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Uber CEO's comment about murdered journalist sparks social media backlash

Emily McCormick

Uber (UBER) and its CEO Dara Khosrowshahi are coming under heavy criticism on social media.

The hashtag #BoycottUber began trending on Twitter (TWTR) Monday morning after Khosrowshahi called the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi “a serious mistake” during an interview with Axios.

Although the executive quickly backtracked his comments, a referendum on the ride-hailing company ensued as throngs of users took to the social media platform to assail Uber over its top executive’s comments.

“I've never installed the Uber app. If you have it, consider deleting it in favor of an alternative. #BoycottUber,” Twitter user Ken Gagne wrote.

Others highlighted a potential impact to Uber’s drivers if a boycott were to occur.

It is unclear how many users have so far deleted their accounts amid the backlash. Shares of Uber fell 2% to $26.44 each shortly after market open Monday.

‘A serious mistake’

Khosrowshahi made the original comments during an Axios on HBO episode, comparing Khashoggi’s murder to Uber’s issues with developing autonomous driving technology. An Uber self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona last year, which the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report last week had occurred after the vehicle failed to recognize a pedestrian not in a crosswalk.

“It’s a serious mistake,” Khosrowshahi said on the show. “We’ve made mistakes too, right? With self-driving, and we stopped driving and we’re recovering from that mistake.

“I think that people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven,” he added. “I think they have taken it seriously.”

Khosrowshahi later rolled back those comments.

“I said something in the moment that I do not believe,” Khosrowshahi said in a statement to Axios. “When it comes to Jamal Khashoggi, his murder was reprehensible and should not be forgotten or excused.”

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi speaks to the media at an event in New Delhi, India, October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi speaks to the media at an event in New Delhi, India, October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

An Uber spokesperson directed a Yahoo Finance request for comment to Khosrowshashi’s Twitter post Monday morning publicly reiterating his apology. The spokesperson did not address the #BoycottUber hashtag.

Saudi Arabia is Uber’s fifth-largest shareholder, a fact that was not lost on many of those contributing to the “#BoycottUber” hashtag. The head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, Yasir bin Othman Al-Rumayyan, is a member of Uber’s board of directors.

The CIA had concluded late last year that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s government, in Istanbul. A report from the United Nations called the murder a “premeditated extrajudicial execution, for which the State of Saudi Arabia is responsible” in a report published in June.

Uber had been one of a number of companies that declined to attend Saudi Arabia’s annual investment conference after Khashoggi’s death in 2018. Khosrowshahi also skipped this year’s Saudi investment conference, but told Axios during his interview that this was because of a scheduling issue.

It isn’t the first time #BoycottUber or a similar hashtag has trended online. These have surfaced a number of times over the years as the public responded to various missteps by the ride-hailing company.

The hashtag “#DeleteUber” began trending online two years ago after Uber serviced rides at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport while taxis were striking against the Trump administration’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. Uber had disclosed in its IPO prospectus earlier this year that the #DeleteUber campaign had resulted in “hundreds of thousands” of customers ceasing to use the ride-hailing app.

Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @emily_mcck

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