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An Amazon information operation goes awry

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One of the big lessons of Amazon's HQ2 debacle, at least from my perspective, was that the company ca
 
August 15 · Issue #368 · View online
The Interface
One of the big lessons of Amazon’s HQ2 debacle, at least from my perspective, was that the company can be weirdly tone-deaf. A purported nationwide search to find a home for a “second headquarters” looked, as soon as the company announced it had settled on New York and Washington, DC, as if it had been a ruse. New York pushed back, Amazon dropped its plans, and the entire episode has faded into memory.
But the public-relations apparatus responsible for managing Amazon’s relationship with our democracy has continued to undertake information operations designed to burnish its image. And this week, the world took notice.
Amazon has long faced criticism over the working conditions in its fulfillment centers, where workers strive to remain marginally more useful than the package-sorting robot coworkers that will someday replace them. In response to this — and amid growing fears at the company that its workers would unionize — the company last year created a series of Twitter accounts for its “fulfillment center ambassadors.”
The ambassadors tweeted about the plentiful bathroom breaks offered them by their employer with a false cheer common to hostages. In exchange for their testimony, the workers reportedly received one additional paid day off, and a $50 gift card. The tech world spent a day or two chuckling over this particular real-life Black Mirror episode, then moved on to the next.
And then, sometime this year, the accounts were handed over to … other people. People of different ages and genders. People with different profile photos. Ambassadors who had once been hard-working grandmothers named Michelle were now college-aged workers named Rafael. As Jonah Engel Bromwich writes in the New York Times:
The accounts have provoked suspicion. In January, it appeared that the accounts had changed hands; one that had belonged to a “Leo” had changed its display name and handle to Ciera. A “Rick” had become a “James,” and a “Michelle” had transformed into a “Sarah.” (Critics of the account occasionally call them the “Borg,” a reference to an alien race in Star Trek who operate as a collective hive mind.)
Twitter users took notice, tweeting to ask the ambassadors whether they are actually robots. The ambassadors denied being robots, but the case still felt inclusive. What is the appropriate Voight-Kampff test for corporate propaganda accounts?
Bellingcat’s Aric Toler launched an investigation. He has found “53 Ambassador accounts so far, including 29 American accounts, five Spanish, seven German, four British, four French, two Polish, and three Italian ‘ambassadors.’” Unlike most working Joes on Twitter, they uniformly tweet from Sprinklr, a paid enterprise marketing service. Toler concludes:
It’s hard to imagine how and why Amazon decided that such volunteer brand ambassadors would be a good idea — especially considering they almost all write the exact in the same manner and use the same hashtags and similar photos in their tweets.
While there may be different faces behind these accounts, it is hard to tell them apart, and their activities all seem to be thematically orchestrated from a corporate office. In reviewing ambassador accounts, only a few English-language participants stood out as having any personality and not using near-perfect capitalization and punctuation.
Amazon, for its part, testified to the legitimacy of its ambassadors. It told BuzzFeed:
“These accounts are run by FC employees who understand what it’s actually like to work in our FCs,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News by email. When shown Desiree’s account and asked whether she’s a worker who’s writing and posting her own tweets, the spokesperson said, “That’s correct. Desiree is the one writing and sending the tweets.”
There’s a long history of companies mounting astroturf campaigns. But as Rani Molla points out in Recode, the use of Twitter to advance this sort of message feels relatively new:
Of course, corporate-sponsored anti-union propaganda is not new. Famously, then B-movie star and Screen Actors Guild union president Ronald Reagan worked as a “traveling ambassador” for General Electric, visiting plants across the country to extol a free-market system.
But compared with older anti-union stunts, “The fulfillment center tweets are more interesting because it plays on something new: the perceived authenticity of Twitter versus older kinds of bottom-up media,” Louis Hyman, a Cornell professor and author of Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, told Recode. “No one took it as authentic as [Amazon warehouse employees posting on] Twitter. That’s what’s at stake here. Those tweets can help control who to believe.”
If you only followed this story on Twitter, you could be forgiven for believing that Amazon had mounted a straight-up disinformation campaign. It seems more likely that Amazon is recruiting real workers to offer spin on the company’s behalf — but the move feels phony at best, and exploitative to boot. I like how researcher Jonathan Albright put it to the Times:
Albright, the director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said that the messages the accounts were spreading did not rise to the level of disinformation. But he said the practice could be deceptive in theory and had the potential to involve components of disinformation. He said that he preferred to refer to the campaign by what it was, calling it “dark art PR.”
And if it were happening on Facebook, incidentally, it seems like the sort of thing the social network would call “coordinated inauthentic behavior” — which would be grounds for kicking all those ambassadors off the platform.
Thanks to various state-sponsored actors, we already have enough problems sorting out fact from fiction on social networks. To see Amazon mounting its own dark-arts PR campaign on Twitter — turning employees into paid flacks, without disclosing that they are being compensated as such — feels like a grim new development in our information sphere. At the same time, as with HQ2, the ruse fell apart under the lightest scrutiny. Perhaps Amazon’s public-relations campaigns would go better if it tried waging them out in the open.

Democracy
The algorithms that detect hate speech online are biased against black people
Teens exposed to highly charged political ads on Facebook and Instagram
Facebook isn’t ready for 2020
No, Ilhan Omar has not been arrested 23 times
You can now report a suspicious Instagram post and expect a certified U.S. fact-checker to verify it
Google employees ‘refuse to be complicit’ in border agency cloud contract
Top Takes: Suspected Russian Intelligence Operation
Bernie Sanders joined Twitch to reach people where they are
Less than Half of Google Searches Now Result in a Click
Do Tech Companies Really Need to Snoop Into Private Conversations to Improve Their A.I.?
Hong Kong protests: Police defend use of 'disguised' officers
Elsewhere
How an Online Mob Created a Playbook for a Culture War
Cloudflare warns investors that sites like 8chan are a risk to its business
After ad denied, gay creators are fighting for systemic change at YouTube
Google Employee Writes Memo About ‘The Burden of Being Black at Google’
TikTok Users Are Inventing Wild Theories to Explain Its Mysterious Algorithm
TikTok’s best comedy duo is a loud man and his duck
Launches
Facebook movie ads will now include ticket and showtime details
Instagram revamps Boomerang, creates Layout for Stories and more
YouTube is testing a members-only videos feature
Takes
Casey Newton on dismantling the platforms and taking Facebook’s cash
And finally ...
Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia Team With Powderkeg for Quibi Comedy Series
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and plot points for the Rock’s Zuckerberg show: casey@theverge.com.
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