What’s behind Jeff Bezos’s Twitter spat with Joe Biden – and is it ethical?

Some have suggested the Amazon founder is jealous of the attention received by his tech billionaire rival, writes Andrew Buncombe

Thursday 19 May 2022 21:44
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It started as a trickle and rapidly became a flood.

In what felt like a matter of days, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and something of a quiet man of the internet, suddenly starting tweeting about all things and everything – Elon Musk, censorship in China, the “painful lessons” of the financial markets.

And he also engaged in a very public row with the Biden Administration about inflation, and how to tackle it, earning himself some very firm push-back from White House officials.

“It’s not a huge mystery why one of the wealthiest individuals on Earth opposes an economic agenda that is for the middle class, that cuts some of the biggest costs families face, fights inflation for the long haul,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday, when she was asked about the issue.

It has also earned the 58-year-old Bezos some biting condemnation from critics who say the billionaire owner of the Washington Post is undermining the independence of its journalists, and the way it covers the inflation issue, and whether people such as him should be paying more in taxes, something Biden suggested.

“Other than Jeff Bezos what other media owners regularly tweet out their political ideology and tweet out the pundits they pay who echo that ideology,” tweeted independent journalist David Sirota, a former speech writer for Bernie Sanders, and editor-in-chief of The Lever, a reader-supported site specialising  in investigative journalism.

“I haven’t seen others do this. It feels Citizen Kane-ish. Are there others who do this?”

Sirota, who wrote the screenplay for Don't Look Up, added: “And yes, there are good people at the WashPost. The point is: When the owner starts openly behaving like Citizen Kane, it has influence.”

Bezos’s clash with the government comes against the backdrop of mounting inflation in the US, and around the world, which has raised the cost of living for everyone, but which has been most felt by working people and the middle class.

White House Press Secretary says ‘no mystery’ why Bezos is against Biden’s economic plan

Polls show the issue  is of prime concern to voters, and has added to the likelihood Democrats will be punished in the midterm election, and lose one or both chambers of Congress. Data gathered by the Pew Research Center suggests as many as 70 per cent of Americans see “inflation as a very big problem for the country”.

Last week, Biden, 79, who has long made clear his desire to increase taxes for the ultra-wealthy and large corporations, tweeted: “You want to bring down inflation? Let’s make sure the wealthiest corporations pay their fair share.”

Bezos, who is also the founder of the Blue Origin space exploration start-up, has long been a proponent of lower taxes. In the past, both he and Amazon have been accused of paying almost no federal taxes, because of accounting and tax avoidance steps.

An investigation by ProPublica found that in 2007 and 2011, the billionaire did not pay any federal income taxes.

Both Sanders and Biden have previously called for Bezos to pay more.

Bezos is currently ranked as the world’s second  richest person and said to be worth $140bn, down from more than $200bn in 2021,

In response to the president’s tweet, he wrote: “The newly created Disinformation Board should review this tweet, or maybe they need to form a new Non Sequitur Board instead.”

He added: “Raising corp taxes is fine to discuss. Taming inflation is critical to discuss. Mushing them together is just misdirection.”

When White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre was asked about Bezos’s tweet she commented it was no surprise that the Amazon founder would be opposed to Biden’s plan.

“We’re talking about lowering inflation here — and adds to the historic deficit reduction the president is achieving by asking the richest taxpayers and corporations to pay their fair share,” she added.

Bezos followed up on Twitter.

“Look, a squirrel! This is the White House’s statement about my recent tweets. They understandably want to muddy the topic. They know inflation hurts the neediest the most. But unions aren’t causing inflation and neither are wealthy people,” he said.

He added: “Remember the Administration tried their best to add another $3.5 TRILLION to federal spending. They failed, but if they had succeeded, inflation would be even higher than it is today, and inflation today is at a 40 year high.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre says ‘no mystery’ why Bezos opposed to Biden’s economic plan

Many commentators were puzzled by Bezos’s decision to use his platform to rail against increasing taxation, particularly given Amazon spends more on political lobbying than any other company.

Some questioned if he had felt the need to get some attention, given that his follow tech billionaire, Elon Musk, who last year took Bezos’s No 1 spot on the world’s richest list, had been making lots of headlines over his announcement he was going to buy Twitter, and then suggesting he was not going to.

Indeed, one of Bezos’s tweets was in reference to a New York Times reporter’s comment about the importance of China to Tesla’s business, including the fact that it was the electric carmaker’s second largest market.

Asking whether China would put pressure on Musk to limit criticism of Beijing on Twitter, if he bought it, he said: “Interesting question. Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?”

Neither Bezos or Amazon responded to inquiries from The Independent. The Post also did not immediately provide a comment.

A column in The Verge by senior reporter Elizabeth Lopatto, said the Amazon founder was simply not a natural tweeter.

“Friends, I’ve had alerts on for Jeff Bezos’ tweets for a while now, and after some consideration, I’m afraid I have to conclude that this man cannot post,” she wrote.

Lopatto tellsThe Independent she thinks he “started tweeting because Elon Musk has had a great deal of luck getting what he wants using Twitter and Bezos has a weird complex about Musk”. She adds: “Bezos’s tone would play better on LinkedIn, because that’s the home of corporate PR speak. However, Musk doesn’t post there.”

Yet, it may be the allegation that Bezos finds hardest to duck is the accusation that his actions were harming the reputation of The Post, which he bought for $250m in August 2013.

An op-ed in Politico said Bezos’s flurry of comments was “dumb”.

“Bezos should consider how counterproductive his Twitter spats with the president and his fellow mogul are,” wrote senior political writer Jack Shafer.

“Whether he likes it or not, he’s now the face of the Washington Post.”

He added: “Bezos’ outbursts could also unfairly complicate life for his own journalistsif the paper produces critical coverage of the president — often more than justified! — Post skeptics will wonder if it was marching orders from the boss.”

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