(Bloomberg) -- Gun-control activists are demanding that Amazon.com Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos do something he has carefully avoided: pick a side in a hot-button political debate.
The online retailer, along with Apple Inc., Roku Inc. and other video streaming services, is facing pressure from customers protesting any corporate relationship with the National Rifle Association in the aftermath of a Florida school shooting that killed 17 people. Even though it doesn’t sell guns or ammunition, Amazon is taking much of the heat. Angry consumers started using the hashtag #StopNRAmazon on Twitter, which surfaced last week with customers threatening to cancel their $99-a-year Prime 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 criticized 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 cord-cutters use to watch programs, might limit the gun lobbying group’s reach and visibility, though NRA TV is also available via the organization’s website.
The protest against Amazon and other tech companies followed moves by airlines, hotels, car-rental firms and other businesses to cut ties with the NRA by ending member discounts, and a bank canceling its NRA-branded credit card. FedEx Corp. said it would continue to honor its discount for the group’s members, even though the company supports gun restrictions. The NRA didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Activists are learning that when their concerns fall on deaf ears with politicians, businesses are more likely to yield to changes in public sentiment, said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center 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 so 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."
Amazon declined to comment on the current campaign. In the past, the company has tried to stay neutral, avoiding comment on political issues that aren’t directly tied to its business. The online retailer didn’t react to calls to yank advertising from the conservative news site Breitbart even after a Twitter-based campaign in 2016 called out companies whose ads were appearing on the site. The question for Amazon -- which did donate $30,000 in gift cards to a Seattle gun-buyback program in 2015 -- is whether the same approach will work with firearms, when some gun-control activists are embracing a you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us attitude to marginalize the NRA.
That approach is having some success. The list of companies severing ties with the NRA includes Delta Air Lines Inc. and Hertz Corp., signaling 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 polarized 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."
Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. is halting sales of assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, and will stop selling firearms to people under 21. Some people on Twitter said they would shop at Dick’s rather than Amazon following the move -- even though Dick’s continues to sell some guns and ammunition and Amazon sells neither.
When it’s content or free speech at issue, the stakes become even higher. NRA TV can also be streamed via other services such as Google’s YouTube and its Chromecast devices, or listened to via SiriusXM or IHeartRadio, 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 people find objectionable -- a challenge since the devices and services try to appeal to a range of different tastes and political leanings.
"While the vast majority of all streaming on our platform is mainstream entertainment, voices on all sides of an issue or cause are free to operate a channel," said streaming-device maker Roku. "We do not curate or censor based on viewpoint," Roku said, adding that NRA TV doesn’t violate any of its policies. Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Last week, YouTube removed a video that suggested a teenage survivor of the Florida school shooting was a paid actor. YouTube didn’t respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Some businesses make political activism part of their brands, like the environmental stances taken by apparel company Patagonia Inc. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. fought government requirements to provide emergency contraceptives that the company said conflicted with its religious beliefs, in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. That can work for smaller niche retailers. But it’s tougher for big corporations with sprawling businesses, like 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 MIT’s Zuckerman. "I’m a little nervous about the idea of boycotting a news source into silence."
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