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Uber has only itself to blame for the #DeleteUber campaign

Years of neglecting its public image have come back to bite Uber.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
(Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

On Saturday night, the hashtag #DeleteUber began trending on social media. Enraged by Uber’s response to Donald Trump’s controversial immigration order, customers demanded that Uber delete their accounts, and they went on Facebook and Twitter to encourage their friends to do the same thing.

The protest was inspired by Uber’s decision to disable surge pricing around New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in response to a taxi drivers’ strike spurred by the Trump order — something Uber routinely does during emergencies to avoid being seen as profiting from tragedy.

Ironically, protestors characterized this as profiting from the strike, which is exactly backward. In reality, disabling surge pricing likely meant that Uber carried fewer passengers from JFK (since drivers were less likely to go there) and they made less money on each ride.

So on one level, the campaign against Uber was the result of a massive misunderstanding. In reality, Uber hasn’t been particularly close to the Trump administration and didn’t support his immigration order. In response to the pressure campaign, Uber has played up its opposition to Trump’s immigration order, calling it “unjust, wrong, and against everything we stand for as a company.”

But on another level, Uber deserved this. The specific rap against them was unfair, but the company’s behavior has long been opportunistic. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has only himself to blame for the fact that so many Uber customers were ready to believe the worst about his company.

People have learned to expect the worst from Uber

Popular Smart Phone Apps Of 2016 Carl Court/Getty Images

Back in June, when Uber accepted a massive $3.5 billion cash infusion from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, I noted the irony of Uber accepting cash from a government that doesn’t allow women to drive cars and that once punished a rape victim for being alone with a male nonrelative. And Uber didn’t just take Saudi Arabia’s cash, it also gave the theocratic regime a seat on its board.

Over the years, Uber has allegedly spied on its own customers, threatened to dig up dirt on journalists, and downplayed sexual assault concerns.

In many of these cases, Uber has backpedaled in the wake of a public backlash. Kalanick, for example, tweeted out an apology in the wake of his executive’s comments about journalists. But often, Uber only seems to take this kind of step after becoming the target of a social media firestorm.

Uber hasn’t taken many proactive steps to dispel the impression that it’s a company willing to do whatever it takes to win. Little surprise, then, that when liberal activists accused Uber of cozying up to the Trump administration, a lot of customers believed them.

Lyft has portrayed itself as a different kind of ride-hailing company

Lyft Driver Rally
Lyft driver Jonathan Rico, Lyft co-founder, John Zimmer and Lyft driver Carlos Vandeusen attend a Lyft driver rally in 2015.
John Sciulli/Getty Images for Lyft

Lyft, in contrast, has gone out of its way to portray itself as a company that treats people well as a matter of principle.

"We're growing faster," Lyft co-founder John Zimmer said last year. "I think that the advantage is we are treating our drivers better, and therefore they are treating their passengers better."

Both companies have shown a willingness to barge into new markets where their legal status was questionable, but Uber has generally been the more aggressive of the pair — with Lyft making a greater effort to color inside the lines.

On top of all that, Lyft is a much smaller company, which inherently makes it more sympathetic in a country that likes to root for the underdog.

The companies’ very different reputations came back to bite Uber over the weekend. Ironically, Lyft didn’t disable its version of surge pricing near JFK on Saturday evening. That means that if anything, they would have profited more from passengers stranded by the taxi strike than Uber did.

But Lyft cannily exploited liberal dissatisfaction with its main competitor. Within hours of the #DeleteUber campaign’s start, the company put out a statement denouncing Trump’s order and pledging to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union.

People canceled their Uber accounts in droves, and many downloaded the Lyft app instead. The result: On Sunday, Lyft surpassed Uber in app downloads for the first time.