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Airbnb routinely deploys its ‘astroturf army’ to combat California short-term rental regulations, critics say

SF Gate logo SF Gate 3/28/2022 Silas Valentino

In late September 2020, one week before the San Diego Planning Commission met to discuss capping the number of short-term rentals in the city, Airbnb emailed its hosts asking for help.

The proposal, according to the email, “would reduce the number of vacation rentals by 70%” in San Diego. “The Planning Commission needs to hear from hosts like you,” read the email, signed by The Airbnb Team. At the bottom there were two links: One to a short form that generated an email to city council members and another to RSVP for the meeting’s public comment session

“PLEASE increase the cap on short-term rentals and work WITH us to develop sensible, balanced solutions that allow us to share our homes, protect the integrity of neighborhoods, and ensure hosts, guests, and the city of San Diego continue to receive the full economic benefits of short-term rentals,” read the call to action generated by the email form. There was no indication it had been solicited or written by Airbnb.

A quick Google search of phrases in the auto-generated email made it clear this is a regular tactic for Airbnb, including in Los Angeles, where dozens of hosts submitted public comments in 2020 pleading with the city’s planning commission to “PLEASE schedule the next hearing for vacation rentals, support the planning commission’s recommendations and work WITH us to develop sensible, balanced solutions.”  

Airbnb is far from the only tech company to generate seemingly grassroots campaigns. In fact, they’re so common that BuzzFeed reporter Caroline O’Donovan gave this “click-to-lobby” tactic a name: “Brobilizing.” 

“Unlike the neighborhood bakery that wants customers to add their names and addresses to a petition for expanded outdoor seating, tech companies typically already know who and where their users are. It means startups can mobilize — or brobilize — thousands of people via a simple email or push notification to blast targeted messages to their elected officials, often with just a few clicks. It’s like astroturfing for the always-on, location-aware era,” O’Donovan wrote in 2018

In San Francisco, Airbnb has used the tactic since at least 2015. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who was pushing to regulate short-term rentals at the time, described his opposition as an “astroturf army,” noting that his office even received an email from someone as far as Paris, France, complaining about San Francisco’s proposals. 

“Airbnb was certainly an early pioneer in harnessing” their hosts to advocate against policies “that interfere with Airbnb’s libertarian business model,” he said. “I think it’s immoral and unethical.” 

San Francisco organizer Jennifer Fieber was working with the San Francisco Tenants Union at the time. She told SFGATE that it wasn’t all online, either: She remembers encountering Airbnb hosts speaking on behalf of the company during public comments at City Hall, too.

“They all had on the same stickers and were trying to get in front of us,” said Fieber, who is now a legislative aide for District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar. “It didn't seem spontaneous at all. There were all these same talking points that I suspected were crafted by the company.”

This characterization falls in line with how sociologist Edward Walker defined “astroturfing” in his 2014 book “Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy.”

“Platforms like Airbnb have significant power and leverage to weaponize their support among their users and turn that into a grassroots lobbying army, and they are not shy about using it,” Walker wrote in an email to SFGATE. “Airbnb has a long history of mobilizing their constituents to win in local and state political battles.”

In a statement to SFGATE, Airbnb spokesperson Sam Randall explained that Airbnb users opt-in through their app to receive updates on home sharing regulations and that all of its lobbying activities are in compliance with local laws.

“We have always been clear about our work and partnership with the Airbnb Host community around advocacy for their ability to share their space,” Randall wrote. “Mischaracterizing advocacy for astroturfing is a dangerous and disenfranchising way to complain about simply hearing feedback from voters.”

Elyse Lowe, director of San Diego’s Development Services Department, said that she was well aware of Airbnb’s activism. “I was in extensive negotiations with Airbnb personally,” Lowe told SFGATE. She also collaborated directly with other stakeholders, including Expedia and neighborhood groups. She pointed out that digital astroturfing was common on both sides of the aisle, including from neighborhood groups seeking to rein in short-term rentals. 

“They all launch their own campaigns and provide the same material for what to say at the planning commission and other hearings,” Lowe said.

The San Diego city council eventually came to a regulatory compromise that requires short-term rental operators to get licenses, and establish a cap of 1% of San Diego’s housing stock — about 5,400 units — being used as short-term rentals for more than 20 days per year. There was just one more hurdle the law had to jump: the California Coastal Commission.

Earlier this month, the commission met to discuss whether to approve the proposed rules. A week before, Airbnb emailed local hosts, urging them to attend the meeting and speak in favor of the policy to prevent the possibility of more restrictive regulations.

“Urging the Coastal Commission to pass the city of San Diego’s ordinance is critical to protecting your ability to host,” the email said. “Your voice can make a difference.”

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