Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Reporting about Sexual Assault Sure Seems Hard

Buzzfeed has come up with something alarming and strange: a huge number of customer support contacts made with Uber include the terms "rape" or "sexual assault."  Buzzfeed got some screenshots from a former Uber customer support representative.

In one screenshot, a search query for “sexual assault” returns 6,160 Uber customer support tickets. A search for “rape” returns 5,827 individual tickets. Other variations of the terms yield similarly high returns: A search for “assaulted” shows 3,524 tickets, while “sexually assaulted” returns 382 results.

That seems like an awfully high number of criminal acts happening in conjunction with Uber rides.  Uber suggested that the search used was returning a lot of typos or out-of-context text strings (and has now been shown to be wrong that this would be why these results are coming up in a search of their software.).  Since I am not a huge fan of the company, my first instinct was to jump on the "They're scum!  Hang 'em!" bandwagon. But a few hours later, it struck me that this is a really strange find.  There do seem to be a strangely-high number of Uber horror stories out there, but the indication of the Buzzfeed findings is that Uber drivers are engaging in an up-to-now invisible, systematic campaign of sexual assault on customers.  It's not impossible, but I'd be truly surprised if that were the case.     

This was brought to my attention on Jezebel, where the implication is that Uber is doing a terrible job of to cover up a huge problem with sexual assault in the face of damning proof.     

Uber did respond to Buzzfeed's piece, but then retracted some of its claims about how the search worked.  

So that's the story so far.  

This all seems very weird.  In my experience, high-profile stories about sexual assault tend to fall apart in strange ways.  That's probably to be expected, given the sensitivity of the subject and the pressure on the parties involved.  

I've learned not to draw conclusions as these stories spin up.  Usually, it's fair to assume someone did something bad, which may or may not rise to the level of a criminal act.  

Given Uber's clumsy attempts to save face in this, I am growing ever more secure in that assumption.  

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