Uber exec suggested smearing company's critics

Emil Michael proposed going after "your personal lives, your families"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published November 18, 2014 3:24PM (EST)
Emil Michael       (Fox Business)
Emil Michael (Fox Business)

If a man suggests digging up dirt on a woman and exposing her personal information as a means of intimidating and discrediting her, is he likely to be a) a typical Gamergate troll, b) a senior vice president of a successful company, outlining his strategy for dealing with the media, or c) either of the above? Grossly, the correct answer is c), either one.

On Monday evening, BuzzFeed's Ben Smith published a scathing and explosive account of what he says went down at a recent dinner party with Uber's senior vice president of business Emil Michael – and the company's own staff seems to confirm its veracity. As Smith reports, on Friday, Uber consultant Ian Osborne held a dinner at New York's Waverly Inn for a group that included Edward Norton, Arianna Huffington and Uber's controversial CEO and founder Travis Kalanick. During the event, Smith says that Kalanick discussed how he felt he's been "miscast" in the public eye, which seems to have been what led to Michael opening up about his plans for changing the company's image.

As he describes it, Michael outlined a plan to spend "a million dollars" to hire opposition researchers and journalists to investigate members of the press, to go after "your personal lives, your families." He says he focused particularly on PandoDaily's Sarah Lacy – a woman no stranger to petulant, bullying tactics herself, by the way. In an October story, Lacy criticized the company and the "growing sexism in tech demonstrated by people like Uber founder Travis Kalanick," said she'd deleted the app from her phone because "I increasingly don’t feel safe as a woman taking it, frequently late at night and alone," and, prophetically, mentioned investors' "outright terror of landing on [Kalanick's] bad side." And what better response to a woman declaring in public that she doesn't feel safe than floating the notion of doxxing her? As Smith writes, "Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life." He added that Lacy would be "personally responsible" for any woman sexually assaulted after deleting her Uber app. Huh, where have we seen these tactics before -- this shaming and threatening with exposure? Could it be, the bottom of the Internet barrel?

BuzzFeed says that its guest was at the dinner at the invitation of journalist Michael Wolff --  who has his own rather spotty track record on gender sensitivity -- and that the guest was not informed by Wolff or anyone else at the event that the conversation was off the record. And through a spokesperson, Emil Michael now tells BuzzFeed, "The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner — borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for — do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them." The company rep added that Uber does not engage in "oppo research," including looking at client travel logs. But Smith further notes, "The general manager of Uber NYC accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so." See? Uber is totally not keeping tabs on you – and they have the records to prove it!

The company, which recently received an F from the Better Business Bureau, certainly has a bit of an image problem lately. Maybe the company's executives might try being a little more responsive to the consumers it actually serves. Seems a little wiser than sitting around at fancy dinners dreaming up clever plans straight out of the Reddit troll playbook.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Buzzfeed Emil Michael Gamergate Reddit Travis Kalanick Uber