As Amazon positions itself as an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, inside the company, dozens of employees are voicing deep concern about another political issue: Amazon’s choice to advertise on Breitbart.com.
According to internal emails and documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, employees have begun voicing concerns about the company’s advertising relationship with the provocative far-right website. Some piled on to a complaint ticket in Amazon’s internal issue escalation system urging the company to sever its relationship with Breitbart, the site that former editor and now–Senior White House Advisor Steve Bannon once called “the platform for the alt-right." Others are taking even stronger stands.
“Without naming names, I can attest that several employees have come to me in the past month questioning this exact point and I’ve stopped them from leaving the company,” one employee wrote on an email chain of worried Amazon employees.
Despite this internal unrest, Amazon has given no indication that it is changing its advertising relationship with Breitbart. Responding to the complaint ticket, Amazon’s ad team said it would not block the site from its program and closed the ticket from further responses. “As per guidance from PR/Policy/Legal, the DA team are not blocking breitbart.com,” Amazon’s ad team wrote. “As per prior guidance ‘our customers are choosing to go there. It is not our place to assume why they're going there, or impose our own standards.’” The ad team did specify that it was looking into a “longer term solution to use a 3rd party brand safety which may block amazon ads from showing up on certain pages on sites like Breitbart in the future.”
Amazon’s human resources department then closed the complaint ticket.
Amazon declined to comment for this story.
Currently, Amazon advertisements that appear on Breitbart are placed there programmatically, meaning they are algorithmically and automatically purchased from third party advertising exchange inventory. The ads are calibrated in such a way that Amazon customers see them on websites they choose to visit. In other words, if no Amazon customers visited Breitbart, no Amazon ads would appear on Breitbart.
While Amazon doesn't have a direct relationship with Breitbart, it does choose which exchanges through which it buys and sells ads, and could potentially earn revenue from Breitbart's audience. Amazon’s Associates program’s rules explicitly state that publishers using its advertising API may not “promote discrimination,” a line item that a number of Amazon employees feel Breitbart violates.
“I actually do believe Amazon does have the right to follow its customers to wherever they may spend their time online, but ... I also believe that amazon employees have the right to reject profiting from and funding any website they personally disagree with,” one employee wrote in an email. “It seems evident now that for some current Amazonians, Breitbart is one of those sites.”
Amazon's decision to abruptly close the Breitbart complaint ticket caused confusion among employees advocating for the company to end its advertising relationship with the site.
“Maybe I’m misreading this but it sounds like we’ve made a very conscious decision to keep advertising on Breitbart,” one employee wrote. Said another, “I’m deeply, deeply disappointed in Amazon if that’s actually the policy (Amazon would not confirm or deny any policies)."
In a different email on the thread, an employee worried that the decision not to distance itself from Breitbart could hurt the company in the future. “While I understand the business concerns and the current climate make talking about this kind of thing a minefield, we’re rapidly approaching the point where not talking about it will only foment bad blood, and at best we’ll start silently losing customers and employees,” the employee wrote on the internal email chain. “That’s not the Amazon I know.”
Since Trump’s election, a grassroots online protest movement has emerged that’s attempting to cut off advertising revenue to sites it feels promote racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. One anonymous organization that goes by the name of Sleeping Giants has taken to Twitter to exert pressure on advertisers, including Amazon. So far, nearly 400 advertisers, including some prominent brands like Kellogg’s, have pledged to stop ad buys on Breitbart. Externally, frustrations over Amazon’s decision to advertise on Breitbart continue to mount. A quick search of Twitter returns hundreds of tweets urging the company to “join 750+ corporations & stop advertising w/ Breitbart.” A viral petition on the activism site SumOfUs.org titled “Amazon: Stop Investing in Hate” has collected over 311,000 signatures.
This outcry comes despite Amazon's pointed criticism of President Trump’s refugee ban. On Sunday, CEO Jeff Bezos denounced it in an all-hands message to employees. "This executive order is one we do not support," he wrote. "Our public policy team in D.C. has reached out to senior administration officials to make our opposition clear. ... To our employees in the U.S. and around the world who may be directly affected by this order, I want you to know that the full extent of Amazon’s resources are behind you." On Tuesday, Amazon joined Expedia to file a sworn statement in Washington state court to aid in the state attorney general’s lawsuit against President Trump's order.
But Amazon’s aggressive stance toward the Trump administration’s refugee order has left concerned employees mystified as to its relationship with Breitbart. “Given HR’s and Jeff’s latest statements on immigration executive order, keeping Amazon ads on Breitbart, a white nationalist website which has been promoting the same hateful rhetoric behind the EO, for years, is directly contradictory to the principles HR and Jeff claim Amazon stands for,” an employee wrote in an internal email. ”The current stance (from the [complaint ticket]) doesn’t make me feel safe as an Amazon employee.”
According to one employee, Bezos’s stance this week on the refugee ban has “empowered more employees to speak up and ask leadership to put their foot down.” A number of employees have asked that the Breitbart complaint ticket be reopened; meanwhile, they are encouraging further participation from employees to “chime in” and voice their opinions about the company’s advertising relationship with Breitbart. A recent internal email obtained by BuzzFeed News suggests that Amazon’s leadership is revisiting the issue. The last update on the closed ticket notes that it was being "converted to a secure ticket as we want to avoid confidential business details on a public internal forum. We are working with colleagues to determine next steps.”
Meanwhile, employees are continuing to pressure leadership with impassioned emails. “We hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” one employee wrote on an internal email chain this week.
Another chimed in: “Rest assured our children’s children are watching us, in this moment, from the future (assuming we get there).”
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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