ITHACA, N.Y. – White guests favor Airbnb properties with white hosts but are more inclined to rent from Black or Asian hosts if they see featured reviews from previous white guests, new research finds.
The research suggests that sharing-economy platforms may be able to algorithmically harness racial bias in responses to recommendations to reduce racial inequality in access to ride-hailing, lodging, dating, and other services.
On Airbnb, guests’ preference for hosts of the same race unexpectedly is offset or overcome by the influence of same-race endorsements, the researchers determined.
“Bias in the recommender system can actually attenuate bias in host selection, rather than reinforcing it,” said Michael Macy, professor of sociology at Cornell University and co-author of the study. “It goes against the assumption that different dimensions of bias would be mutually reinforcing.”
The findings are reported in “Fighting Bias with Bias: How Same-race Endorsements Reduce Racial Discrimination on Airbnb,” published Feb. 8 in Science Advances.
Recent studies have shown that Black users of ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, wait longer for rides and drivers are more likely to cancel their rides. On Airbnb, Black hosts earn 12% less than white hosts of similar properties, and Black guests are 16% less likely to be accepted.
The researchers asked if racial bias in peer recommendations and responses to them exacerbate or lessen such discrimination.
To answer that question, the team analyzed nearly 8,000 Airbnb listings involving more than 7,100 hosts and more than 150,000 guest reviews between 2009 and 2018. Obtained from Inside Airbnb, an independent third party that collects Airbnb data, the listings were all “instant bookable,” meaning reservations could be made without a host’s review and approval.
They analyzed recent reviews (up to six) featured on listings’ front pages. White guests’ reluctance to book with hosts of different races decreases, they found, as the number of endorsements by previous white guests increases. That effect was less pronounced among Black and Asian guests.
“White guests largely overcame their racial bias in host selection when hosts were endorsed by previous white guests,” the authors wrote. “The net effect of same-race endorsement is to reduce racial discrimination on Airbnb.”
The findings suggest a new strategy to encourage more equal access to the sharing economy, the researchers said.
Rather than removing profile photos, they said, platforms should ensure that front-page endorsements feature similar racial compositions. That would better tap the potential for same-race reviews to increase white guests’ willingness to choose nonwhite hosts.
“Increasing the exposure of white guests to white-authored endorsements of Black hosts may lead to more white bookings,” they wrote, “thereby making the algorithmic correction less necessary over time.”