How iFood used social media to undermine workers’ labor organizing efforts

How iFood used social media to undermine workers’ labor organizing efforts

4 de abril de 2022
07:00
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São Paulo, Brazil — After three years of working for restaurants as a food delivery runner, Paulo Lima suffered two traffic accidents that almost cost him his life. In 2015, he decided to quit. But when his daughter was born, and his financial situation deteriorated, he had little choice but to return. Like millions of Brazilian citizens, Lima was doing app-based delivery work to make ends meet and support his family.

“I was unemployed, so I had to go back to being a motoboy [motorcycle delivery worker]. But the apps had already taken over the market. Like everybody else, I had to sign up on the apps, pay for a motorcycle in installments and work. I went through a lot. I’ve been humiliated, mistreated, and I got unjustly in debt with the apps — it was outrageous.”

It was this situation that led Lima to speak out against the labor practices of delivery apps online. Lima made a series of videos on social media that soon went viral. Known by his nickname, Galo (“rooster” in Portuguese), Lima started a movement called Entregadores Antifascistas, or Anti-fascist Delivery Workers. He launched a petition effort demanding that delivery platforms provide workers with meals, hand sanitizer, and personal protective equipment amid Brazil’s ongoing Covid crisis, which has had the second-highest overall death toll worldwide, after the U.S. The petition garnered more than 300,000 signatures.

In the months that followed, as the pandemic wore on and economic and working conditions deteriorated, delivery workers began demonstrating across the country. Online campaigns using coordinated hashtags asked people not to use the apps during the strikes and to pressure companies to improve conditions for workers.

In short order, Galo, along with other delivery workers who joined the strikes, saw their earnings plunge. Suddenly, they weren’t getting any delivery requests.

Paulo “Galo” Lima. Photo via Instagram.

“It’s sort of like a shadow ban,” he told Agência Pública, back in June 2020. “It doesn’t show you’ve been banned but you aren’t assigned any delivery orders anymore. It’s been a month since I was assigned one.”

At this point in time, Galo had begun to stand out as a leading figure in the emerging delivery workers’ movement. But it has since come to light that shadow bans aren’t the only tactic used against Galo and others who have taken part in the worker strikes.

In April of 2022, Agência Pública investigated the digital activities of iFood, the largest delivery company currently operating in Brazil and one of the largest in Latin America. We learned that the company hired digital marketing agencies to run a series of online campaigns intended to stifle movements for improved working conditions among the platform’s delivery workers.

Founded as a startup in Brazil in 2011, iFood has come to dominate meal delivery apps in the country, recording 83% of the market share in September 2021, even before Uber Eats ended its service in Brazil. Alongside grievances voiced by delivery workers, iFood also has been criticized by restaurant owners, who say it has become virtually impossible to operate in the delivery business without going through the app. Moreover, experts and competitors point out that consumers are forced to use the platform to have access to a number of restaurant options, since iFood, among other practices, also maintains exclusivity contracts with eateries, preventing them from contracting with other delivery services. This has led competitors and industry associations, such as the Brazilian Association of Bars and Restaurants, to file legal challenges against iFood with the Administrative Council for Economic Defense (CADE), Brazil’s national competition regulator.

A March 2021 study of labor conditions for gig workers at various digital platforms, including Uber, gave iFood low marks. Coordinated by the Oxford Internet Institute and the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre, the study established five criteria with which to measure what can be considered “decent work.” In the analysis, on a scale of 0 to 10, iFood received a rating of just 2.

Our recent investigation sheds light on the digital side of the company’s efforts to maintain a dominant position in Brazil’s market, and to undermine workers’ calls for reform. Drawing on original documents, accounts, and records of conversations among employees at the agencies, Agência Pública traced a series of online campaigns that appear to have created inauthentic profiles and pages purporting to belong to delivery workers. The agencies involved included Comunicação Benjamim and Social Qi. Both companies are based in São Paulo, and both have portfolios that include campaigns for major political candidates. Documents obtained by Agência Pública’s reporters also indicate that Social Qi infiltrated a live demonstration held by one group of delivery workers.

During the course of our investigation, Agência Pública accessed over 30 documents — delivery reports, posting schedules of content, videos, meeting minutes and message exchanges — and spoke to multiple people who worked in the digital marketing agencies. Agency employees interviewed by Agência Pública’s reporters asked to have their names changed in this article, for fear of company reprisals.

A Facebook page designed to undercut delivery workers’ mobilization

In July 2020, iFood delivery workers organized an event called Breque dos Apps (Hit the Brakes on the Apps), a strike against poor working conditions and compensation that took place in 13 different states across Brazil. Workers demanded more transparency, an increase in the minimum earnings per delivery, improved safety and health measures and an end to unjustified suspensions on the platforms.

Eight days after the mobilization, a page called Não Breca Meu Trampo (Don’t Hit The Brakes On My Work) appeared on Facebook.

“The aim was to soften the impact of the strike and disrupt the delivery workers’ organizing efforts,” explained Marcos, a former employee of one of the agencies hired by iFood.

Maria, another former employee who worked on the marketing campaigns, told us:

A post on the Não Breca Meu Trampo Facebook page reads: ‘Everyone wants to earn more money, but to be used by politicians, no thanks.’ The accompanying image reads: “Here’s the deal… when unions and political games get involved, forget about it, man.”

“The pages were created in order to interact with the delivery workers, to understand them — but also to help iFood in the following way: people want to hold a strike, but iFood wants to avoid this, so, instead of busting the strike and releasing a load of fake news about it, we used our [digital] intelligence to understand how we could undermine the narrative of the strike.”

A post on the Não Breca Meu Trampo Facebook page reads: “Everyone wants to earn more money, but to be used by politicians, no thanks.” The accompanying image reads: “Here’s the deal…when unions and political games get involved, forget about it, man.”

On top of disrupting the delivery workers’ attempts at organizing, the Não Breca Meu Trampo (“Don’t Hit The Brakes On My Work”) Facebook page also voiced opposition to proposed legislative bills that sought to regulate app-based delivery work and increase benefits for delivery workers.

Marketing 4.0: ‘No one will suspect a thing’

Another employee who worked for one of the agencies contracted by iFood explained how this and related campaigns worked:

“You post memes, jokes and videos that promote a certain brand or set of ideas, but without showing who is behind the content. No branding, no traces,” the source explained. “It’s the sort of content that leaves you wondering: you’re not sure whether what you saw was just a meme, something that just sprang up organically on the internet or whether there was something more to it.” In the digital advertising world, this technique is known ‘Marketing 4.0.’”

Maria, who worked on the marketing project, explained that the aim of this unofficial advertising campaign was to disseminate ideas and opinions in a way that mimicked how the delivery workers themselves were communicating, in order to give the impression that the social media posts and narratives put out by the agency were authentic, and coming from iFood delivery workers themselves.

A document produced by the staff of the two agencies and obtained by Agência Pública explained the tactics in use:

“We use Facebook pages, Instagram profiles, Twitter profiles, Facebook profiles, created by us to generate these conversations [about a given issue]. How do we do it? We comment on posts which talk about the issue, we go onto the pages of profiles that talk about these issues and comment in an indirect way […], but NEVER sign our posts off as by iFood, so that nobody suspects [that a marketing agency is behind it].”

‘We killed Galo’

A recording of a video call obtained by Agência Pública shows advertising executives from Benjamim Comunicação talking about the Não Breca Meu Trampo Facebook page. In the video, one female project manager recalls: “When we made this page, we were facing an emergency situation that we had to take care of.”

Marketing executives from Benjamim Comunicação state how, in their view, the page was probably responsible for damaging Paulo Lima’s reputation and weakening his influence as one of the leading figures trying to get workers organized to push for better conditions. The strategy was to spread rumors that Galo was using the movement as a platform to get visibility and win a seat in public office, in spite of the fact that he was not running for office.

Galo recalls that as soon as the Facebook page appeared, “some couriers came to me asking who might be behind it.” He says there were growing suspicions regarding its creators, but no one had any evidence to prove who was behind Não Breca Meu Trampo.

The page actively posted content between July 2020 and June 2021. According to a video obtained by Agência Pública, Benjamim Comunicação was hired by iFood to work with their team that focused on public policy-related campaigns, between at least 2020 and 2021.

Jokes and memes

Documents obtained by Agência Publica show how, in January 2021, a separate agency called Social Qi was hired by Benjamim Comunicação to run another part of the campaign. Social Qi (SQi) took over management of the Não Breca Meu Trampo page and created at least two other related pages on Facebook and Instagram, along with at least eight fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

Posted on the “Não Breca Meu Trampo” (“Don’t Slam The Brakes On My Work”) Facebook page on the exact date indicated in the previous document, the meme reads: “Hit the Brakes on the Apps is only for those who are already set in life.” The accompanying caption states: “Here we hustle every day.”

According to the documents, with the arrival of Social Qi on the scene, the range of themes and content on the page began to grow. In January 2021, the team running the project launched a new page called “Garfo na Caveira,” or “Fork in the Skull,” that mainly featured memes.

“The idea was to publish funny bits of content that would generate engagement,” Tom, an agency staff member who worked on the project, told Agência Pública. He explained that the graphics and language used in the posts were based on daily reports generated by monitoring Facebook and WhatsApp groups used by delivery workers, along with social media posts by users connected to the delivery universe, as well as research and surveys that had been commissioned by iFood.

Along with its team of approximately twelve people, the advertising agency also purchased Facebook ads in order to boost the reach of their page. Between April and August 2021, R$12,232.73 (USD $2,350) were spent on promoting the page’s posts, helping the pages to reach 3.16 million people, according to a report seen by Agência Pública.

From social media to the streets: ‘Mission Vaccine’ and Social Qi’s undercover agent

“This thing of undermining the narrative of the strikes, using [digital] intelligence and monitoring led us to a new issue: the [Covid-19] vaccine,” said Maria, who worked on the project. For more than three months, an arsenal of fan pages and fake profiles were used to push an agenda demanding that the government prioritize vaccination against Covid-19 for delivery workers. This strategic maneuver echoed some of the actual concerns voiced by workers, but then linked the call for vaccines to the importance of continuing to work, part of the anti-strike narrative.

“The strategy was to push this idea: ‘A strike is pointless. We want to get the vaccine so we can work’ or ‘We want the vaccine so that we can continue working happily.’ So that’s the narrative [these pages and accounts] started running with,” Maria told Agência Pública.

Another document obtained by Agência Pública shows the tactical planning developed by Social Qi in April 2021, with step-by-step details of the pro-vaccine campaign, which would include lobbying for support from politicians, the use of fake profiles and an online petition. Sources interviewed by Agência Pública said that the plan was executed accordingly.

The campaign for the vaccine, however, was not restricted to purely online activities. Statements and documents suggest how, on April 16, 2021, one of the advertising agency’s employees joined a group of workers during a demonstration. Pretending to be a delivery driver, the SQi employee hung up a banner that read “Vaccination for delivery app workers now!” and handed out stickers printed with the same demand. The action was touted as a key success story of the campaign and was featured in a Social Qi report for their client.

The campaign materials promoting the call for priority vaccination for delivery drivers, taken to the demonstration by the undercover employee of the advertising agency, caught the attention of the national media, who amplified the call as though it were an authentic demand of the striking drivers themselves. On the day of the strikes, “Delivery drivers call for vaccination against Covid-19,” became a popular headline for some of Brazil’s largest media outlets.

Fake profiles and micro-influencers

Sources interviewed by Agência Pública have also spoken of how the creation of fake profiles, who posed as delivery workers, was another strategy used by the advertising agencies in order to increase the reach of their propaganda in favor of the interests of their client, iFood.

This short tweet was posted on Twitter on July 23, 2021, in response to another post in support of the #ApagãodosApps [#BigAppBlackout], a genuine online campaign organized by delivery app workers in order to put pressure on their employers. On the same day, this account responded to another 23 tweets, echoing the same talking points: The account defended the delivery platforms and argued that the online campaign was harmful to workers’ interests.

Always written in the first person, the posts contained slang, grammatical errors and the expression “we moto riders,” to give the appearance that the opinions being expressed were coming from a delivery worker. But we found strong evidence that the tweets coming from this account were in fact part of a scheduled timeline of social media posts that had been created, reviewed and approved by the digital marketing agencies. Documents obtained by Agência Pública show that the same strategy was put into practice on other strike days, when the narrative developed by the marketing agencies was used by at least five different fake profiles to reply to multiple tweets by public figures, politicians and members of the general public supporting the online campaigns.

“There was a clear narrative we had to construct, and what the accounts wrote was based on this narrative. For example: if someone was saying that iFood doesn’t pay their workers very well, we would respond by saying that iFood pays x% more than its competitors and y% more than a cooperative. Our team came up with three different versions of the same response and then used them,” a source later explained.

Other tweets took aim at protesting delivery workers, attempting to raise doubts and delegitimize their cause.

What the companies say

Agência Pública’s reporters contacted all of the companies and individuals cited here for comment, making themselves available and offering to hear their side of the story via interviews, statements or phone calls. André Pontes, a Benjamin Comunicação representative, confirmed that his agency had been working for iFood since September 2020. He told us: “Our work for iFood — and this I can only comment to a certain extent, because we have a confidentiality agreement with iFood, precisely because of their competitors, such as Rappi, Loggi, etc… Our work for iFood concerns monitoring, we monitor all social media related to their cluster.”

No other staff were willing to speak with us on the record, but each of the three companies involved did send us prepared statements.

iFood responded with the following statement:

“With regard to Agência Pública’s request, iFood would like to state that it did not have access to the documents mentioned, and therefore, cannot comment on their content. The company regularly receives pitches and campaign proposals from a variety of communication agencies, although it has never had a commercial relationship with the company SocialQi.

iFood’s activity on social media sites is strictly in line with the law, and does not condone the use of fake profiles, the creation of false information or the automation of content production through the use of bots or the purchasing of followers.

iFood carries out its institutional communications exclusively through its official channels, and contracts agencies, such as Benjamim Digital [sic], specialized in opinion research, campaign communication and social media monitoring which track topics across a number of different platforms.”

In its own statement, Benjamim Comunicação said that the agency was “contracted by iFood to carry out opinion research and content monitoring on social media and was tasked with monitoring issues related to the food delivery ecosystem as a whole.” The statement also explained that the agency “did not sign off along with iFood ideas or campaigns proposed by Social QI, a subcontractor for a short period of time in 2021 tasked with monitoring social media sites for a number of clients,” and that it “does not agree with the practice of creating fake news, using bots or fake accounts for online interaction or the purchasing of likes and followers, and always works within the confines of legality.”

Social Qi responded with the following statement.

“In the development of our business practices, we have carried out a number of projects in partnership with Agência Benjamin [sic], including suggesting possible communication activities to its clients. In this context, we were contracted by Benjamin [sic] in 2021 to carry out social media monitoring regarding the food delivery market in Brazil, and made project proposals that were not necessarily approved and accepted by the agency.

Based purely on the questions sent by their reporters, we can assume that Agência Pública is referring to a supposed project proposal that Social QI suggested to Benjamin [sic] about the creation of a “regulatory mark”, which was not approved by the agency, and therefore, was not carried out.”

Aftermath: as federal agencies launch investigations of iFood, labor efforts continue

After this report was originally published by Agência Pública on April 4, 2022, the Garfo Na Caveira page became inactive. It has not posted any new content since our original story ran. The Não Breca Meu Trampo page had already stopped posting new content in July 2021.

In the ensuing weeks, government agencies in the city of Sao Paulo and at the federal level launched investigations of iFood’s labor and advertising practices that remain ongoing. Both the platform and the agencies are being investigated by a São Paulo City Council inquiry into labor rights violations in the app industry. The National Self-Regulating Council for Advertising has launched an investigation procedure to determine whether the companies violated Brazil’s Self-Regulating Advertisement Code. Moreover, Brazil’s Public Prosecutor’s Office has demanded that all involved parties respond to the facts brought to light by Agência Pública’s report and is investigating whether they have violated the workers’ rights to information.

For delivery workers, the fight continues. Galo remains a leading voice on workers’ rights in Brazil today, with a robust media presence and over 115,000 followers on Twitter. In January, he told Agência Pública that he was seeking financial support to create a resource center where delivery drivers can gather to share meals, repair their motorcycles, and organize around ongoing political challenges they face. Ultimately, Galo says, they want to take charge of delivery in some neighborhoods and to work independently, cutting out the delivery app companies altogether. Only time will tell if companies like iFood try again to foil these plans through social media, or any other means.

Seja aliada da Pública

Investigar as ameaças à democracia é nossa forma de protegê-la.

This story is published in partnership with Agência Pública, a non-profit investigative news agency in São Paulo, Brazil. The original version was published on April 4, 2022, in Portuguese. This version has been edited for a global audience, and was translated into English by Matty Rose.

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