Friday, October 19, 2018

Election interference from Uber and Lyft

Almost nothing can escape the taint of election interference. A good example is the announcements by Uber and Lyft that they'll provide free rides to the polls on election day. This well-meaning gesture nonetheless calls into question how this might influence the election.

"Free rides" to the polls is a common thing. Taxi companies have long offered such services for people in general. Political groups have long offered such services for their constituencies in particular. Political groups target retirement communities to get them to the polls, black churches have long had their "Souls to the Polls" program across the 37 states that allow early voting on Sundays.

But with Uber and Lyft getting into this we now have concerns about "big data", "algorithms", and "hacking".

As the various Facebook controversies have taught us, these companies have a lot of data on us that can reliably predict how we are going to vote. If their leaders wanted to, these companies could use this information in order to get those on one side of an issue to the polls. On hotly contested elections, it wouldn't take much to swing the result to one side.

Even if they don't do this consciously, their various algorithms (often based on machine learning and AI) may do so accidentally. As is frequently demonstrated, unconscious biases can lead to real world consequences, like facial recognition systems being unable to read Asian faces.

Lastly, it makes these companies prime targets for Russian hackers, who may take all these into account when trying to muck with elections. Or indeed, to simply claim that they did in order to call the results into question. Though to be fair, Russian hackers have so many other targets of opportunity. Messing with the traffic lights of a few cities would be enough to swing a presidential election, specifically targeting areas with certain voters with traffic jams making it difficult for them to get to the polls.

Even if it's not "hackers" as such, many will want to game the system. For example, politically motivated drivers may choose to loiter in neighborhoods strongly on one side or the other, helping the right sorts of people vote at the expense of not helping the wrong people. Likewise, drivers might skew the numbers by deliberately hailing rides out of opposing neighborhoods and taking them them out of town, or to the right sorts of neighborhoods.

I'm trying to figure out which Party this benefits the most. Let's take a look at rider demographics to start with, such as this post. It appears that income levels and gender are roughly evenly distributed.

Ridership is skewed urban, with riders being 46% urban, 48% suburban, and 6% rural. In contrast, US population is 31% urban, 55% suburban, and 15% rural. Giving the increasing polarization among rural and urban voters, this strongly skews results in favor of Democrats.

Likewise, the above numbers show that Uber ridership is strongly skewed to the younger generation, with 55% of the riders 34 and younger. This again strongly skews "free rides" by Uber and Lyft toward the Democrats. Though to be fair, the "over 65" crowd has long had an advantage as the parties have fallen over themselves to bus people from retirement communities to the polls (and that older people can get free time on weekdays to vote).

Even if you are on the side that appears to benefit, this should still concern you. Our allegiance should first be to a robust and fair voting system, and to our Party second. I mention this because the increased polarization of our politics seems to favor those (from both sides) who don't mind watching the entire system burn as long as their Party wins.

Right now, such programs are probably going to have a small impact. But the future is trending toward fewer individually owned cars and more dependence on services like Uber and Lyft. In a few years, big-data, machine learning algorithms, and hackers may be able to strongly influence elections.

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