‘A totally different ballgame’: Inside Uber and Lyft’s fight over gig worker status – CNET

Veena Dubal couldn't stop her mind from reeling. It was around midnight on March 29 and coronavirus lockdowns were in effect. She says she paced back and forth between her three young children's rooms making sure each one was OK. She tried to convince herself she was overreacting. It didn't work. 

Earlier in the day, she'd received a text message from a friend telling her to look at Twitter. Dubal, an employment labor law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and a vocal critic of Uber and Lyft, opened the app. She'd been getting an unusual amount of hateful tweets over the past few weeks, but that didn't prepare her for what she saw -- her home address, salary and husband's name broadcast on the social media site by someone she says had been one of her most relentless critics. "Our dear Veena may be hording (sic) a lot of clams," read the tweet by @BlueUrpi in reference to Dubal's salary.

"I kept thinking, 'Oh my god, all of these crazy people on Twitter now have my home address and are going to do something horrible,'" Dubal says, still noticeably rattled several months later. "They know I'm at home. I'm a sitting target."

That night, Dubal says she slept on the floor of her two eldest children's shared room with a baby monitor close by. As she closed her eyes, she couldn't stop thinking about the messages and tweets she'd been barraged with. "Vile Veena." "Veena Dubal is insane! Let's give her our piece of mind!" "She is a very annoying pest. Bring out some spray #veenadubal."

Dubal says she had inadvertently been pulled into a bizarre world where people on Twitter and Facebook seemed to think she was behind a California law, Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), that addressed labor protections for gig economy workers. One of the main goals of AB5 was to get companies like Uber and Lyft -- two of the world's largest ride-hailing services that rely on the work of independent contractors -- to reclassify their drivers as employees, so workers can get basic benefits like health care, sick leave and a minimum wage. The law was actually authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego, someone Dubal had met only a couple of times, in group settings.

Dubal is an outspoken supporter of AB5. She's often quoted in the media, has written articles and op-eds, and has sent letters to unions, the California legislature and Congress to advocate in support of gig workers. But she says she had no hand in creating the law.

"So, where did the idea come from that I wrote the law?" Dubal says.

This idea might not have gone viral by accident, but rather by design.

Dubal seems to have become a target in a complex campaign involving social media harassment, take-down articles on conservative websites and actions by at least two public relations firms hired by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates. One of those PR firms, Sacramento-based MB Public Affairs, submitted a lengthy public records request on July 28 for Dubal's email correspondence with 130 other labor activists, academics and union leaders. 

"It's clearly a coordinated campaign," says William Fitzgerald, who currently runs a strategic advocacy firm called The Worker Agency and previously worked for Google on both its public policy and communications teams. "What Uber is doing now with this is way further than anything I've seen. It's a totally different ballgame."

Public records obtained by CNET from the California Secretary of State show the five gig economy companies hired the PR firms to work on a ballot measure campaign that's up for a vote in California's November election. The ballot measure, Proposition 22, was jointly sponsored by the five companies and aims to specifically exempt them from AB5. The proposition aims to create an alternative to the law that keeps workers as independent contractors, but adds a few more benefits, such as expense reimbursement and a health care subsidy.

The effect of the companies' battle over AB5 came to a head last week after a California judge set a deadline for Uber and Lyft to comply with the law. As a result, the two companies said they'd halt operations in the state until the vote on Proposition 22. Just hours before the deadline, an appeals court ruled Uber and Lyft could continue operating as usual through at least mid-October.

Uber, Instacart and Postmates (which Uber acquired last month) didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. Lyft and DoorDash referred CNET to the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign.

"The Yes on Prop 22 campaign is doing what every campaign is doing: we're focused on educating voters about why they should vote Yes on Prop 22," a spokesman for the campaign said in an email. 

Winning the Proposition 22 campaign is of dire importance to Uber and Lyft, according to filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. If the two companies are required to reclassify their drivers as employees in California, they'll lose hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis, says an analysis by Barclays. DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates have also indicated that reclassifying their workers could hurt their businesses. Expenditures in the public records obtained by CNET show the five companies have employed at least 19 firms to do consulting work to help them wage their Proposition 22 battle. At least five of the firms named in the documents have worked on campaigns for big tobacco, big oil and big chemical companies, including Philip Morris, Chevron and Monsanto.

"They're part of the boogeyman of California politics," says David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University who studies California ballot measure campaigns and political consulting. "Big tech is now on that side of it, and Uber and Lyft are in there."

MB Public Affairs didn't respond to multiple emails and phone requests for comment. Neither did the other 18 firms doing consulting work for the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign.

Ride-hail drivers who want to be classified as employees have staged several protests in front of Uber's San Francisco headquarters over the last year.

James Martin/CNET

The gig economy companies' political involvement comes as Silicon Valley seems to be shifting away from a left-leaning free-for-all to an industry that appears to be increasingly working with conservative causes. Facebook, for instance, has been accused by critics of loosening the screws on democracy by allowing PR firms including Cambridge Analytica to mine its data to help get President Donald Trump elected. Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have been criticized by human rights organizations and sometimes even their own employees for their business practices, such as entering into military contracts with the US government or deflecting antitrust complaints. In the case of the gig economy companies, their current focus appears to be akin to union busting, based on the types of PR firms they've hired.

"I come out of organized labor, so I'm used to the tactics companies can use when you empower workers," Gonzalez said in a phone interview earlier this month. "I knew that we would definitely get pushback."

But Dubal, as a private citizen, says she wasn't fully aware of such tactics. And another thing she didn't know on that sleepless night in March was just how big the campaign against her would get.

Follow the money

California is its own breed of politics.

Ballot measure spending in the state is the second-most expensive type of political spending in the world, with only the US presidential election taking the lead, according to McCuan. As of Aug. 26, the five gig economy companies had contributed more than $201.1 million to Proposition 22, according to California's Fair Political Practices Commission, with Uber, Lyft and DoorDash the biggest backers. By contrast, spending on Florida's six ballot measures for 2020 totals just over $68 million.

One of the reasons for this extravagant spending in California is the state's influence elsewhere. When AB5 was signed into law last September, Gonzalez said one of her objectives with the bill was for California to set the standard for gig worker protections worldwide.

"If you're Uber and Lyft what are you going to do?" McCuan says. "You're going to throw the kitchen sink at this."

So far, that seems to be the case, based on spending for and against Proposition 22. While the gig economy companies have contributed more than $201 million to their Yes campaign, unions and labor groups have contributed more than $3.6 million to the No side, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission. The Yes campaign spent more than $2.5 million on campaign consultants between October 2019 and June 2020, according to the public records. That figure represents roughly 14% of the total $18.1 million spent on the campaign during this period.

To get Proposition 22 on the ballot, the campaign said it paid canvassers $4 per signature, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. By the end of February, it had amassed 1 million signatures, and the initiative, known as the Protect App-Based Drivers and Services Act, was officially cleared for the November election.

That's when there appeared to be a pivot toward heavier spending on PR firms, including Winner and Mandabach Campaigns, Bicker Castillo & Fairbanks and MB Public Affairs, according to public records. McCuan says the Yes campaign likely enlisted a selective network of consultants to cover specific tactics and strategies.

While these three firms have worked on campaigns for Republican candidates and issues, according to the nonpartisan financial tracking group Open Secrets, MB Public Affairs is known for taking on conservative causes. Founded in 1997, MB Public Affairs has earned a reputation for opposition research, the practice of unearthing dirt on political rivals, according to McCuan. It's run by Mark Bogetich, whom the Los Angeles Times once called "a garrulous operative known to his friends as 'Bogey.'" As of June 30, expenditures in the public records show the Proposition 22 campaign had paid the firm around $240,000, mostly for consulting work and some polling and survey research.

On its website, MB Public Affairs says it "provides clients a unique combination of political vulnerability research capabilities, public policy issue expertise, strategic analysis and communications skills."

The firm's past list of clients includes Altria, formerly known as Phillip Morris, and three prominent Republicans: actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former eBay CEO and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The firm also worked on campaigns for the agriculture industry in disputes with farm workers over the past decade and for the plastics industry on halting Styrofoam bans in 2013.

One of the reasons the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign hired MB Public Affairs is for its opposition research, a person familiar with the matter told CNET. The person said Bicker Castillo & Fairbanks, which had been paid more than $521,000 as of June 30 and works on social media campaigns, runs the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign's official Twitter account and deals with press and communications. Winner and Mandabach Campaigns, which has been paid more than $541,000 and is considered a full-service PR firm, has been mainly in charge of signature gathering and advertising, according to the person.

"These consultants have a lot of autonomy," the person said. But "the companies own the outcome and actions of what the consultants do." 

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi took over the company from co-founder Travis Kalanick in August 2017.

James Martin/CNET

On several California campaigns, including Proposition 22, MB Public Affairs has been hired along with the law firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk. This law firm was paid around $237,000 by the Yes campaign as of June 30 and has created ballot measures in the past meant to confuse voters, according to commentaries in The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times. In the case of Proposition 22, the campaign says it will "protect app-based drivers" by creating an alternative to AB5. A driver interviewed by CNET disputes that claim.

"If the pandemic has shown anything, it's that all workers deserve affordable health insurance, paid sick leave, a minimum wage, overtime pay and access to a social safety net," says Mekela Edwards, a full-time Uber driver and member of the driver group We Drive Progress, which represents 6,000 drivers. "That's why I am working really hard to help defeat Prop 22."

Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

As the battle between the Yes and No on Proposition 22 campaigns heated up over the past few months, one thing became clear for the Yes side: Dubal was a target. 

CommDigiNews and RedState

After her home address and salary were shared on Twitter, Dubal was wracked with anxiety. She says she worried about her family's safety and didn't know why she was being attacked so relentlessly. She reported the incident to the local police, who she says circled her block every few hours. She also paid a digital forensics firm $600 to scrub the internet of her personal information. 

Just 12 days after the tweet, a 1,400-word post titled "Veena Dubal: The unelected puppet master behind California's AB5 law," written by contributor Jennifer Oliver O'Connell, was published on the conservative website Communities Digital News. Dubal says neither O'Connell nor anyone from Communities Digital News contacted her for a comment. The April 10 post, which includes a few of Dubal's tweets and statements made in interviews, calls AB5 author Gonzalez "a sock puppet" and describes Dubal as someone who "should not be allowed to be a dog catcher. Let alone have influence and set policy that dictates the lives of hard-working Americans."

The post was followed by two more by O'Connell in Communities Digital News, both published on April 22. One of those was titled "Veena Dubal and AB5: Big Labor's Excuse to Grab Power," and the other was called "Dubal and AB5: A Woman of Privilege Dictating How Californians Can Work." All three posts claim Dubal authored AB5.

"Veena Dubal, the law's true author, created this tortured and miasmic law in order to destroy the very foundation and structure of independent contracting," reads one of the April 22 posts.  

A meme of Veena Dubal posted to the @Ab5Of Twitter account on April 13.

"Think about how easy it is to make any message go viral," says Kenneth Henrie, an assistant professor of marketing at Penn State, who researches online persuasion. "How many people do you see in your timelines, maybe on Facebook or Twitter, that are sharing things that aren't correct but they seem correct because they come from some organization that sounds important."

In response, Dubal says she began blocking people on Twitter. 

O'Connell, who's been a contributor to Communities Digital News since 2014 and describes herself on LinkedIn as a "writer-consultant," has two versions of a personal website, both called As the Girl Turns. Each showcases her work as an independent writer and yoga instructor. The newer website was launched in 2020 and includes a form where people can submit grievances about AB5. O'Connell has tweeted at Dubal and Gonzalez numerous times.

"@LorenaAD80 is butthurt for her friend @VeenaDubal," reads an Aug. 6 tweet, referencing Gonzalez's Twitter handle. "We haven't forgotten about her #AB5 manipulation, and people are not letting her get away with trying to skew the truth on #Prop22. We see you, Venal."

O'Connell, in an interview with CNET, said she opposes AB5 because the law has "decimated half of my income." (AB5 also applies to certain contractor professions, such as writers, musicians, translators and housekeepers.) Her activism against AB5 began in February after one of her first tweets about the law was mentioned in a post by the conservative website RedState. Shortly thereafter, O'Connell became one of the most vocal members of the #RepealAB5 community, based on her social media activity.

Kira Davis, an editor-at-large for RedState, wrote the Feb. 4 post mentioning O'Connell's tweet, which said AB5 "disenfranchised" hundreds of professions.

RedState Deputy Managing Editor Jennifer Van Laar has also written posts about AB5 and Uber and Lyft. On LinkedIn, Van Laar describes herself as an "opposition researcher, and communications professional specializing in political campaigns, activist organizations, and conservative/libertarian causes." Van Laar and Davis have both tweeted at Dubal and mention Gonzalez on Twitter on a near daily basis.

"Watching Veena and Lorena against the ropes is awesome but we have to keep up the pressure," Van Laar tweeted on Feb. 5. That tweet has since disappeared.

When asked for comment, Van Laar wrote in an email to CNET that "I'm not involved in the [Proposition 22] campaign; simply someone who's been affected by AB5 personally speaking up in favor of the proposition." She declined to comment further. 

It isn't uncommon for campaign operatives to work with publications they believe can help reach potentially sympathetic voters and readers. When Facebook hired the PR firm Definers in 2018, dozens of articles supportive of the social media company were published on the conservative news site NTK Network, which is affiliated with Definers.

A spokesman for the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign said it hasn't made any payments or provided support of any kind to O'Connell, Davis, Van Laar, Communities Digital News or RedState.

Sonoma State professor McCuan says that when companies enlist PR firms, they're typically hiring them for their contacts and ties. Oftentimes, he says, the companies don't even know who the PR firms are working with because part of the goal is to distance themselves from the on-the-ground work.

"The companies will say, 'Those people that are tearing us up online, that needs to go away.' The firm says 'OK,'" McCuan says. "There's no need to utter the words 'plausible deniability,' because that's a given."  

Lollipop Guild

O'Connell, Davis and Van Laar are among a group of more than 50 people who seem determined to "repeal" AB5, based on their social media activity. They appear to be well organized, citing and linking to each other, and generally post to Twitter or Facebook on a daily basis. Nearly all of the people identify as freelancers hurt by AB5, describing themselves as writers, actors, musicians or translators, as well as other professions, and small-business owners. As of Thursday, only a few of the people whose social media activity CNET reviewed described themselves as Uber or Lyft drivers.

AB5 went into effect on Jan. 1. Initially, it was intended to apply to all industries that use independent contractors, but because of backlash or lawsuits, some professions have been exempted along the way, including doctors, lawyers, accountants and truckers. Assemblywoman Gonzalez has acknowledged the drawbacks of AB5 as it was first written. On Jan. 6, she introduced Assembly Bill 1850, which is currently being fast-tracked through the legislature and would add exemptions for creative and news industries. But the law still has critics.

"I've never been involved in politics my whole life, but when AB5 happened, it got me off the sidelines," says Lisa Rothstein, a freelance cartoonist who supports Proposition 22 and tweets about repealing AB5 on a near daily basis. "The best we can hope to weaken AB5 is to help Prop 22 pass ... We're like the fangirls and fanboys of that campaign. Anything that'll hurt Lorena Gonzalez."

Several Twitter accounts that focus on "repealing" AB5 use the lollipop emoji.

Rothstein and dozens of others say they're members of the Lollipop Guild, and they sprinkle the lollipop emoji throughout their Twitter posts. This meme is likely in reference to a comment made by Democratic State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson. During a hearing about an amendment to AB5 in May, Jackson said, "I appreciate the frustration people have. It's kind of taking away the lollipop that they had, the ability to decide essentially when they worked." 

Davis wrote about the incident in RedState

Anti-AB5 activist groups seem to have started popping up online around December 2019, but mass postings to social media sites didn't really pick up until February. Based on a review of the activity, at least 20 Facebook groups and pages, 10 websites, nine Twitter accounts, five YouTube channels and two Instagram accounts have been launched with the aim of denouncing AB5. A podcast series, online speaker series and a Google photo album titled "AB5 victims" also showcase people opposed to the law. These online assets often link to each other.

For example, a website called AB5 Facts -- which lists Davis as the contact person and sells merch, like a $25 "My Labor, My Choice! Repeal AB5" hoodie (it doesn't mention where the proceeds go) -- is linked to the Twitter account Faces of AB5. That Twitter account is linked to one of the most popular anti-AB5 Facebook groups, Freelancers Against AB5, which has more than 18,000 members.

As a politician, Gonzalez says the social media onslaught over AB5 is like no other issue she's worked on. On a daily basis, she says people body-shame her, call her names, spread misinformation and create memes about her. Based on a review of the activity, tweets like this now-deleted one are common: "@LorenaAD80 is a pathetic Punk. She will be the skank shank magnet when she gets to the big house." Gonzalez says people have also posted her address, and photos of her house, online.

"I've had to report a number of straight-out racist, sexist and violent posts," Gonzalez says. "I don't worry about that. I worry more about doing what's right ... They think they can quiet you."

"Repeal AB5" merch for sale on the AB5 Facts website.

AB5 Facts

Vocal members of the anti-AB5 community sometimes post calls to action, telling others to comment on Gonzalez's tweets and pressuring other legislators who backed the law. Some of this is detailed in a document seen by CNET, which was temporarily posted on Twitter by Rob Gordon, who calls himself a "Lollipop Guild undercover operative." The document, titled AB5 Strategy Brainstorming, catalogs an organized game plan for "opponents of AB5."

Gordon, who's worked on independent contractor issues for several years, told CNET he calls himself the "producer" of the document since it's a collaborative effort with several authors. It details the group's political objectives, talking points ("AB5 screws everybody") and contains a list of "offensive/defamatory" groups and people (that list includes Dubal and Gonzalez). O'Connell is named as a writer for the group. The document says potential supporters include the Republican Party and the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign, while opponents include the Democratic Party and labor unions. 

"I wrote it for the exact reasons stated -- to 'document a movement,'" Gordon said in an email. He said he hasn't received any funding or support from the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign, either directly or indirectly. "I think independent workers are an asset to the economy, not a liability."

'Harassment as a service'

Dubal says her strategy of aggressively blocking people on Twitter calmed things down for a bit. But on the night of Aug. 6, she says she started getting warning messages from friends about a certain tweet. Although she couldn't bear to look, Dubal says she forced herself.

The Yes on Proposition 22 Twitter account, run by Bicker Castillo & Fairbanks, retweeted one of Dubal's posts about the ballot measure and told her to "quit with irrelevant analogies." Fifteen minutes later, the Twitter account posted another tweet that appeared to be aimed at riling up the Lollipop Guild.

"If Veena Dubal is standing up for drivers as she claims, why does she continue to silence those who try to engage her?" reads the @VoteYesOn22 tweet. "If you've been blocked by Veena Dubal reply with your screenshot below!"

Over the next couple of days, Dubal says she was bombarded with tweets. One of the people who tweeted their screenshot was Evan Miller, data director for Rodriguez Strategies, a PR firm the gig economy companies have paid more than $456,000 to work on their Proposition 22 campaign, according to the public records from California's secretary of state. Miller and Rodriguez Strategies didn't return multiple requests for comment.

When asked about the tweet, a spokesman for the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign told CNET, "The campaign's post simply asked why an advocate for drivers is silencing the very drivers who disagree. We condemn anyone who is harassing Professor Dubal and ask that it stop immediately." 

The campaign left up the tweet, however, and then retweeted two other people's "@veenadubal blocked you" screenshots that same night.

Bicker Castillo & Fairbanks says on its website that one of its services is appealing "to the self-interest of the third-party groups necessary to turn the tide." It adds, "We turn coalitions into grassroots armies -- by giving allies the tools to make it easy for them to take action and influence public policy outcomes." 

At least 10 of the PR firms hired by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart say social media or coalition building is part of their skill set.

"We've seen a lot of disinformation as a service campaigns," says Zarine Kharazian, assistant editor at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, who reviewed the anti-AB5 network's social media activity for CNET. "This seems to be targeted harassment as a service, which is an adjacent but distinct phenomenon."

Dubal isn't the only advocate of AB5 who says she's been targeted by objectionable posts. Organizers of driver groups, union leaders and academics say they've also clashed online with opponents of the law.

Nicole Moore is a part-time Lyft driver in Southern California and co-founder of the driver group Rideshare Drivers United, which has more than 17,000 members. She says she started getting a surge of tweets in the spring claiming she was paid off by unions and making things worse for drivers. "Certain drivers that belong to fake associations (@_drivers_united) are fucking it up for the good drivers out their (sic)," reads a tweet by the Twitter handle @AntiDriverUnion, in response to Moore and referencing Rideshare Drivers United's Twitter handle.

"The whole purpose of the abuse was to delegitimize my voice as a part-time driver," Moore says. "Basically to say that I was a union operative being used to manipulate drivers."

It got so bad for Sanjukta Paul, an assistant law professor at Wayne State University who's advocated for AB5, that she locked her Twitter account. At one point, she says the group of people disparaging her also directed their tweets at the Twitter accounts of Wayne State and Wayne State Law School.

On April 8, Paul co-wrote a letter to Congress with another assistant professor, Marshall Steinbaum, who teaches economics at the University of Utah. The letter discusses the CARES Act and says Uber and Lyft drivers should be classified as employees. After that, Steinbaum says he also became the focus of the anti-AB5 crowd on Twitter.

"They draw from the playbook taking right-wing tropes about out-of-touch academics," Steinbaum says. "They're presenting themselves as separate from the ride-share issue, but reading our letter you see it relates directly to ride-share. That made me think this is a cultivated troll army."

The same day Steinbaum and Paul sent their letter to Congress, the woman who'd posted Dubal's home address on Twitter, Gloria Rivera, a freelance translator, tweeted, "#academDicks call us 'trolls' cause we oppose their uneducated #AB5 views. Bring it on. We can't work (sic) home and have tons of time."

When first contacted by CNET, Rivera said her profession was affected by AB5 and she isn't being paid by the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign.

Rivera's lawyer, Harmeet Dhillon, later emailed CNET. Dhillon is a nationally recognized lawyer, who serves as the Republican National Committee's elected committeewoman for California. She sued the University of California, Berkeley, on behalf of the Berkeley College Republicans and conservative youth organization Young America's Foundation, alleging free speech violations after the school planned to cancel a speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter because of security concerns. She also represented James Damore, a former Google engineer who sued the tech giant for allegedly discriminating against white men and conservatives.

"Ms. Rivera has exercised her First Amendment rights to critique law professor Veena Dubal's insensitive agenda to destroy the livelihoods of millions of California (sic) in the name of a particular labor perspective," Dhillon wrote in the email to CNET. She added that the information Rivera shared about Dubal was publicly available information.

Silencing an opponent

Through July and early August, leading up to the tweet from the Yes on Proposition 22 account, Dubal says the campaign intensified its targeting of her. She says she'd go to bed at night worrying what the next day would bring.

For example, the campaign sent around a press release on July 7 saying the "loudest supporters" of AB5 have an alternate agenda that aims to limit the number of drivers in California. It listed Dubal and other academics and labor activists as those "supporters." Dubal disputes these claims.

Then, on July 28, MB Public Affairs filed its public records request with Dubal's employer, UC Hastings. The request asked for all emails, text messages and other written communications between Dubal and members of 25 different driver groups, labor organizations, nonprofits, unions and consultancies. It asked specifically for emails that contained keywords, such as AB5, Proposition 22, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash. John DiPaolo, UC Hastings general counsel, said the school will produce some public records in response to the request.

After everything else, Dubal says, the public records request overwhelmed her. "The outright targeting is so upsetting," she says. "It just feels like one thing after another."

But it didn't stop there. On Aug. 7, a ride-hail driver named Judah Bell who vocally opposes AB5 on Twitter, submitted a complaint against Dubal and Rideshare Drivers United with California's Fair Political Practices Commission. The complaint, which was seen by CNET, alleged "lobbying violations." Dubal says she's never done any lobbying work. On Aug. 21, the Commission rejected the complaint, saying that after reviewing the evidence provided, it "will not pursue an enforcement action in this matter."

When contacted by CNET, Bell said she assisted O'Connell with research for her three-part series in Communities Digital News. "Veena Dubal is one of the most outspoken advocates ... and she helped write AB5," Bell said. She added that she hadn't been paid by the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign, either directly or indirectly. 

Gonzalez says she has also been the subject of public records requests and complaints regarding AB5, including from Bell.

The same week Dubal got the lobbying complaint was when the social media harassment against her came back full circle with the "If you've been blocked by Veena Dubal reply with your screenshot below" tweet from the Yes campaign. O'Connell, Van Laar, Davis, Rothstein, Rivera and dozens more retweeted or reacted to the message, which was then shared in various iterations hundreds of times.

"I've tried to maintain a strong face through all of this, but it has really been traumatizing and difficult," Dubal says. "Frankly, I didn't realize until now why this kind of harassment is so common and so effective in silencing people."

She gives a long sigh, "I would like for it to end. I would like to move on with my life and just focus on the merits of the argument."

But with the election still 66 days away, she may have many more sleepless nights ahead.

Illustration by Brett Pearce.

CNET's Richard Nieva contributed to this report.

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