Of RideShares, Conversation, and Russian PropagandaWritten by: Kimberlee Model, posted: 2022-04-30. Tags: transportation, Identity and Politics.
I recently had the experience of taking a RideShare with a driver who was deeply bought into, what I can only assume was, Russian propaganda. The trip was from UCLA to the LAX airport. It started out fairly normal. The driver asked if I was a student, returning home after term, to which I corrected, I was at the university on business, they were hosting a meeting. He was very friendly, talked about how he liked meeting folks from all walks of life: affluent, working class, professionals, even a few police officers and gangsters. It wasn't until we got to the freeway that he started talking about some odd conspiracy theories.
I'm not sure exactly how he got to the topic, but he got started talking about some odd conspiracies. First that the COVID pandemic was set up by... I'm not sure who, then that the DoD was able to control the weather.
My immediate reaction, in my head, was that "well I better keep seeing signs that say 'airport this way'.". Externally, I politely nodded and agreed as he rambled on about how Hitler was alive and Nazis were pulling the strings. But the car kept going in the direction of the airport, so I started thinking about where these conspiracies came from, and if I should try to counter them.
It wasn't until he mentioned that he'd immigrated from Moscow that it clicked. He was struggling a little with English vocabulary, he came from Moscow, and had these crazy theories about Nazis controlling the West. He must be getting this propaganda direct from the Kremlin. That would be the media most accessible to him, and the Kremlin is busy pushing the narrative that Nazis are controlling Ukraine; Nazis in the West wasn't a big stretch from that.
At that point, I decided, "well, the best thing I can do is help this guy practice his English, so he can interact with more Western sources, rather than Russian language propaganda.".
In spite of his conspiracies, it was interesting to chat with him. We talked about how LA might be better off with more trains, there would be less traffic, less pollution. He explained how it was such a surprise that cars were a necessity in America, because the subways in Moscow were so well developed. I told him about how I didn't have a car at home, just a bike, and he said how he liked eBikes, but doesn't like the eScooters that seem to litter LA, because they have such a harsh ride. He told me about how some areas in LA got really hot, almost desert-like, and others didn't, and I explained that it was actually a phenomenon known as "heat deserts", that pavement soaks up a lot of sun during the day, but can't cool enough at night, that trees and greenery alleviate the phenomenon. Of course, he continued with brief interludes about Nazis controlling this and that, but I was able to gently disagree.
Naturally, I would prefer my RideShare drivers not to believe in propaganda or misinformation, but it sunk in that positive interactions can be had with even the most deluded people. There was also some truth to his conspiracies. America does have a clear ruling class -- the Koch family, Bloomberg, the Murdochs, Zuckerberg, etc. These people recklessly peddle and platform media without regard for truthfulness in an incomprehensible quest for more power and money than they could spend in a lifetime. And of course there are violent groups in the US who follow and spread this misinformation.
This experience was somewhat enlightening for me. Not that I'm about to believe in conspiracy theories. But I was able to see how people can fall into misinformation, and how people around them can help them climb back up. So, the next time I interact with a conspiracy theorist RideShare driver, I hope I'll be able to keep an open mind, gently disagree with the conspiracies, practice English if applicable, and hopefully the next passenger can do the same.