For years, Amazon has been taking heat for conditions in its fulfillment centers, where labor activists say employees are chronically overworked. These criticisms seemed to be reaching a tipping point around last month’s Prime Day, when Amazon faced intense pressure from union organizers, Democratic politicians and even some employees—including Minnesota warehouse workers who went on strike, wearing shirts that said, “We are human, not robots.”
Amazon has been attempting to address the negative perception of its fulfillment centers through a variety of methods, with most rooted in the opportunity to let just about anyone come visit one for a tour.
But when one skeptical Twitter user expressed doubts this week about Amazon’s transparency, she ran afoul of the ecommerce giant’s social media “ambassadors,” who describe themselves as real fulfillment center employees who’ve been asked to share their (usually positive) experiences at the company.
Then things got truly weird.
When the woman, who lists her name as Diana Wilde on Twitter, began to respond, different ambassadors would then step in to answer. The result was an eerie exchange that ended up looking like one person talking to a robotically rotating litany of cheerful Amazon advocates.
Or, as Wilde put it in a tweet that quickly became the scenario’s calling card, “i feel like im talking to the borg.”
Here’s what happened to make her feel like she’d been targeted by a dystopian cyborg army:
It began when she responded Wednesday to an Aug. 1 post by the @AmazonNews PR account, offering to help arrange fulfillment center tours. She was underwhelmed by the offer.
She then got a response from an “Amazon FC ambassador” (FC standing for fulfillment center) named Dylan, based at a facility in Pennsylvania, though he clearly failed to win her over.
So in stepped Rafael, an Amazon FC ambassador in Kent, Washington:
Rafael has tweeted about 1,500 times and follows zero accounts, which is admittedly odd Twitter behavior for the average user, but his tweet history seems to show a legitimate human, albeit one clearly tweeting under corporate oversight. Several observers of his conversation with Wilde noted that in 2018, Rafael’s name seemed to be Michelle, but he waved off the bot allegation by noting that he’d inherited the account from another user (and presumably changed the name to reflect his).
But when Wilde responded with a question to Rafael, she got a response…from ambassador Audra.
So Wilde asked Audra a question, and got a response from ambassador Cindi.
This pattern continued, with Cindi being followed by Brittany, Brittany followed by Rachel, and Rachel followed by Carol, with a few more visits from Brittany and Rafael along the way. (You can scroll up and down through the full thread here.)
By this point, the bizarre thread of rotating ambassadors was getting enough attention that it began to spawn fake ambassador accounts, mimicking or mocking the “everything is fine” tone of the official accounts. But all the embedded responses above seem to be from legitimate Amazon ambassadors.
Adweek reached out to Amazon about the Twitter thread and the thinking behind the ambassador program. Here’s Amazon’s official response:
“FC ambassadors are employees who work in our FCs and share facts based on personal experience. It’s important that we do a good job educating people about the actual environment inside our fulfillment centers, and the FC ambassador program is a big part of that along with the FC tours we provide. This year alone, more than 100,000 guests have come to see for themselves what it’s like to work inside one of our FCs. If you haven’t visited, I recommend it.”
The ambassadors claim that they are not paid for their social interactions, though previous reports have suggested that they may receive incentives such as Amazon gift cards and paid days off in return.
According to the news site Bellingcat, there are at least 53 “ambassador” accounts active—most are American but some are German, French, Polish and Italian.
While no single tweet in the thread with Wilde is all that offputting on its own, the cumulative effect of the ambassador swarm likely undid any good the program was hoping to accomplish.
Some experts think this type of bulk engagement might become more commonplace in the corporate world. P.W. Singer, author of the recent book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, believes the sort of online swarm tactics already employed by governments, celebrity fandoms and radical groups will eventually grow more widespread in the brand world, with realistic artificial intelligence entities eventually replacing coordinated human employees.
“There’s a lot of interest in it from the corporate side. Making hyper-realistic personas online can be good for everything from persuading someone to buy a product to saving money on customer service to ads,” Singer told Adweek in a previous interview. “We’re headed for a very science-fiction future where AI battles AI for our human thoughts and actions.”
But for now, it’s clear that Amazon’s human-powered reputation-boosting efforts in social media are still in their relative infancy, and there’s a good chance that this incident will spark some new guidelines on how “FC ambassadors” should engage in a way that feels a bit more organized—and less orchestrated.
Adweek staff writer Lisa Lacy contributed reporting to this story.