Jeff Bezos’ mom did not email me: How I got a troll to apologize, and why we might be friends now

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Click to enlarge: An email to GeekWire reporter Kurt Schlosser this week from a comedian and internet troll posing as Jackie Bezos, mother of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (GeekWire screen grab)

In my five-plus years at GeekWire, I’ve often wondered what it would take to get Jeff Bezos’ attention and how I would react if the Amazon founder emailed me about one of my stories. I never thought it would be a random story about his purchase of a soft-serve ice cream machine, or that the person emailing would be his mom.

In the sea of pitches and press releases I get from PR people, an apparent note (above) from Jackie Bezos, president and co-founder of the Bezos Family Foundation, easily stood out this week.

“No way,” I thought. “This is not real.”

But the email signature with the foundation’s logo and the address looked so good that I couldn’t resist pasting the note and conveying my excitement in GeekWire’s team Slack. It garnered a couple “Wow!” responses, and before thinking about it much more or doing any investigating — you know, journalism stuff — I just wrote “Jackie” back.

I thanked her for emailing, told her I loved soft serve ice cream, that my kids love Dippin Dots and that if Jeff ever wanted to chat about ice cream or anything else, she knew how to reach me. The next reply said, “Absolutely!” — and Jeff Bezos was added to the thread via his real Amazon email address.

I suddenly had visions of a car picking me up to take me to a private jet. I’d fly to Beverly Hills and by that evening I’d be eating artisan soft serve in Jeff Bezos’ kitchen talking about Amazon, space, chocolate vs. vanilla, and whatever else the world’s richest person talks about. I could already see my name on the new GeekWire Journalism Center for Excellence in Seattle, funded by the Bezos Family Foundation.

But I didn’t reply this time. And, thankfully, I didn’t touch my story adding a fake comment from fake Jackie Bezos about her son’s love for ice cream. I just slept on it all.

And by the next morning, after hearing from Amazon PR as well as a reporter from the New York Post who was also targeted, I learned I’d been duped.

Looking for a reaction

Ben Palmer performs stand-up comedy when not messing with people online. (Photo courtesy of Ben Palmer)

“The goal wasn’t to mess with you,” Ben Palmer said to me Thursday morning after calling from his Colorado home.

I’d written Palmer after discovering that he was fake Jackie, and that he’d been sharing — and has since deleted — responses related to his fake emails on a Facebook page that he runs called Hope This Helps. Other notes to other news outlets went further than the one he sent me, and said that Bezos’ new ice cream maker was already broken.

“I felt guilty when you responded; I didn’t want you to get too excited, like, ‘Oh man, we might get an interview with Jeff Bezos!” Palmer said. “The goal is to get someone who’s representing Jeff Bezos, just get a reaction from them, because it’s really hard to get a reaction from someone that’s way up there.”

And Palmer has been trying for some time.

The 35-year-old Air Force veteran has attracted 2 million followers on TikTok with his brand of internet trolling and comedy. Over on YouTube, his videos are a mix of his gags, whether he’s talking over screenshots of his social media fakery or actually getting on Court TV to litigate fake cases.

Ben Palmer of Palmer Trolls in some of the videos he has produced detailing his efforts to get reactions out of different companies and organizations. (YouTube screen grabs)

Palmer, who has lived in Atlanta and Los Angeles, makes an income from the content he creates online, and from his comedy touring. He’s actually scheduled to perform in Seattle at The Rendezvous in Belltown on Oct. 15, just blocks from Amazon’s headquarters. I told him I planned to show up and heckle him for an hour, to see how he likes being messed with at work.

A former gig worker who has driven for Uber and Lyft and delivered food, Palmer targets companies, business leaders and corporate accounts via email or on social media. He’s mostly interested in trolling in the name of workers’ rights and social justice.

“You kind of feel the anger of being treated like crap by big companies,” he said.

He’s created memes with fake quotes attributed to Bezos or SpaceX founder Elon Musk and he’ll reach out to their reps seeking a comment on the legitimacy of the quotes. He’ll often pose as a journalist from a newspaper in Colorado that doesn’t exist, or as a reporter from a fake CBS affiliate in Akron, Ohio. Getting a response is part of the comedy Palmer is hoping to deliver to his followers.

He also poses as company accounts to go after users on social media who complain about such things as a gay couple in an ad or the politics of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. He made news in 2016 for posing as Home Depot Guest Relations on Facebook and ripping Fox News in the comments on a post. He went viral last year when he pretended to be Costco, responding to a customer complaining about the wholesaler’s in-store mask policy during the height of the pandemic.

Comments by Ben Palmer, pretending to be Costco responding to a customer on Facebook. (Facebook screen grab via Ben Palmer)

Palmer has targeted Bezos in a number of ways, trying to get a reaction. He’s tried to book Bezos for a stay at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Or he’ll reach out to random places and say Bezos is planning to visit and needs accommodations for his exotic animals. Often, if Bezos’ email is attached, the correspondence is intercepted by Amazon corporate communications.

Bezos’ immense wealth, the defeat of a unionization effort at one of Amazon’s warehouses, and Amazon’s new mission to be “Earth’s best employer” all feed into Palmer’s desire to get a reaction.

“It’s just frustrating,” he said. “Other than unionizing there’s nothing you can really do about it when you’re working there. So I try to do as much as I can comedically to mess with them.”

Palmer said he avoids impersonating real people and said emailing as Jackie Bezos was an exception. But it wasn’t a phishing scheme. He wasn’t looking for money. He was just fishing for a reply. But if the Bezos Family Foundation was to sue, he figures that would just be more publicity.

“Billionaire sues poor comedian … maybe I don’t understand how lawsuits work fully, but what do you want, my 2014 Nissan Sentra for this?” Palmer joked.

A fake quote from a fake journalist at a fake newspaper that Ben Palmer sent to Jeff Bezos, garnering a response from Amazon PR. (Image courtesy of Ben Palmer)

Fast, fake friends

I laughed for a good half hour in talking with Palmer on the phone. He said he was going to send me some ice cream for my troubles and I suggested maybe an Amazon gift card.

I felt like we made a connection that I didn’t really get out of fake Jackie Bezos.

But short of wasting the time of journalists or corporate PR reps in the name of comedy, I asked Palmer whether he is worried about contributing to the scourge of misinformation that is doing real harm on the internet and in the real world.

“Yeah, I try not to make companies look bad that are actually doing a good service,” he said.

Palmer does clearly have some reservations about who is being affected in his efforts to reach all the way to the top, and get at people like Bezos or Musk or Mark Zuckerberg and so on.

“I feel bad sometimes,” he said. “It is a learning experience. I try to see how far I can go. Is it worth it? Who are you using in the process to do this?”

I ask if that applies to journalists who are just trying to report on ice cream machines purchased by billionaires, and Palmer laughs.

“I’m sorry, Kurt,” he said. “This is my official apology to you. That should be the headline.”