interesting things about so-called sharing economy companies is their mobilisation of users in defence of their political objectives. This is something which can prove uniquely urgent because of the sheer number of municipalities in which they operate, leaving them exposed to regulatory backlash particularly given their tendency to self-righteously disregard laws they see as antiquated. It’s easy to characterise these mobilisations as manipulative, but it’s important to recognise the self-interest and/or commitment of those who are mobilised in this way. Loc 4251 of The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, describes an Airbnb group in San Francisco which was (seemingly) entirely grass-roots:

Kwan decided to gather a group of hosts together to share information and navigate the emerging complexities of the so-called home-sharing economy. He announced the formation of his club on Craigslist and held the very first meeting of the Home Sharers of San Francisco in his living room in 2013. The group would eventually attract twenty-five hundred members. Seeking to avoid any conflicts of interest, Kwan decided the group would not allow Airbnb employees or city or state government workers to join. Kwan’s group got so large that eventually it had to start gathering in public libraries instead of living rooms. They shared hosting tips, talked about issues like insurance, and swapped stories of nightmare guests (always the most enjoyable discussion). Then things got serious. In the wake of Airbnb’s agreement to collect hotel taxes, the city’s board of supervisors was considering legalizing short-term rentals. The Home Sharers lobbied to keep the names and addresses of hosts private and to maximize the number of nights they could rent out their properties each year.

But the company also seeks to encourage these groups in a top-down fashion. I’m interested in the cultural resources deployed to this end, how the opportunity to participate in the great disruptive project is framed in a way which facilitates engagement by users. See for example the description on loc 4333-4347 of the Airbnb community festival:

The crowd stood and cheered repeatedly during the event, responding to rousing proclamations (“ You are truly revolutionaries!”), as if the speakers were blowing dog whistles. Occasionally the audience was yanked back to the other reality. “This generous idea is growing in Paris,” said Jean-François Martins, deputy mayor in charge of tourism, on the first morning. “But big ideas need some regulation to protect them from people who want to use it in a not very generous way.” Chris Lehane also appeared onstage and spoke to the gathered hosts as if they were infantry in the French marines. “We are going to have more fights and we are going to have more battles in the days, months, and years to come,” he said. “When this community is empowered to be a movement, we cannot be beat.”

This is disturbing, though unsurprising. How widespread could it get? Normative pressure is enough to lead to a removal at present but that seems unlikely to be a viable long-term counter-strategy:

Someone out there really wants President Donald Trump’s polarizing nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, to get the job — so much so that they’ve been paying random internet users to write notes supporting her contentious confirmation.

Users on paid task sites like InstaGC, Swagbucks, and Covet Fashion, which reward users for shopping at certain websites or completing small tasks and surveys online, have been reporting a task that links to The website contains a contact form to get in touch with members of Congress — but only to send notes of support for DeVos’s confirmation. Users who fill out and send the support form earn points or actual cash, but there is no option to send a note of dissent.

Spokespersons for InstaGC as well as the company that runs Covet Fashion each confirmed that the ads recently appeared on their sites and have since been removed.

This is a fascinating buzzfeed article about Uber’s successful encroachment into the Las Vegas market, in the face of massive opposition:

But tonight, for the first time, there were Uber cars among the limos and cabs. One picked up a fare at Caesars Palace and embarked on what would have been one of the first Uber rides in Vegas. But before it could leave the hotel roundabout, the Uber was cut off by two unmarked cars, sirens blaring. Two men burst out, ordered everyone out of the Uber, and told the driver to put his hands on the car’s hood. They were masked and wearing bulletproof vests.

They were officers from the Taxicab Authority and the Nevada Transportation Authority (NTA), and they had been tasked with stopping Uber from doing business in Las Vegas until it acquired the proper approvals from the city and county. The driver was cited and fined. Hours later, the NTA filed an injunction application against Uber in Carson City, Nevada. (In subsequent testimony before The Senate Committee on Transportation, NTA chair Andrew MacKay claimed the agency was not on scene at the sting.)

The Vegas taxi market is massive, accruing $290,354,312 so far this year, as well as heavily protected by local government in a way few, if any, others are. This is what makes it such an interesting case for looking at the playbook uber is likely to bring to future disputes:

During its ascension to ride-hail market supremacy, the company developed and stress-tested an effective playbook for entering even the toughest of markets. A combination of clashing with local governments, grassroots activism, and lobbying, it brought Uber success in cities like Portland, Oregon, which vehemently opposed it. Uber brought that blueprint to bear on Vegas as well. It entered the market without permission; it called on locals to sign a petition to the governor; it hired more than a dozen of the best lobbyists in the state to make its case.

As on many other occasions, Uber began by unilaterally exempting themselves from existing regulatory structures:

On the morning of Oc. 24, Uber launched its UberX service in Las Vegas — apparently without permission to do so. The company didn’t have the required business license from Clark County, nor had it applied for one.

Uber claims that it didn’t think it needed to. But entering a market before it’s legal and asking for forgiveness rather than permission is a standard marker of the Uber playbook. Asked at a Nov. 25 hearing why it didn’t resolve any regulatory issues before operating, company attorney Don Campbell said to a District Court judge, “Because we don’t believe the statutes apply.” The company has long maintained that it’s a technology platform, not a transportation service; why should it need the common carrier license all taxi and limo companies require?

But this disregard for regulatory structured was actually rather suited to their new environment, characterised as it was by a “a kickback system built over decades and closely tied to the city’s tourism industry” and an obviously questionable degree of proximity between existing firms and the regulators. This goes some way to explaining the ensuing legislative battle, which Buzzfeed helpfully illustrate with this roadmap:

Astonishingly, in under two weeks, Uber and Lyft drivers have been cited 87 times by local police for “taking fares to and from McCarran International Airport without the business licenses to do so”. It’s this wilful disregard for regulatory structures, something which clearly pervades the company from top to bottom, which fascinates me about Uber (and to a lesser extent Lyft). Their emerging playbook for breaking into markets, as well as the sheer aggression they show when doing so, promises fireworks as they continue to enact their planned pivot into a global just-in-time logistics operation.

From Edward Walker’s Grassroots For Hire pg 6-7:

Today, more and more advocacy is being driven not by the local organizing of autonomous citizens, but by the efforts of paid consultants that organizations like these for- profit colleges hire to help them activate receptive members of the public on their behalf. Grassroots for Hire reveals an industry of consultants who work on behalf of companies, powerful interest groups, labor unions, and other organizations to shift public policies in their clients’ favor by mobilizing mass participation. Their clients include many of the most powerful multinationals: 40 percent of Fortune 500 firms appear as their clients. The reach is vast: the leading campaign by an average consulting firm targets over 750,000 Americans for participation. 16 Their work is lucrative: consultants command hourly rates at (or at times well beyond) $400 per hour. Their campaigns are consequential: they go beyond the work of traditional lobbyists by showing to legislators and regulators that a client’s concerns have motivated and organized constituencies mobilized to support them.

And from page 8:

Public affairs consultants, sometimes known as “grassroots lobbyists,” 20 incentivize citizen participation through a variety of means, often using new information and communications technologies to facilitate the process. Their work goes beyond simple public relations strategies that focus on messaging without encouraging citizen action. Their campaigns may not be entirely replacing traditional forms of grassroots organizing, but they are undoubtedly helping to commercialize citizen advocacy, offering the repertoire of participation originally developed by advocacy organizations and social movements as a professional service in the political marketplace. To the extent that only select citizens are targeted for participation, this form of commercialized advocacy exacerbates participatory inequalities among the citizenry, and may be further decoupling citizen participation from the democratic norms, social networks, and feelings of institutional trust that undergird our civic life. In addition, although many consultants avoid such strategies, some engage in “astroturf” (i.e., fake grassroots) strategies on behalf of their clients through the use of heavy incentives, fraud, or misleading claims about their sponsorship. Their doing so may reduce citizens’ trust not only in the political process but also in advocacy groups more broadly.