Opinion: Amazon’s latest foray into brazen disinformation shows the cost of lying has decreased for corporations

What happened?

Amazon’s official news account caused a ruckus this week, starting with a dismissive dismissal of a US Lawmaker’s reference to reports that some of Amazon’s workers need to urinate in bottles:

The tone used by the account (“You don’t really believe”) positions those who do believe reporting that Amazon warehouse workers skip bathroom breaks to keep their jobs as naive to the point of incredulity, and evokes ‘false equivalence‘ about this information; the idea that this is something you could have an opinion on either way, instead of taking it as a fact based on the variety of investigations and reports declaring it to be true.

As an aside, I’m going to come out and say it; I believe the reports. I think it is a true fact that people providing services to Amazon skipped bathroom breaks to avoid getting in trouble. Amazon has said that nobody would work in a place with conditions that bad, but I believe that there are enough people without the option for something better that would endure some pretty horrific stuff to avoid e.g. homelessness or starvation.

Why is Amazon’s new strategy important?

I think this is worth talking about because this is both a pretty flagrant example of inauthenticity, and a rare ’emotionally charged’ response. My experience is that corporations use the same tactic as politicians when it comes to navigating difficult truths; ‘misunderstand’ questions, avoid specificity and respond neutrally. For example, in October 2020 the official Twitter account of the House of Representatives of the Philippines posted:

A tweet posted official Twitter account of the House of Representatives of the Philippines stating: “Almost my bday!!”, containing an image showing a person making a ✌️ sign with the text “Only 6 Hours Until My BIRTHDAY!” overlaid.

The Tweet was quickly deleted, and a statement was released:

A tweet posted official Twitter account of the House of Representatives of the Philippines stating: “An unauthorized post was made on the House Twitter account earlier today. The post was deleted immediately and the House social media admins are now investigating the incident“.

Of course, you and I look at this tweet and know exactly what happened. We also know that the small efforts it would take for the ‘social media admins’ to give their intern a bollocking conduct their fact-finding exercise would not even charitably qualify as an investigation, a word which invokes the idea of detectives toiling night and day trying to crack the case. Regardless, ‘investigating the incident’ is the narrative they presented, and since we can’t disprove that this is what they were doing, and we can’t reasonably demand the results’ publication, the balls up is effectively swept under the carpet.

Furthermore, in recent years we’ve seen new strategies develop for politicians who want to avoid difficult truths; just deny it. No matter the testimony, no matter the clamour in the comments rebuffing you – just deny it. If you ignore damning evidence, or outright dismiss it as false, then you are able to chose the narrative in which you perform (one in which said difficult truth doesn’t exist). In cases like these is there any real downside for inauthenticity other than social punishment? And how bad can ‘social punishment’ be for Amazon? Any negatives certainly don’t seem to outweigh the benefits of being able to behave like bad things haven’t happened; and just like politicians who we’ve seen who lean towards the more brazen end of the lie scale, Amazon is kind of untouchable. Nobody is going to change their purchasing habits because of yet another straw added to the pile of immorality heaped on a metaphorical camel’s back, which surely would have broken by now if incremental increases in the shit it’s burdened with would ever be enough to see it off. In fact, I’ll admit that I literally used Amazon to buy something while writing this post (although I do feel bad about it now. I needed sewing needles immediately, OK?! You couldn’t expect me to sit in my room, seeing nobody and avoiding a pandemic with a hole in my trousers). Donald Trump famously said that he could “shoot somebody and not lose any voters“, and I think Amazon could do worse (and potentially has done worse) while not losing any customers.

Amazon isn’t morally bound to tell the truth; its prime directive is to make money, and we know the truth is flexible when it comes to that particular mission. I think this episode also shows that it isn’t socially bound to tell the truth; Amazon decided to tell a brazen lie and got away with it. And why not? If you got to pick your truth, why would you pick one where your employees piss in bottles to avoid infractions, or even one where you’re ‘investigating’ a piss bottle situation? Why not go all in, mocking people who read and believed the reports?

What do we do when big corporations glibly and confidently tell brazen lies?

To me it appears that Amazon has decided that the risk posed by lying to the public has decreased to the point that it’s worth doing to allow participation in a narrative that it dictates.

I hope that this is just the opinion of one angry executive gone rogue; Twitter user @besf0rt noticed that Amazon News’ tweet was strikingly similar to one posted a day earlier by Amazon Consumer CEO Dave Clark:

Tweet from @amazonnews; Tweet from @davehclark

However I still think that there’s a realistic possibility that more Twitter Brands will take a Trumpian approach to difficult truths, and we probably need to do something about that.

My aspirational suggestion is: we should somehow increase the cost of lying for corporations. There is so much technology available to allow for better communication and clarity, it is absolutely within the realm of possibility to require more openness and accountability so that companies like Amazon have less canvas to work with when painting their narratives.

My practical suggestion is: could this be the straw which finally breaks our titanic camel’s back? Mine’s been fed on a healthy diet of really quick deliveries, but it’s been struggling lately and while it can excuse Amazon providing work conditions that force employees to skip bathroom breaks to stay employed, it draws the line at Amazon denying doing it. I think I need to take some of the load off of my poor hypothetical camel and cancel my prime subscription. Maybe you should check in on how yours is doing too.