By Ty Joplin
The most covered cyber villain of the modern age is undoubtedly Russia. From its social media troll factory in St. Petersburg, Russia has unleashed countless waves of twitter bots into the world, brewing chaos and heightening divisions.
But they are far from the only ones using hordes of fake accounts to push centrally designed tweetstorms and PR campaigns.
Amazon has just been caught doing the same, and Saudi Arabia has a long and esteemed history of faking consent to their policy moves and boosting pro-Saudi messages.
The way these “ambassadors” for Amazon tweet is unnerving to say the least. Most of their tweets say, in one way or another, “we get paid enough, thanks,” in response to demands for Amazon to pay their workers a living wage.
To be sure, Amazon does not pay its workers enough: a new report has revealed that thousands of its employees are on food stamps, and investigative reporting over the years has shed light on just how dangerous and exploitative Amazon’s warehouse conditions are. Warehouse workers are often forced to skip bathroom breaks and pee into bottles to keep fulfilling their daily quotas of packing. Amazon also has a history of firing pregnant employees.
But Amazon’s ‘ambassadors,’ think these concerns are fake news, and want to show the world just how lovely it is to work at the company. They also like to tweet about how they get the privilege of going to the bathroom sometimes and are even allowed to drink water.
According to Amazon’s new army of vocal ambassadors, they make a living wage and receive generous benefits. The goal of these twitter accounts seems to be to spread disinformation and fake news regarding Amazon’s treatment of its employees in order to counter the reports that they work in a ‘capitalist dystopia.’
Amazon also insists they are real people, even if their twitter accounts were recently created and solely exist to espouse the virtue of Amazon and praise its CEO, Jeff Bezos, who by the way, is worth $152 billion. A figure higher than most countries’ GDP.
“The most important thing is that they’ve been here long enough to honestly share the facts based on personal experience,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch, when asked about the veracity of the twitter account. “It’s important that we do a good job of educating people about the actual environment inside our fulfillment centers, and the FC ambassador program is a big part of that along with the fulfillment center tours we provide.”
Amazon’s astroturfing tactics are meager compared to Saudi Arabia’s continuous and ever-evolving use of twitter bots.
In November, 2017 U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted out support to Saudi during its elite purge, directed by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The tweet got tens of thousands of retweets by Saudi bot accounts, which artificially boosted Trump’s tweet to be one of his most popular at the time. At one point, his tweet has more than 98,000 retweets, though it is now down to about 80,000.
A few months ago in July 2018, Saudi again unleashed its bots to give the impression that there was massive discontent to a Qatar emir visiting the U.K due to humanitarian concerns.
Using the hashtag, #OpposeQatarVisit, thousands of accounts called Qatar the world’s biggest supporter of terrorism. Many of the accounts are made to look like concerned French citizens pleading with their northern neighbor, the U.K., to cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar and join the GCC blockade of the country.
Most recently, Saudi lashed out at Canada for mentioning the fact that Saudi maintains an atrocious human rights record and keeps jailing and torturing its dissidents.
Saudi deployed its vast army of twitter bots to accuse Canada of engineering a “cultural genocide” against its indigenous people. Many accounts also used identical language to call for Quebec to secede from Canada and became an independent nation.
The concentrated tweets from Saudi bots led to a trending hashtag in Arabic, which translated into “Saudi expels Canadian ambassador.”
The text of each tweet reads, “In Saudi Arabia, we feel worried about Canada committing cultural genocide against indigenous people. We also support the right of Quebec to become an independent nation.”
Why thousands of concerned Saudi citizens suddenly felt overwhelming solidarity with the French-speaking Quebec remains to be seen.
The contemporary media landscape is experiencing a shift: as news is increasingly shared through and understood by social media, powerful companies and countries are exploiting loopholes to create hordes of accounts tweeting along regime and corporate lines. In so doing, manufacture an image of consent and create an air of doubt whenever a damaging report surfaces.
Even as these platforms are heralded in helping to foment populist revolts in the Middle East in 2011 with the Arab Spring, they appear to also be useful for authoritarian governments and big corporations to maintain their power, no matter how undemocratic it is.
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