As the political battle over working conditions heats up, tech giant Amazon is rewarding warehouse workers who tweet positively about their work. The practice was originally reported in 2018 by TechCrunch, which described how Amazon gave "fulfillment center ambassadors" rewards such as paid days off and a $50 gift card. Amazon has spun up several new accounts for workers.
The practice creates the appearance of grassroots support as working conditions at Amazon's warehouses and the company's decision to yank books from its shelves face increased public scrutiny.
The accounts are run by Amazon warehouse workers, although some accounts have switched between different individuals. The accounts appear to have been created by Amazon, rather than by the workers: All tweets are sent through Sprinklr, a social media management tool Amazon uses for its official accounts. Although some accounts were suspended by Twitter for violation of its rules (likely including "coordinated inauthentic behavior"), new accounts have been created as recently as March 2021.
I am sorry about your knee 😢 but as for peeing in bottles? I can't agree. I have never peed in a bottle or know anyone here who has. There are restrooms here for a reason. Rate is important but I would not go in a bottle to keep it high 😂
— Yola at OAK4 📦 (@AmazonFCYola) March 28, 2021
The coordinating messaging from Amazon employees is only one piece of a massive public relations operation. The company invested almost $20 million in lobbying Congress in 2020 and is taking a more aggressive line against its critics in Congress and in the media. With the ambassadors program, Amazon is attempting to respond directly to individual criticisms online.
"FC Ambassadors are employees who work in our fulfillment centers and choose to share their personal experience," an Amazon spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon. "The FC ambassador program helps show what it’s actually like inside our fulfillment centers, along with the public tours we provide."
Researchers are divided over whether Amazon’s behavior constitutes "astroturfing." In the paper "Online Astroturfing: A Theoretical Perspective," researchers defined the practice as "when people are hired to present certain beliefs or opinions on behalf of their employer through various communication channels."
Kenneth Henrie, a professor at Penn State who studies messaging on social media, argued that astroturfing is typically used to refer to completely fake accounts. "Maybe it's a bit like astroturfing with a twist of Stockholm syndrome," he told the Washington Free Beacon.
The company is engaged in a high-profile public relations battle over the vote to unionize at its Bessemer, Ala., warehouse. The company clashed with Senators Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) over whether it should pay higher taxes and compensate workers more generously. Amazon also pushed back on claims from Rep. Mark Pocan (D., Wis.) that its workers are forced to urinate in water bottles, though internal emails show that Amazon is aware of some delivery workers peeing in bottles to save time.
The accounts typically respond to critics of Amazon’s working conditions by describing their satisfaction with their jobs. @AmazonFCTea, for example, writes, "I'm only one Amazon worker. But I've never needed any form of income assistance while working here. The pay has been good for me and my family. The workload itself has never been unreasonable for me."
Another account usually rebuts claims that Amazon workers are restricted from using the bathroom while on the clock. @AmazonFCIsaac responded to accusations that he was paid by Amazon to tweet with "Nope I'm not paid extra to say this. I'm a packer in the pack singles department and two days out of the week I get the opportunity to share online my experiences and how it really is to work in an Amazon warehouse. And I use the bathroom just like everybody else."
Nope I'm not paid extra to say this. I'm a packer in the pack singles department and two days out of the week I get the opportunity to share on line my experiences and how it really is to work in an Amazon warehouse. And I use the bathroom just like everybody else.
— Isaac at CMH1 📦 (@AmazonFCIsaac) March 25, 2021
Though the fulfillment center "ambassador" accounts' tone is typically sunny, Amazon may be shifting to a more combative approach online. The Vox site Recode reported Sunday that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos expressed frustration that the company wasn't pushing back hard enough against its critics.
The vote on whether to unionize ends on Monday. If union organizers are successful, the Bessemer warehouse will be the first Amazon warehouse to unionize.
Updated 10:15 p.m. to include comment from Amazon.