For or against? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is being pressured to take a political stand on gun control. Picture: REUTERS
For or against? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is being pressured to take a political stand on gun control. Picture: REUTERS

Seattle/San Francisco — Gun-control activists are demanding that CEO Jeff Bezos do something he has carefully avoided: pick a side in a hot-button political debate.

The online retailer, along with Apple, Roku and other video streaming services, is facing pressure from customers protesting against any corporate relationship with the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the aftermath of a Florida school shooting that killed 17 people.

Even though it does not sell guns or ammunition, Amazon seems to be taking the most heat. Consumers started using the hashtag #StopNRAmazon on Twitter, which surfaced last week, with angry customers threatening to cancel their $99-a-year subscriptions.

At issue is NRA TV, a free online channel focused on pro-gun content, which many technology companies offer through their streaming services and devices alongside more popular options such as Netflix, ESPN and HBO. Recent episodes criticised Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for what NRA TV said was a failure to act on warning signs about the shooter.

In one segment, NRA TV host Grant Stinchfield shouts at the camera: "There was no act of heroism when these deputies were sitting outside taking cover behind a cruiser as kids were getting shot."

Being dumped from streaming services and devices, which many people use to watch programmes, might limit the gun lobbying group’s reach and visibility, though NRA TV is also available through its website.

The protest followed moves by airlines, hotels, car-rental firms and other businesses to cut ties with the NRA by ending member discounts, and a bank cancelling its NRA-branded credit card. FedEx said it would continue to honour its discount for the group’s members, even though the company supports gun restrictions. Activists are learning that when their concerns fall on deaf ears with politicians, businesses are more likely to yield to public sentiment, said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"This is a problem that ought to be worked out in our legislature, but people are turning to corporations because it doesn’t seem like our legislators can get anything done," he said. "People feel powerless to change things, this is how they feel they can bring change. I’d expect we’re going to see a lot more of this."

In the past, Amazon has tried to stay neutral, avoiding comment on political issues not tied to its business. It did not react to calls to pull advertising from the conservative news site Breitbart even after a Twitter-based campaign in 2016 called out companies whose adverts were appearing on the site.

The list of companies severing ties with the NRA includes Delta Air Lines and Hertz, signalling that their executives see greater risk affiliating with the group than reward in offering perks to its nearly 5-million members. As more companies take a stand on political topics, it becomes increasingly difficult for other corporations to keep out of the fray, said Daniel Korschun, an associate professor of marketing at Drexel University who has studied corporate political activism.

"For executives, this is the part that’s gut-wrenching — because politics are so polarised now, it’s very difficult to find that middle ground," Korschun said. "Executives are forced to make a choice for one side or the other, and it can be very difficult."

When content or free speech is at issue, the stakes become even higher. NRA TV can also be streamed via other services such as Google’s YouTube, according to the group’s website. The protest over carrying the channel puts these services in the uncomfortable position of deciding what kind of information is appropriate based on what some find objectionable.

Some businesses make political activism part of their brands, such as the environmental stances taken by apparel firm Patagonia. But it is tougher for big corporations such as Amazon and Apple that want to sell their products and services to as many people as possible.

"There’s a dark side to going after these intermediaries and asking them to remove what we find objectionable," said Zuckerman. "I’m a little nervous about the idea of boycotting a news source into silence."