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Amazon on edge: What's behind its snark-tweeting of Sanders and Warren

With labor and regulatory battles ahead, the tech giant tried getting confrontational with lawmakers.

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The Amazon logo on an orange wall.

As Amazon faces potential antitrust regulation and unionization, it showed a confrontational edge in tweets to lawmakers last week. 

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Call it bitter Twitter. Amazon last week mixed it up with US lawmakers in social media sparring that was as biting and testy as it was unexpected.

Amazon representatives pushed back more aggressively than usual on negative claims about the company. Amazon mistreats its workers and doesn't pay enough taxes? These Amazon reps don't think so. Amazon makes employees pee in bottles? No way, Amazon's top execs say. 

The back-and-forth began after the head of Amazon's worldwide consumer business retweeted a report that Bernie Sanders, an Independent senator from Vermont, would travel to Alabama in the final days of a union vote at an Amazon warehouse. If approved, it would be the first time Amazon workers have unionized in the US, which could inspire employees elsewhere to make a similar move. 

Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon's consumer operations, implied in a series of tweets that Amazon is more progressive than Sanders, who has long been known for championing workers. 

"I welcome @SenSanders to Birmingham and appreciate his push for a progressive workplace," Clark tweeted Wednesday. "I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that's not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace."

OK, wow.

Amazon's new aggressive tone on Twitter continued, with a PR-led Amazon News account tweeting that same day denying reports that rushed workers have to pee in bottles to keep up with their demanding schedules. Lawmakers and regular Twitter users quickly disputed Amazon's denial. The Amazon News account kept going on Friday, goading Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren over Congress' failure to pass laws that would require it to pay higher taxes, while simultaneously defending the amount of tax revenue Amazon generates.

It was highly unusual.

While tech companies often disagree with criticism from lawmakers, it's unusual for a company to so publicly dispute those comments. Leaving aside Elon Musk's penchant for confrontational and odd tweets, most of the Big Tech companies have tended to use Twitter to post positive news about themselves. Apple, despite its 6.1 million followers, has no tweets. Facebook and YouTube have at times responded to stories on Twitter, but they've gotten blowback for the move. And their posts haven't been as aggressive as Amazon's tweets. It's rare for a company, especially ones facing scrutiny by Congress, to fight those same lawmakers out in public like that.

"Amazon has gotten to the point where it thinks it needs to directly respond to its detractors versus through its intermediaries," said Patrick Moorhead, who runs tech advisory firm Moor Insights & Strategy. 

The tweets were so out of character for Amazon's public-facing statements that, according to Recode, Amazon's IT team worried the accounts had been hijacked and flagged them as suspicious for being "unnecessarily antagonistic." But Recode also said the change in tone came in response to direct orders from Jeff Bezos. The Amazon founder, who will step down as CEO in July, wasn't happy with the lack of aggression by Amazon's executives when it came to addressing criticisms the company views as misleading, Recode said.

Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment. Since Friday, the Amazon News account has returned to posting positive news about the company.

The ground is shifting quickly for Amazon and Big Tech in general. Lawmakers in the US and around the globe have been investigating Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google for anticompetitive practices. The Big Tech companies face potential regulation -- supported by Democrats and Republicans for their own reasons -- that could force them to break up their businesses or otherwise weaken their power. 

To that point, Warren told the Amazon News account, "You bet I'll fight to make you pay your fair share. And fight your union-busting. And fight to break up Big Tech so you're not powerful enough to heckle senators with snotty tweets."

Add to this the prospect of a unionized workforce, which could potentially plan work stoppages that disrupt delivery times and demand changes to how Amazon runs its warehouses, and Amazon is facing a future it can't control.

Amazon takes control of its messaging

Amazon's new, aggressive stance on Twitter could be a signal of the lengths it will go to to rebut what it views as misinformation that could impede its continued growth. The company has a lot at stake. It's forecast to control 50% of the US online retail market in 2021, and that's not even its biggest source of revenue. (That would be the cloud behemoth known as Amazon Web Services.) The company is more profitable than ever, generating $125.6 billion in net sales in the final quarter of 2020, a 44% increase from the previous year. 

You'd think that would make a company feel close to invincible.

But all of this puts a target on the company's back for regulation and criticism, Moorhouse said, even though it's taken some progressive steps like paying warehouse workers at least $15 an hour and offering health benefits and tuition reimbursement. 

Amazon has faced lawmakers before, testifying with its peers at Google, Twitter and Facebook in congressional hearings on antitrust. But it recently declined to appear at a February hearing on low-wage workers and poverty in the US, to which it was invited by Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee chair. 

Amazon can easily defend itself by citing its high pay and quality benefits for workers, and the fact that it follows US tax laws, said Michael Pachter, an analyst at investment firm Wedbush. The confrontational approach on Twitter seemed both unwise and "over the top," he said. 

"Warren and Sanders can hurt them," Pachter said. "Although they don't need to kiss up to either of them, it appears foolish to me to antagonize them."

Amazon's Twitter battle targets Sanders and Warren

The tweets may have started with Amazon's CEO of worldwide consumer business, but they didn't end there. 

"You don't really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?" the Amazon News account asked Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin. Pocan replied that he did believe it. He then shot back by saying that Amazon can't call itself progressive amid frequent charges of union busting and worker mistreatment. 

While Amazon said if peeing in a bottle was something its workers had to do, "nobody would work for us," many of its delivery drivers reportedly do urinate in their trucks. Amazon enforces strict time constraints on its employees that make it too difficult to take bathroom breaks, according to Business Insider interviews with five drivers. 

Sanders didn't reply to the tweets about him.

On Friday, Warren released a video statement on Twitter criticizing Amazon for exploiting tax loopholes. The response came from the Amazon News account: "You make the tax laws… we just follow them. If you don't like the laws you've created, by all means, change them."

Warren called the company's tweets "snotty." Amazon accused her of using the threat of regulation to silence the company, saying, "One of the most powerful politicians in the United States just said she's going to break up an American company so that they can't criticize her anymore."

Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, said that it wasn't surprising that Amazon's tweets showed a mean streak. While it may not have spilled out onto Twitter so publicly before, Amazon has always aggressively pursued its rights to limit tax payments at all levels of government, and it hasn't shied away from bullying, Kodali said.

Kodali also emphasized that some of the tweets were misleading on their face, adding, "They are definitely more capitalist than Bernie."