Why T-Shirts Selling the Capitol Riot Are Nonetheless Accessible On-line

The day after the violent attack on the Capitol, Shopify said it had removed ecommerce websites linked to President Trump, including his official campaign business. The sites had violated a policy prohibiting endorsing any group or person “who threatens or condones violence to advance cause”.

The move was initially praised, but it quickly became clear that the tech company, which operates more than a million online stores, is still promoting many other websites with goods promoting the president and goods ending with phrases like “MAGA Civil War ”are decorated. Clothing with similar phrases and allusions to QAnon conspiracy theories also remained available on ecommerce sites like Amazon, Etsy, and Zazzle.

Even as businesses struggled to remove such goods, new goods commemorating and glorifying the January 6 attack proliferated. Starting Friday, “Battle for Capitol Hill Veteran” shirts with drawings of the Capitol building could be bought for US $ 20 on Amazon. Etsy sold a “Biden Likes Minors” shirt that mimicked the look of “Black Lives Matters” signs and Zazzle sold a “Civil War 2020” shirt on its website. Etsy and Zazzle have since removed the merchandise; The shirt “Capitol Hill Veteran” was still available on Monday at Amazon.

Just as the violence re-examined the way social media companies monitor language on their platforms, it also highlighted how ecommerce companies do just about anyone with a credit card and email. Address to sell goods online.

For the most part, these businesses were built with size and accessibility in mind, with little monitoring of what the vendors were actually selling. However, questions about the companies surfaced when many rioters donned some sort of uniform that could be purchased online. These included shirts with specific phrases or illustrations, as well as flags that not only supported President Trump but also promoted a civil war, conspiracy theories, and debunked electoral claims. A shirt worn by one of the rioters labeled “Camp Auschwitz” was later found on Etsy, leading to an apology from the company known for handcrafted goods.

“There’s so much focus on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but we think the platforms are much, much broader than social media,” said Danny Rodgers, chief technology officer and co-founder of the Global Disinformation Index, a nonprofit focused on that Spreading falsehoods online. “There are a wide variety of platforms that support and empower these dangerous groups to exist, raise funds and get their message across. It’s not just about driving people off social media, it’s getting people off merchandising platforms. “

While Shopify, which refused to comment on this article, is not a household name, its technology supports a large number of vendors, from Allbirds to the New York Times. These companies use Shopify’s tools to build sleek online stores where they can easily upload pictures of their goods and sell them to customers. More than $ 100 billion worth of Shopify makes money through subscriptions to its software and other merchant services and has the second largest share of the US e-commerce market after Amazon.

After TrumpStore.com and shop.donaldjtrump.com were removed, the company continued to operate other websites selling Trump-related goods, including shirts and banners featuring guns and military equipment. Following complaints, Shopify appears to have removed some sellers and products, including a “MAGA Civil War” shirt dated January 6, 2021.

Shopify has also encountered problems with thousands of online stores selling items that falsely claimed to treat Covid-19, as well as others selling goods under the Confederate flag.

“It’s great that Shopify has finally pulled the plug on Trump’s retail business, but we urgently need a strategy out of it and other popular e-commerce platforms on how to stop taking advantage of the hate as a whole,” said Shannon Coulter. President of the Grab Your Wallet Alliance, a nonprofit that emerged from a social media boycott of companies with ties to President Trump.

Amazon and Etsy have also rushed this month to remove hatred and violence-promoting merchandise from their websites, including merchandise linked to QAnon, the internet conspiracy theory that has become increasingly swaying among a section of President Trump’s supporters Has.

On Jan. 11, Amazon said it would remove products that advertise QAnon and that third-party vendors who tried to sell the goods could receive bans, according to NBC. But on Monday, hundreds of products from dozen of vendors were still selling QAnon-related goods. Some product reviews expressed their support for the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory in a casual tone. “I got these to support #Qanon … I love them,” commented one woman on a pair of “Q” earrings. “I wish they were a little bigger!”

Other shirts for sale on Amazon promoted misinformation related to election fraud, spread false claims that the election was “stolen” or tampered with, and said, “Check the vote.” Amazon did not respond to a request for comment responded.

While some of the vendors appear to be individuals or groups dealing with right-wing paraphernalia, others sell a wider range of misinformation, including Covid-19 conspiracy theories. Still others have picked up the material with a wider variety of internet memes and jokes, apparently looking for what could turn out to be a hit.

For example, the seller behind the “Battle for Capitol Hill Veteran” shirts on Amazon is called Capitol Hill and apparently began selling goods on January 1st, initially promoting false Covid-19 conspiracy theories such as “planemia”.

A study by the Global Disinformation Index and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank dedicated to extremism, identified 13 hate groups selling products on Amazon in October. Smaller ecommerce platforms like Zazzle, which people use to customize clothes, also played a role in enabling hate groups to make money from selling products, the report said. “Platforms that facilitate on-site retail appear to be plagued by either poor enforcement of their policies or a complete lack of an adequate framework for regulating their use by hate groups,” the groups wrote in the report.

“Platform politicians are still trying to grapple with the concept of harm risk,” said Rodgers of the Global Disinformation Index. “When QAnon initially showed up, it was dismissed as a bunch of online kooks, but what we’ve seen increasingly over the years is the obvious and obvious damage that comes from this organized online conspiracy. Tribalism, the United States against them and the controversial narrative feed on the sale of a team jersey to everyone. “

Zazzle began more than a decade ago as part of a wave of startups offering consumers new, seemingly infinite ways to customize merchandise. Now the company is struggling to reconcile its original mission with the darker forces at play online.

“As an open market, we are faced with the opportunity to enable people to express their creativity and feelings, combined with the challenge of expression that is insulted and deliberately obscured,” Zazzle said in a statement.

While Zazzle used automated filters and algorithms to block offensive designs and tags, it recognized that “technology isn’t foolproof” and has manually removed certain products. The Civil War 2020 shirt was removed following questions from The Times, and Zazzle said it had identified and removed QAnon-related merchandise since mid-2018.

The challenge of identifying and removing such goods – and whether it is done by humans or machines – reflects the problems that platforms like Facebook and YouTube are facing.

Josh Silverman, managing director of Etsy, said in a blog post on Jan. 12 that the company and its human moderators rely on automated tools and reports from users to find merchandise that violates its guidelines. The company has more than 3.7 million vendors selling more than 80 million items. After receiving questions from The Times, Etsy took off the “Biden Likes Minors” shirt Friday that appeared to be nodding to QAnon and the #Pizzagate conspiracy.

Etsy and Zazzle also admitted that they were trying to make quick decisions that included certain phrases and symbols, especially those used by marginalized groups.

“Although an item may be legal today, we reserve the right to determine at a later date if it is a violation based on the evolving context, such as if it is believed to cause harm in the real world or causes, “a representative from Etsy said in a statement.

Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor of communications at Cornell University, said it was hard to imagine established brands having these products in stores. However, it is difficult to demand accountability online.

“We don’t have the opportunity to speak to platform owners,” she said. “We don’t always know who is responsible for creating the merch, so anyone can evade responsibility for distributing these harmful products and messages.”

Contact Sapna Maheshwari at sapna@nytimes.com and Taylor Lorenz at taylor.lorenz@nytimes.com.

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