Whistleblower alleges Airbnb weakened its policies on extremists and hate groups

Airbnb weakened its policies against extremists and hate groups last year and dissolved its team tasked with removing them from the platform, a former investigations analyst for the company alleged in a recent whistleblower complaint. 

Airbnb denied the allegations, saying that it remains committed to removing members of violent extremist groups, organized crime networks and hate groups and that it has hired additional people to do this work.

The complaint, filed in May and addressed to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, accuses Airbnb of misleading investors and the public. It alleges that the San Francisco-based short-term lodging company shifted its policies in 2023, away from the proactive safety approach co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky said in 2021 should serve as ”a role model” for other tech companies, and toward one guided by internal pressure to avoid negative press and the appearance of unequal enforcement against conservatives. 

The whistleblower, Jess Hernandez, worked for Airbnb as a contractor from May 2022 until November 2023. She was previously an extremism researcher with the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, an online database of terrorist and hate groups. In an interview with NBC News, Hernandez said she was coming forward out of a sense of obligation.

“I never planned in my life to be a whistleblower,” she said. “I don’t like having my name and my face out there, especially given the dangerous people that I do research on. But I felt that I had to.”

For more on this story, watch “Hallie Jackson NOW” on NBC News NOW today at 5 p.m. ET

Hernandez is being represented by Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit law firm aimed at protecting people who come forward to expose potential wrongdoing. Her complaint — a 161-page document that relays her experience as an Airbnb contractor and includes what she describes as internal company documents, reports and communications showing how Airbnb’s Dangerous Organizations team operated — has not been made public. The complaint is mostly based on her firsthand account. It was shared with members of Congress, and NBC News obtained it through a Hill source who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to share it. 

An Airbnb spokesperson, who asked that their name not be published because of the sensitive nature of the article, disputed the complaint’s allegations in a statement to NBC News, calling them “baseless and inaccurate.” 

The statement continued: “We have actually expanded the remit of our team to detect and remove users who pose safety risk and this year we’ve hired additional team members to support the enforcement of this policy. As an online platform that facilitates millions of real-world interactions globally, we have robust policies, processes, and teams across the company focusing on promoting community safety, including preventing unsafe users from using the platform.”

Airbnb did not specify which team it was referring to in its statement. A company spokesperson disputed there was a team named “Dangerous Organizations,” though an internal company document included in Hernandez’s complaint — a monthly risk assessment on “Dangerous Organization-related events” — referred to “the DO team.” 

Airbnb declined to give details on removals of accounts affiliated with dangerous organizations over the past year, citing user privacy.  

Aibnb boasts more than 7.7 million active global listings and its recent earnings have exceeded forecasts. In May, the company announced its most profitable first quarter — $264 million — and $2.1 billion in revenue, with further growth expected. 

Hernandez’s claims come at a time when Big Tech has slashed trust and safety positions and shifted away from the policies those teams implemented — measures initially designed to keep platforms safe from hate and misinformation, which right-wing critics and their ideological allies have branded censorship. Social media companies in particular, led by Elon Musk’s X, have cut content moderation jobs and trust and safety teams in recent years, drawing alarm from tech experts who warn that as the growth of online platforms and merchants continues, so do potential harms

Hernandez’s complaint revolves around what she knew as the company’s Dangerous Organizations team, a small internal investigations unit focused on hate groups within a larger trust and safety team made up of researchers, cybersecurity experts and former law enforcement officials, according to Chesky in 2021. Hernandez said her job involved receiving tips about users who may be involved in extremist or hate groups, investigating those people by reviewing news reports and social media, as well as official and expert sources, and if publicly available evidence met a threshold for identifying them as members of dangerous groups, removing their accounts. 

The policy that guided that team was formalized in 2018, after Airbnb made news for its strong stance against white supremacist marchers at the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counterprotester was killed and dozens more were injured. 

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the “alt-right” exchange insults with counterprotesters during “Unite the Right” on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Airbnb found attendees using its platform to organize and coordinate lodging and quickly removed them, along with connected accounts that popped up to try and evade those bans. The move was widely praised as an important new line in the sand for how tech companies could respond to hate. 

Airbnb continued to make news for its proactive removals, which went beyond other home-sharing services: In 2019, it removed users planning to attend a white nationalist conference in Tennessee and more than 60 users of a white nationalist web forum. It also banned prominent white nationalists and their right-wing activist allies, including Michelle Malkin and Lauren Southern, removals which attracted criticism from right-wing media. (Malkin called her ban an “ideological witch hunt” and Southern said she was banned for her political views.) The attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, further motivated Airbnb, according to a company blog post, which announced it was taking “more aggressive action” and had already banned more than 130 users determined to be involved in the violence. 

But things began to shift in early 2023 shortly after Airbnb removed Southern’s parents, the complaint alleges. Hernandez said the removal was intentional, as part of the policy allowing for bans of people with connections to far-right activists. Southern’s account of  the ban on her parents went viral on social media and her story was featured on Fox News’ then primetime show with Tucker Carlson, who suggested Airbnb’s policy was part of a larger plan by Big Tech to root out “thought criminals.” After the conservative media firestorm, Airbnb reinstated Southern’s parents.

In January 2023, Hernandez says, she was told by the team’s leader without explanation to stand down on a review of accounts associated with supporters of right-wing former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who stormed government buildings. Two months later, Airbnb’s director of global trust defense product and operations, Manav Gupta, suggested a “complete overhaul” of the dangerous organizations policy, according to Hernandez’s recollection of events in the complaint. At a February 2023 meeting, Gupta had also allegedly questioned the very idea of platform safety and the group’s specific focus on the far-right Proud Boys for removal, according to Hernandez’s remembering. 

Gupta did not respond to a request for comment. 

Under the overhaul, the team’s usual process for removing accounts identified and connected with dangerous groups was made more cumbersome, Hernandez said. The team was no longer empowered to remove accounts; intelligence was only actionable after it had been reviewed and approved by several departmental leaders, including heads of legal, communications and community policy. The change created a bottleneck and removals slowed to a near-stop, according to Hernandez’s recollection.

“They completely halted our work,” Hernandez told NBC News, citing a 2023 investigation that failed to remove members of Gays Against Groomers, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has since designated an extremist group. “Our hands were tied — we weren’t removing people.” Internal company reports included in the complaint’s exhibits show Gays Against Groomers was the subject of a review under the Dangerous Organizations policy. The result of that review is not known. 

Hernandez’s complaint did not include documentation showing a change in the pace of removals or in which groups were being targeted for removal. Airbnb’s spokesperson did not provide details in response to questions about her allegations, beyond saying that the Dangerous Organizations policy “continues to be in effect and enforced.” 

Removals that were granted were delayed, according to the complaint, which said the leader of the neo-Nazi group Blood Tribe stayed at and helped operate an Airbnb listing in Maine for weeks after the account was initially flagged for removal by the team. Before the shift in policy, removal would have been immediate, Hernandez recalled in the complaint. The account was ultimately removed under the Dangerous Organizations team’s “connected account” policy.

Jess Hernandez
Hernandez said she was coming forward out of a sense of obligation.Maggie Shannon for NBC News

Hernandez’s contract was terminated in November 2023. Hernandez said in the complaint she was given contradictory reasons for her contract not being renewed: One supervisor told her that she was “underperforming” without example and another told her that her termination was a headcount issue unrelated to performance.

Through a series of events detailed in the complaint, she said she learned it wasn’t just her job that was being eliminated, but the entire five-person team: these included the team leader being moved to another department and the role remaining unfilled, the intended transfer of two colleagues to different teams that work on fraud and human trafficking, and the announcement from a supervisor at a meeting that the team would no longer be removing hate groups.

One of the team’s final assignments, according to the complaint, was a reassessment of the Jan. 6 removals, with a potential reinstatement of some previously banned accounts. Hernandez said she was told by her manager that employees who disagreed with the changes could leave the company. It’s not clear whether any Jan. 6 participants have been reinstated. 

An Airbnb spokesperson touted other safety precautions at the company, including its use of background checks and existing databases, such as terrorist watch lists. The spokesperson cited internal statistics showing incidents at Airbnb properties are rare. The spokesperson added that the company regularly reviews its policies to ensure they are effective.

In a statement, Libby Liu, CEO of Whistleblower Aid, called on the government to investigate what she called Airbnb’s “misrepresentations.”

“Our client directly experienced Airbnb misleading their customers and shareholders into believing they are keeping their platform safe from dangerous extremism while failing to do so. The government has a mandate to act.”

The FTC did not respond to a request for comment. The SEC declined to comment on the existence or nonexistence of a possible investigation.

Hernandez said she wants to see Airbnb commit to removing dangerous organizations and extremists from the platform.  “It’s just important to see them keeping people safe,” she said. 

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