The ghost in the algorithm

David Bullard writes on why Airbnb recently tagged him as a 'high risk tenant'


Last week I decided to book a few days away in a very luxurious apartment in Cape Town for early September. Cape Town may only be a 30-minute drive from where I live but it’s far enough to feel like a holiday. If I’d flown to Greece, I’d probably be joining the crowds of tourism refugees trying to escape the fires. The beautiful island of Rhodes looks utterly chaotic and the thought of joining 30000 other panicking tourists fleeing their hotels in desperation to reach a rescue beach and get home to a wet and windy England doesn’t appeal much.

Most of southern Europe is suffering an unpleasant heatwave which makes the annual summer holiday unbearable and in other parts of the civilised world excessive rain or hail is causing massive flood damage. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

If I had chosen to visit the UK this year I would have been blighted by constant train strikes, airport chaos, cancelled flights and eco-idiots from Just Stop Oil in orange visibility vests walking very slowly in front of my taxi from Heathrow. Given my tolerance for these loonies I would have almost certainly been arrested for grievous bodily harm or hate speech.

So it’s Cape Town for me, which has just been voted the world’s number one destination by readers of the Daily Telegraph, despite all efforts by the comrades to make South Africa as unattractive as possible as a holiday destination for Europeans.

The property in Greenpoint is a brand new listing, is immaculately furnished and contains every mod con you could wish for. It’s within walking distance of virtually everything you could possibly need for a four day sojourn. So I went onto AirBnB where it’s listed, found that the days I wanted were available and booked.

I’ve never used AirBnB before and I was surprised at the amount of personal detail they needed but in these days of data harvesting I suppose that comes as no surprise. Also given the fact that people are opening their properties to complete strangers I quite understood the need for security, particularly as there have been some unpleasant incidents in Camps Bay with the riff-raff booking in and then refusing to move out claiming squatting rights. So I sent a photo of myself and a copy of my ID along with all contact details, address and everything short of a DNA test result.

The property was advertised at R849 a night but when I confirmed my dates the price immediately went up to over R1700 a night. I thought that was odd but maybe the price quoted was for the low season. So I made a request for this week and the advertised price of R849 also went up to R1700.

Since I didn’t think that was a bad price for what I was getting I went ahead and booked the four nights in September and elected to pay the entire amount up front. I filled in and sent off my personal details, along with my credit card details and I received an email back from AirBnB saying that the booking was being processed and no funds would be deducted until the booking was confirmed. Fair enough I thought.

They’re obviously doing a security check.

The next day I received an SMS telling me that unfortunately my booking couldn’t be accepted but gave no reason. I went back onto the website and saw that the property was still available for the dates I had chosen but not for me apparently.

Bearing in mind the recent news that former UKIP leader and Brexiteer Nigel Farage had just had his Coutts bank account cancelled because his political views didn’t align with the bank’s management I wondered whether AirBnB had been in touch with my former Sunday Times editor and been informed of my toxic masculinity, homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, sexism, alcoholism, hatred of Country and Western music, disregard for personal pronouns and misuse of apostrophes among other sins. Since funds were available and the credit card wouldn’t have taken too much strain it had to be a personal grudge that was preventing me from renting this property.

About an hour later I received an email from AirBnB inviting me to rent some other properties in Cape Town which I found very odd since I thought I was banned. So I went back online and had a look at some of the properties, all very glamorous, but priced at twice to three times what I was planning to pay for the Greenpoint property. Were AirBnB just trying to get me to pay more because I have a Brit passport I wondered?

Now here’s the rub, as Hamlet is wont to say, so pay attention. The property in Greenpoint is owned by some very good friends of ours and I wanted to be one of the first to support them. It initially came on at R900 a night which I told my friend was way too cheap but I never baulked at R1700 a night, even though he sportingly offered to let me have it for R900.

What really concerned me though is why my R1700 wasn’t considered good enough to rent the property. Since this is a new listing and hasn’t yet been reviewed the algorithm takes a close look at potential renters. If you are new to AirBnB and therefore don’t have a history of giving good reviews you become a high risk tenant.

In other words, if I had given the newly listed property a bad review, that would have appeared on the website and would have possibly put off future rentals. On the other hand, if fifty people have already stayed at a property and given it 9/10 then my miserly 6/10 wouldn’t really make any difference. Hence the offer of more expensive, frequently reviewed properties.

From AirBnB and the property owner’s point of view this makes very good sense obviously but since this information isn’t available to the potential renter it doesn’t make any sense when your request for an available property is rejected for no reason after being provisionally accepted 24 hours earlier. In fact, it’s bloody insulting which is why I won’t be using AirBnB ever again. Supposing I did find a place that was dreadful and gave a deservedly bad review online? Would that prejudice my chances of renting in the future? It’s so much easier and far less personally intrusive to book a hotel room.

The good news is that, thanks to owner intervention, I will be staying at my friend’s luxury apartment in Greenpoint in September. I’ve promised him that we won’t be having any drunken orgies, no Class A drugs will be consumed and Paul Mashatile has not been invited as a house guest.

And I’ll almost certainly give him a top rating review…. just this once.


I met Jimmy (there are too many coloureds in the Western Cape) Manyi more than ten years ago long before he started calling himself Mzwanele. He will always be Jimmy to me, mostly because I can’t pronounce the other name.

Jimmy was on a panel session at Constitution Hill and he was arguing that the economy was closed to the many talented black professionals looking for jobs. He accused white business of being racist which wasn’t terribly convincing since he had enjoyed a stream of high paying jobs with these apparently ‘racist, white owned’ companies, the most recent of which was head of corporate affairs at Tiger Brands.

A prominent business leader rose to point out that the skills shortage in South Africa was colour blind and anybody qualifying for a job would get it if they had the necessary skills. Jimmy was having none of it and remained convinced that a qualified black applicant would be booted out, even if it meant leaving the position vacant.

I was fascinated by Jimmy’s fanatical nuttiness and have followed his career trajectory with great interest since then.

He is most recently a member of parliament for the Economic Freedom Fighters having been a bit of a political crosstitute in the past, sleeping first with the ANC and then having a brief four year fling with the African Transformation Movement where he didn’t manage to qualify for a parliamentary seat.

His Wikipedia entry makes great reading and in his long career he has managed to upset foreign diplomats, struggle stalwarts, business leaders, newspaper editors and fellow politicians while he schmoozed his way into being the spokesman for the hugely respected Jacob Zuma Foundation which has done so much to uplift the Zuma family at the expense of all other South Africans. He is currently busy telling us (with as straight a face as possible) that Jacob Zuma’s medical treatment in Mother Russia is a private family matter.

Last week the EFF’s ‘etymologist in residence’ came up with this beauty on Twitter

Jul 21

Dear Africans You need to know that the term Black was invented as part of subjugation, dehumanisation, & racism. We are Africans and indigenous people in the continent, Africa. We should REJECT being referred to as Blacks. My enlightenment in this regard happened in March 2023.

I don’t suppose there’s much sense in pointing out to Jimmy that the term ‘black’ appears in a few English language works which go back several centuries because he would dismiss that argument as white supremacist history no doubt. So let’s just accept Jimmy’s allegation that the term black was invented fairly recently as part of subjugation, dehumanisation and racism and ask where that leaves Black Lives Matter? Can we expect a rebranding soon I wonder?