In 2018, the American public had more confidence in Amazon than in local police forces, politicians or religious institutions – a point of pride for founder Jeff Bezos, who cited the poll when he appeared in Congress last year. But Amazon’s rise to a trillion-dollar company has been matched by an intensifying focus on its less-than-commendable labour practices, putting increasing strain on its image as the friendly delivery-service-next-door.
The company, once described as the “the pillar of a new techno-feudalism”, has been pilloried for its treatment of warehouse and delivery staff, the underlings propping up its e-commerce empire. A major unionising effort is currently underway at a fulfilment centre in Bessemer, Alabama, which could become the first unionised facility in the US. Tensions are running high at Amazon HQ, over fears this could spark a domino effect among the rest of its 800,000 US-based employees.
All of this set the stage for a high-profile Twitter spat that sent the company stumbling into a monumental PR misfire.
Anatomy of a Twitter implosion
It started when top Amazon executive Dave Clark lashed out at Democratic senator Bernie Sanders last week, after it emerged Sanders was planning a trip to the Alabama warehouse ahead of the union vote. “I welcome @SenSanders to Birmingham and appreciate his push for a progressive workplace,” Clark tweeted last Wednesday. “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.”
This sparked a response from Democratic congressman Mark Pocan, who tweeted that a $15 minimum wage wasn’t sufficient to qualify as a progressive workforce, in the face of Amazon’s union-busting activity and reports that its employees are sometimes forced to urinate into bottles.
The official Amazon News account responded with the ‘quote tweet’ that blew it all up. “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” the official account retorted. “If that were true, nobody would work for us.” The confrontational tone immediately triggered a landslide of parody tweets, mockery – including Twitter users asking why Amazon was speaking like a gaslighting ex-partner – and genuine confusion.
A follow-up quote tweet further upped the ante. In an exchange with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, where she vowed to fight to make the company pay its fair share of tax, stop union-busting, and break up Big Tech, Amazon News tweeted: “This is extraordinary and revealing. One of the most powerful politicians in the United States just said she’s going to break up an American company so that they can’t criticize her anymore.”
The behaviour of the company’s Twitter account was such a departure from its typical style, that employees reportedly thought it had been hacked. Recode reported that an Amazon security engineer was so concerned by the “unnecessarily antagonistic” missives, they filed a suspicious activity report about the tweets.
But the tweets weren’t the work of a savvy prankster. According to Recode, it was Jeff Bezos himself who gave instructions for the tonal pivot. Apparently dissatisfied with Amazon’s mealy-mouthed, placatory responses to criticism, he recently issued a broad mandate to “fight back” on social media.
The snarkiness of Amazon’s tweet dismissing the “peeing in bottles thing” served as an invitation to reporters to debunk it. Shortly afterwards, Vice and the Intercept published employee testimonies confirming that it is a long-standing phenomenon. Indeed, the fact that workers are sometimes forced to urinate in bottles, and even defecate in bags, is well-known to the company itself, according to documents published by The Intercept. And it’s not a newly discovered issue: as early as 2018, reports emerged of Amazon warehouse workers being forced to pee in bottles, in order not to forgo breaks.
Amazon’s Twitter army
But Amazon’s Twitter-based woes didn’t end there. An army of ostensible Amazon ‘ambassadors’ rushed in to fight the company’s corner in the Bessemer union dispute. Accounts such as the now-famous @AmazonFCDarla rushed in to chirpily, if a little robotically, clap back against the company’s critics.
“There’s nothing wrong with unions, they work for a lot of places! But at Amazon I’m compensated fairly, given agency and benefits, and treated with respect. And a lot of the people here who want unions are… let’s just say not team players LOL,” was one of Darla’s defensive, anti-union tweets.
Amazon’s use of a network of employees-cum-Twitter-ambassadors is well-established. Accounts labelled with FC (fulfilment centre) Amazon “are employees who work in our fulfilment centres and choose to share their personal experience”, an Amazon spokesperson told Tech Monitor. In 2019, accounts associated with the company tweeted that “unions are thieves” that make it hard for employers to “discipline, terminate or promote”.
It’s not clear whether Amazon ambassadors have improved the company’s brand image even marginally – more typically facing derision for sounding robotic or being paid shills – but they have provided rich fodder for satire.
The Intercept revealed today that employees are handpicked as ambassadors for their “sense of humour”. They’re also given a playbook for how to comport themselves online. This includes tactics for how to defend the world’s richest man, Bezos, with comments like: “Everyone should be able to enjoy the money they’ve earned/saved. It’s theirs. They should be able to do with it as they please. That includes Jeff Bezos.” The ambassadors are reportedly under strict instruction not to mention the ‘U’ word.
Sometimes these ambassadors have behaved oddly – like the doting grandmother who morphed into a young man named Raphael. Or the time when Amazon ambassador Hannah tweeted: “I suffer from depression too, and at one point I wanted to quit Amazon. But I realized it was my fault for the problems I was dealing with, and not Amazon’s. I’m allowed to talk to people, but sometimes I don’t want to. Now I have some great coworkers to pass the nights with.”
But even by these standards, @AmazonFCDarla and several other accounts created in March 2021 for the sole purpose of promoting Amazon, seemed strange. Gizmodo pointed out that Darla’s face looked uncannily like the AI-generated face of a “Joyfull [sic] white young-adult female with medium brown hair and brown eyes,” created on Generated Photos.
An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to Tech Monitor that @AmazonFCDarla, @AmazonFCJudy and @Ok4At are not genuine Amazon FC Ambassadors, and that the company asked Twitter to examine the accounts. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed that these accounts were suspended for violating the platform’s impersonation policy. Twitter said that Amazon’s ambassador programme doesn’t violate the platform’s policies, although the accounts are beholden to rules around spam and platform manipulation like any other.
Industrialised information ops
While Amazon has distanced itself from the fake ambassadors on Twitter, it’s not outlandish to imagine a company might set up a network of bots to push back on critics. After all, disinformation is a burgeoning industry.
A recent report from Oxford University found that social media info ops to spread political propaganda and disinformation are now being conducted on an industrial scale, in more than 80 countries around the world. “A large part of this activity has become professionalised, with private firms offering disinformation-for-hire services,” said Dr Samantha Bradshaw, the report’s lead author.
Another report by social media analysis firm Graphika uncovered a pro-Huawei influence campaign involving Twitter manipulation and amplification, but concluded there was insufficient evidence to determine who was behind the fake accounts. “Large-scale social media influence operations are now part of the communications toolkit for any large global corporation,” Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, told the New York Times.
While Twitter reports on state-linked info ops, it doesn’t share information on the corporate equivalent. A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment when asked explicitly about the prevalence of this type of operation on the platform.
There’s no evidence that Amazon engaged in an orchestrated info op. But if Amazon’s ambassadors are indistinguishable from Twitter trolls, and its official accounts indistinguishable from hackers, the company has a serious communications problem on its hands.
This article was updated on 1/04/21 to reflect Twitter’s stance on corporate information operations.