Yelp’s campaign to influence the White House to investigate Google has gone too far.
In September, it was reported that President Trump would sign an executive order that called on government agencies to investigate the “exercise of bias” by “dominant online platforms,” and “thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws.” A memo encouraging Republican legislators to investigate Google for the same reasons was also simultaneously circulated on the Hill. Meanwhile, a deputy White House press secretary stated the draft executive order was “not the result of an official White House policymaking process.” Let’s put aside the merit of such an investigation for a moment, because that discussion should take place, but it is deserving of its own substantive focus. For now, let’s do some detective work…
Where did this executive order and memo come from?
How did they make their way to the highest reaches of U.S. government power if not produced by policymakers or the president’s own staff?
Most troubling, how did it culminate in the president tweeting a professionally-designed video about Google’s alleged bias – a video that was proven inaccurate almost as quickly as loyalists in the GOP apparatus helped make it viral?
The question, really, is who took these steps to embarrass President Trump and his team, and how did this person get away with it?
Several White House staff members pointed to Yelp, specifically Yelp’s Senior Vice President of Public Policy, Luther Lowe, as the author of the executive order. It doesn’t take much perusing of Mr. Lowe’s twitter to conclude that his paid role at Yelp may be exclusively focused on criticizing the company’s chief competitor, Google. Whether it is an obsession or his job, may be debatable.
What did Mr. Lowe expect? Did he figure that someone on the White House senior staff would open the email and think, “wow, what a novel idea! And look! It’s already mocked up as an executive order which makes it nice and easy for the boss to sign and I won’t have to do any of the heavy lifting!” Amateur move, to say the least.
Shortly before rumors of the executive order emerged, President Trump tweeted the #stopthebias video that claimed Google had snubbed the president by not promoting his State of the Union address. However, the video’s claims were quickly debunked with screenshots that proved Google promoted speeches by President Trump and Obama the same way, leaving the president and major GOP leaders with egg on their faces for having promoted such easily disproven content.
In fairness, while the draft executive order has been confirmed by White House staff as coming from Yelp’s Luther Lowe, the video’s creator remains unconfirmed, though glaring signs point back to Yelp.
The video President Trump tweeted bears many similarities to Yelp’s “Focus on the User” content – part of the company’s anti-Google campaign which, not coincidentally, also includes material regarding Google’s alleged conservative bias. For example, Yelp’s video content and the video tweeted by President Trump bear many of the same stylistic characteristics – including the same amateur red, off-centered circles and fonts.
One article describes Lowe’s role as “flying around the world trying to sic antitrust regulators on Google.” The videos and photoshopped images Lowe publishes daily to his personal twitter page nearly only pertain to tech antitrust and bias, as well as any news that criticizes Google and Facebook. On numerous occasions, he has bragged about his ability to photoshop images, once showcasing his ability to change a headline in under sixty seconds. Sound like someone who would unabashedly send his own work to the White House?
There is constructive government relations and public policy advocacy, and then there is a reckless crossing of the line. Spamming White House staff and somehow, someway getting a “fake news” video into the president’s twitter feed is irrefutably the latter. Does Yelp management turn a blind eye to this? Did management condone it in the first place?
This extreme and bizarre situation may not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has been following the tech wars in recent years. Yelp has long been on an anti-Google, anti-Facebook crusade, complaining to almost any regulator or news outlet that will listen, in hopes that law or regulation might ultimately favor Yelp and help drive more traffic to its website. One on level you cannot blame Yelp for trying. After all, lobbying like this is business-as-usual in Washington, DC. However, drafting an executive order in the name of self-serving corporate interests and emailing it to the President’s staff to print-and-sign is crossing the line.
There is more that seems off about all of this. Yelp and its management aren’t necessarily known as supporters of the President and his successful America First agenda. In fact, Yelp’s role mobilizing an anti-bias campaign via the GOP is ironic given that the company’s executives are staunch liberals and have openly opposed President Trump’s policies and ridiculed his leadership. Lowe himself has even suggested that the President did not understand the antitrust case against Google in Europe. Moreover, the company’s products have taken cheap-shots at the president’s physical appearance. In 2016, the Yelp app made references to the size of the president’s hands, stating “our latest release easily trumps our old version, it’s usable no matter how small your hands are!”And its subsidiary Eat24 mocked Trump’s hair, declaring that “Donald Trump and Eat24 don’t have much in common besides a love of whacky toupees (is it a toupee, right?).” It appears Yelp is exploiting individuals who work for the President who are genuinely examining serious issues, but in doing so, the company is making a mockery of this work.
It is troubling that one company with an axe to grind, and ulterior motives to achieve, might come close to getting a presidential executive order produced outside the mechanisms of our democracy. And if indeed the video is also a Yelp creation, it is even more troubling that it made its way to the president and wasn’t vetted. Yelp gets 5-stars for its manipulative persistence in this matter, but 1-star for embarrassing the president. Yelp is no friend to the White House, the Republican Party, or the Trump Administration.