Towards the end of Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle discusses the chilling effect liable to ensue from the online harassment which journalists critical of the alt-right often now find themselves subject to. From pg 118:

Multiple journalists and citizens have described in horrifying detail the attacks and threats against those who criticize Trump or figures of the online Trumpian right, especially if the critic is female, black or Jewish, but also if they’re a ‘cuckservative’. They now have the ability to send thousands of the most obsessed, unhinged and angry people on the Internet after someone if they dare to speak against the president or his prominent alt-light and alt-right fans. Although the mainstream media is still quite anti-Trump, it would be naïve to think this isn’t going to result in a chilling of critical thought and speech in the coming years, as fewer and fewer may have the stomach for it.

Perhaps I’m being a pedant but I found myself frustrated by the phrase “ability to send” here. I’m not denying this possibility, in fact I’m fascinated by what I’ve come to think of as ‘shadow mobilisation‘, but it’s not obvious to me this is what happens here. There clearly isn’t anything approaching a command-and-control dynamic, something which I think Nagle wouldn’t dispute, hence we need to be careful about how we characterise the co-ordination and coercion which operates in different cases. I’ve rarely encountered an issue for which empirical research seemed so politically urgent.

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.”

From The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 3490:

In January 2013, Chesky hired a new head of community who shared his devotion to the cause —Douglas Atkin, a former advertising agency executive who had written a 2005 book, The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers into True Believers, that drew business lessons from devotional sects like the Hare Krishnas. “The opportunity for creating cult brands has never been better,” Atkin wrote in the book’s epilogue. “Too many marketers have adopted a defensive attitude when actually they are on the brink of creating some of the most tenacious bonds between their brands and customers.” Atkin fervently believed that Airbnb wasn’t only a company but an ideology and a global movement that existed in a realm beyond provincial laws forged in a dramatically different age. One of Atkin’s first acts at Airbnb was to help start an independent group, called Peers, with the financial backing of Airbnb itself and a mission to support members of the sharing economy. Peers would hold meet-ups in cities where Airbnb and its fellow upstarts faced political hurdles and organize political actions to influence lawmakers. So Atkin’s advice to Chesky about the New York battle was clear —he wanted the company to stand up to Eric Schneiderman and fight.

This reflects a broader commitment that “the best tactic was simply to grow, harnessing the political influence of their user base to become too big to regulate” (loc 3582).

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.