Recode reported that the directive to attack aggressively came from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos himself. Amazon doesn’t appear to have commented on Bezos’s role in the hubbub, but it does insist that its warehouse workers are well treated. Even so, the company later issued a rare public apology for its response to Pocan. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
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Amazon’s bravado was startling for its message, but also because it represents a departure from expected online corporate behavior. On social media, brands have been evolving from public-relations automatons to your cool friends. When Walmart posts about a “moment of zen … brought to you by our spring stock up essentials,” it’s just doing vanilla-flavored marketing. But when Slim Jim, the beef-stick company, sasses Steak-umm, the frozen-beef-sheet seller, over supposedly subliminal 69s in a post, it is striving to embody a personality that might resonate with customers.
Amazon’s straight-up aggression broke so much from these two common patterns that one Amazon engineer even submitted a support ticket, concerned that the Amazon News Twitter account had been hacked. It’s shocking to see a company act like an online troll instead.
It shouldn’t be. In fact, it’s long past time that citizens stop construing online brands, and the companies their messages represent, as clever human interlocutors, be they catty or chatty. Which brings me back to my theory: In a backwards way, and certainly unintentionally, Amazon’s weird behavior is liberating us from the affliction of building affable relationships with corporations. It’s a reminder that although companies have basically become people in our lives, those people might very well be assholes.
The law has preserved their right to be so for some time. Over the past century, companies have been transformed into private individuals, deserving protection from the state. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowed corporations to spend unlimited funds on elections. The Court’s opinion justified the decision on the grounds that limiting political spending violates the First Amendment right to free speech. Citizens United is the most recent victory for corporate personhood in the United States, but that history goes back much further. In particular, the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the law, became a mechanism for corporations to argue for their rights as individuals. (Corporations had previously been treated as institutions chartered by a state for the public good.)
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It’s a convenient accident that the Citizens United decision corresponded with the arrival of the consumer internet. By 2010, everyone was online, and in public too, on social-media services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Previously, companies could speak only through formal messages on billboards; by mail, radio, or television; or via media coverage of their actions. The web had shifted that control a bit, but websites were still mostly marketing and service portals. Social media and smartphones changed everything. They made corporate speech functionally identical to human speech. Case law might have given companies legal personhood, but the internet made corporations feel like people.