The day after the violent attack on the Capitol, Shopify declared that it had removed e-commerce sites affiliated with President Donald Trump, including his official campaign store. The sites had violated a policy that prohibited the support of groups or people “that threaten or condone violence to further a cause.”
The move was initially lauded, but it soon became clear that the technology company, which powers more than 1 million online shops, was still fueling plenty of other sites with merchandise promoting the president and goods emblazoned with phrases like “MAGA Civil War.” Apparel with similar phrases and nods to QAnon conspiracy theories also remained available on e-commerce sites like Amazon, Etsy and Zazzle.
Even as the companies scrambled to remove such merchandise, new goods commemorating and glorifying the Jan. 6 attack were proliferating. As of Friday, “Battle for Capitol Hill Veteran” shirts with drawings of the Capitol building could be purchased on Amazon for $20, Etsy was selling a “Biden Likes Minors” shirt that mimicked the look of “Black Lives Matter” signs and Zazzle had a “Civil War 2020” shirt on its site. Etsy and Zazzle have since removed the merchandise; the “Capitol Hill Veteran” shirt was still available on Amazon on Monday.
Just as the violence put new scrutiny on how social media companies were monitoring speech on their platforms, it also highlighted how e-commerce companies have enabled just about anyone with a credit card and an email address to sell goods online.
These companies have largely been built with scale and ease of access in mind, with scant oversight of what vendors were actually selling. But questions about the businesses have emerged as many rioters donned what amounted to a type of uniform that could be purchased online. This included shirts with certain phrases or illustrations printed on them, and flags that not only supported Trump, but promoted a civil war, conspiracy theories and debunked election claims. One shirt infamously worn by one of the rioters that said “Camp Auschwitz” was later found on Etsy, prompting an apology from the company, which is known for handcrafted goods.
“There’s so much focus on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, but, in our view, the platforms are much, much wider than social media,” said Danny Rogers, chief technology officer and co-founder of the Global Disinformation Index, a nonprofit focused on the spread of falsehoods online. “There’s a broad diversity of platforms that support and enable these dangerous groups to exist, to fundraise, get their message out. It’s not just kicking people off social media, it’s kicking people off merchandising platforms.”
While Shopify, which declined to comment for this article, is not a household name, its technology supports a huge 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 images of their wares and sell to customers. Shopify, which is valued at more than $100 billion, earns money through subscriptions to its software and other merchant services, and has said it has the second-biggest share of the U.S. e-commerce market after Amazon.
After its removal of TrumpStore.com and shop.donaldjtrump.com, the company was still powering other sites selling Trump-related merchandise, including shirts and banners that featured guns and military equipment. After complaints, Shopify appears to have removed some sellers and products, including a “MAGA Civil War” shirt with the date Jan. 6, 2021.
Shopify has also run into problems with thousands of online stores selling items that falsely claimed to treat COVID-19, as well as others selling Confederate flag merchandise.
“It’s great that Shopify finally pulled the plug on Trump’s retail store, but what we urgently need is to see a strategy from it and other popular e-commerce platforms about how they will stop profiting from hate as a whole,” said Shannon Coulter, president of the Grab Your Wallet Alliance, a nonprofit that stemmed from a social media boycott of companies with ties to Trump.
Amazon and Etsy have also rushed to remove merchandise promoting hate and violence from their sites this month, including wares tied to QAnon, the internet conspiracy theory that has become increasingly influential with a segment of Trump’s supporters.
On Jan. 11, Amazon said that it would remove products promoting QAnon and that third-party vendors who attempted to sell the wares could face bans, according to NBC. But on Monday, hundreds of products from dozens of vendors were still selling QAnon-related merchandise. Some product reviews expressed support for the baseless conspiracy theory in a casual tone. “I got these to support #Qanon … i love them,” one woman commented on a pair of “Q” earrings. “Wish they were a little bigger!”
Other shirts for sale on Amazon promoted misinformation related to election fraud, spreading false claims that the election was “stolen” or rigged and saying, “Audit the vote.” Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
While some of the sellers appear to be individuals or groups devoted to right-wing paraphernalia, others are peddling a broader array of misinformation, including COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Still others have included the material with a wider variety of internet memes and jokes, apparently looking for whatever might prove to be a hit.
The vendor behind the “Battle for Capitol Hill Veteran” shirts on Amazon, for instance, is called Capitol Hill and appeared to begin selling merchandise on Jan. 1, initially promoting false COVID-19 conspiracy theories like the so-called “plandemic.”
A study by the Global Disinformation Index and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that examines extremism, identified 13 hate groups offering products on Amazon in October. Smaller e-commerce platforms like Zazzle, which allow people to customize apparel, also played a role in allowing hate groups to make money through selling products, the report found.
“Platforms facilitating on-site retail seem to be plagued by either poor enforcement of their policies, or a complete lack of an adequate framework for governing their use by hate groups,” the groups wrote in the report.
“Platform policy people are still trying to wrap their heads around the concept of risk of harm,” Rodgers of the Global Disinformation Index said. “When QAnon emerged initially, it was dismissed as a bunch of kooks online, but what we’ve seen increasingly over the years is the apparent and obvious harm that results from this organized online conspiracy activity. The tribalism, the us versus them, and the adversarial narrative is fed by selling everyone a team jersey.”
Zazzle began more than a decade ago as part of a wave of a startups that gave consumers new, seemingly infinite options for customizing goods to their tastes. Now, the company is struggling to balance its original mission with the darker forces at play online.
“As an open marketplace, we are faced with the opportunity to allow people to express their creativity and sentiments, coupled with the challenge of expression that offends and is intentionally obfuscated,” Zazzle said in a statement.
While Zazzle uses automated filters and algorithms to try to block offensive designs and tags, it said it recognized “that technology is not foolproof,” and did manually remove certain products. The “Civil War 2020” shirt was taken down after questions from The Times, and Zazzle said that it had been identifying and taking down QAnon-related goods since mid-2018.
The challenge of identifying and removing such merchandise — and whether that is done by people or machines — mirrors the issues faced by platforms like Facebook and YouTube.
Josh Silverman, Etsy’s chief executive, said in a Jan. 12 blog post that the company and its human moderators relied on automated tools and reports from users to find merchandise that violated its policies. The company has more than 3.7 million vendors selling more than 80 million items. On Friday, after receiving questions from The Times, Etsy removed the “Biden Likes Minors” shirt, which seemed to nod to QAnon and the #Pizzagate conspiracy.
Etsy and Zazzle also acknowledged that they were trying to quickly make decisions involving certain phrases and symbols, particularly those harnessed by fringe groups.
“While an item may be allowed today, we reserve the right to determine based on evolving context that it is a violation at a later date, for example if it is deemed to cause or inspire real world harm,” a representative for Etsy, said in a statement.
Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor of communication at Cornell University, said that it was hard to imagine established brands carrying these products in stores. But, she said, accountability was difficult to demand online.
“We don’t have the ability to talk back to platform owners,” she said. “We don’t always know who’s responsible for creating the merch, so it enables everyone to evade responsibility for the circulation of these harmful products and messages.”