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Amazon’s small Twitter army of “ambassadors” was quietly conceived in 2018 under the codename “Veritas,” which sought to train and dispatch select employees to the social media trenches to defend Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos, according to an internal description of the program obtained exclusively by The Intercept.
Amazon ambassadors drew attention this week as they responded to a wave of online criticism for the company’s treatment of workers amid a union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
Anticipating criticisms of worker conditions at their fulfillment centers in particular, Amazon designed Veritas to train fulfillment center workers chosen for their “great sense of humor” to confront critics — including policymakers — on Twitter in a “blunt” manner. The document, produced as part of the pilot program in 2018 and marked “Amazon.com Confidential,” also includes examples of how its ambassadors can snarkily respond to criticisms of the company and its CEO. Several examples involve Sen. Bernie Sanders, a longtime critic of the $1 trillion firm who has been targeted by it in recent days. It also provides examples of how to defend Bezos.
“To address speculation and false assertions in social media and online forums about the quality of the FC [Fulfillment Center] associate experience, we are creating a new social team staffed with active, tenured FC employees, who will be empowered to respond in a polite—but blunt—way to every untruth,” the project description reads. “FC Ambassadors (‘FCA’) will respond to all posts and comments from customers, influencers (including policymakers), and media questioning the FC associate experience.”
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, said via email: “FC Ambassadors are employees who work in our fulfillment centers and choose to share their personal experience — the FC ambassador program helps show what it’s actually like inside our fulfillment centers, along with the public tours we provide.”
In 2018, Amazon admitted that the ambassadors were employees paid to “honestly share the facts” about what working in its fulfillment centers is like. Many Twitter users had at first believed the ambassadors were automated “bot” accounts due to the nearly identical format of their account bios, all of which feature the Amazon smile logo and begin with the handle “@AmazonFC.” But that format was specifically mandated by Amazon, The Intercept’s document shows. “We could also add an emoji to the username to give personality, for example a small box emoji,” the document suggests.
Sens. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., tweeted last week about the company’s treatment of workers and its corporate practices. Amazon’s PR account then sent taunting replies to the lawmakers, asking Pocan, “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” As The Intercept reported the following day, many Amazon delivery drivers have indeed been forced to relieve themselves in bottles and bags in order to meet demanding quotas — and the company knew it.
Amazon also replied to Warren and Sanders, telling Sanders, “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.” The tweets have vexed many in the company, some of whom feared the account had been hacked, as The Intercept reported.
Sanders, who has confronted the company over its labor practices and recently visited workers in Alabama, is referenced repeatedly in the 2018 document. In one instance, the document refers to a video interview Sanders tweeted: “Bernie Sanders interviewing Seth King on Prime Day. Seth describes feeling so depressed working at Amazon to take his own life.”
An ambassador, role-playing, then responds: “@SenSanders This job has never made me feel bad personally. If you have a job that makes you feel bad, you could leave.”
At another point, Sanders is described as having “tweeted about Jeff Bezos’ wealth.” The ambassador then replies: “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.”
Among the program’s tenets is the promise not to offer misleading or false messages, instead exhorting ambassadors to “Tell Your Truth.” But there are some subjects they are forbidden to discuss. The document instructs employees not to respond to “contacts about the right to unionize” — one of only three cases in which they’re told not to respond. An example to ignore is provided: “@Amazon let your FC employees unionize if you have nothing to hide.”
Ambassadors were also told not to respond to media inquiries and to complicated queries where PR approval is needed. One written example of a tweet to ignore mentions Amazon’s advertising relationship with the far-right outlet Breitbart: “@Amazon why are you still advertising on breitbart?! Between that and barely paying your employees, I’m ready to quit shopping with you.”
The document also makes clear that ambassadors are far from a representative sample of workers, noting that “newer employees can be very passionate and effective,” according to their review of a small pilot group. Newer employees who haven’t yet had to pee in bottles, perhaps.
Ken Klippenstein is a D.C.-based investigative reporter who focuses on national security. He is also an avid Freedom of Information Act requester. Prior to joining The Intercept, he was The Nation’s D.C. correspondent.