When Design Permits Discrimination: Learning Anti-Asian Bias on Airbnb

Asian Airbnb hosts had significantly fewer stays early in the COVID-19 pandemic — and the travel site’s design may have inadvertently enabled discrimination that excluded Asians, new research from the Harvard business professor Michael Luca.

Hosts with Asian names in the United States saw their bookings drop approximately 12% over the study period compared to white, black, or Hispanic hosts. draft copy co-written by Luca.

The research documents a financial consequence of “scapegoating” that can occur whenever a crisis is blamed on a particular group. The most troubling aspect of the phenomenon, according to Luca, is that the discrimination could have been avoided to some extent if the platform had not prominently featured the names and photos of the hosts.

“In times of crisis, when tensions are high and discrimination is increasing in the world around us, you will be more sensitive to it if you are a platform that has decided to have a design that allows it,” says Luca , who co-wrote the working paper with Elizaveta Pronkina, post-doctoral researcher at Paris-Dauphine University, and Michelangelo Rossi, lecturer at Télécom Paris.

In a political environment where racial injustice draws attention from all sides, companies that want to be at the forefront of the issue must pay close attention to the inequalities they may inadvertently exacerbate. Although Airbnb has addressed issues of bias with website changes in the past, other steps could be taken to bring more anonymity to the site, says Luca.

Platform Design and Discrimination

Renting properties to travelers on Airbnb has become an important source of income for many people. In 2021, as travel resumed, Airbnb hosts collectively earned $34 billion from 6 million active listings.

One possible reason Airbnb highlights host names and faces on its site is to build trust between guests and hosts. The company currently offers accommodations in over 220 countries and 100,000 cities. But when it started in 2008, it competed with big, trusted hotel chains, and posting photos of hosts might seem like a good way to emphasize the unprofessional, folksy aspect of an Airbnb stay, Luca says.

But there is a flaw, he points out: “The risk is that you allow a type of discrimination that would not have been possible on platforms where this information is not as front and center.”

Luca and his colleagues analyzed 17,748 hosts and 334,906 reviews in New York, one of Airbnb’s main markets. Using reviews as a proxy for bookings, the researchers tracked reviews from the year before and the year after the pandemic began. They turned to NamePrism, a publicly available algorithm identifying the likelihood that a name belongs to a certain ethnicity to isolate distinctively Asian names.

Since most customers leave reviews, researchers say they can accurately reflect how many bookings a host receives. The researchers then compared the change in the number of reviews for Asian hosts to the change in the number of reviews for non-Asian hosts.

All hosts experienced a decline in stays in this first year of the pandemic, as travel around the world declined. But Airbnb hosts with distinctively Asian names have been hit significantly harder: These hosts saw an additional 12% drop in bookings in the early months of the pandemic compared to other New York hosts. The decline in reviews for Asian hosts began in the spring of 2020 and remained low through November 2020.

Scapegoating during the pandemic

Reports of racially motivated violence and discrimination against Asian Americans have been well documented by law enforcement groups, advocacy organizations and public inquiries in the United States since COVID-19 turned the world upside down in 2020.

In March 2020, then-President Donald Trump dubbed COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” in a speech and used other terms like “Wuhan virus” and “Kung Flu” that were repeated by conservative pundits and in social memes. According to a Pew Research Center surveynearly half of Asian American adults said they had experienced at least one racist incident in the first year of the pandemic.

The scapegoating of Asian Americans during the pandemic reflects a pattern that typically occurs when nations face crisis, researchers say. After World War II, discrimination against Japanese Americans caused many Japanese to Americanize their children’s names. And after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Muslims and Middle Easterners suffered endemic discrimination and sometimes physical violence.

In that context, what happened on Airbnb in 2020 may be disturbing, but it’s not entirely surprising, says Luca.

“Given the scapegoating we’ve seen in government and in society at large, we’re concerned that discrimination is also skyrocketing on the platform,” he says. “More than surprised, I was saddened.”

Companies can prevent bias

This isn’t the first time Luca’s research has focused on Airbnb’s platform design. In 2014, Luca’s research found that posting guest profile photos before a host accepted a booking request resulted in fewer bookings from guests of color. In 2018, Airbnb announced that it would no longer show guest photos before a booking request was accepted, a proposal Luca had made two years earlier. Airbnb also reduced the prominence of guest photos, removing them from the main search results page, although they did leave guest photos on listing pages.

In June 2020, Airbnb launched Flagship Projecta US-based research effort that aims to identify and measure biases involving names and photos to help the company create better policies, drawing on many ideas Lucas has propose over the years. While the company admits the project won’t end bias on its platform, “it’s an important step that can identify discrimination that would otherwise go undetected,” according to Airbnb’s website. The company removed 1.5 million people of his community for discriminatory behavior.

Luca says the experience at Airbnb provides an important lesson for other companies with similar web platforms. Companies should review their web design and strengthen anonymity. If it is necessary to provide user credentials, he suggests waiting for a transaction to complete.

“Every platform should think about this issue,” says Luca. “Every platform needs to track biases. Each platform needs to be transparent about when and where this is happening and transparent about what steps they are taking to reduce it.

One of the most important takeaways, according to Luca, is that business leaders must accept responsibility for creating a more inclusive society. When they ignore the potential for bias, they can inadvertently harm their customers, he says. Luca has been contacted by Airbnb about this research, and by other business leaders looking to create more inclusive ecosystems.

“There is discrimination in the world,” he says. Luca has a simple message for business leaders: “As a leader, you need to think about how discrimination affects your business and how you might address it. You can’t just sit on the sidelines and say, “Well, that’s the company, that’s not my problem.” This is your problem as a leader. You need to take steps to ensure that you are contributing to the solutions rather than the problems.

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