Online marketplace fuels fringe movements
By CHRIS JOYNER | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Published: November 23, 2020
ATLANTA (Tribune News Service) — Social networks are banning them and government agencies and watchdog groups have called them domestic terrorists. But extremist groups still have a vibrant internet life thanks to online retailers.
Looking for a book evangelizing the baseless and far-out QAnon conspiracy theory? Amazon has a variety of titles. How about a T-shirt with the Three Percenters militia logo? Custom shirt company TeeSpring has many styles and colors. EBay and Etsy can provide shirts, hats and stickers bearing the slogan "ACAB," short for "All Cops Are Bastards," popular with far-left anarchist groups. The list goes on.
In recent months, some online retailers have said they are cracking down on items associated with groups or ideologies that advocate violence, but those are piecemeal efforts, at best. And the third-party sellers that make up a large part of those online markets are adept at skirting the rules.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found dozens of examples of extremist merchandise available for sale on major retail sites, some of which disappeared when the AJC asked about it. The AJC also found that third-party sellers on those sites can evade scrutiny by avoiding words that might get them banned.
More than providing a source of income, the swag carries a message to consumers, said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon College who uses data analysis to track far-right extremist groups.
"It spreads the ideology and it's a signal that you are in the group," she said. "It makes you feel like you are really in it. You've got the flag, you've got the shirt."
That's important to fringe groups, according to Hampton Stall, an Atlanta-based militia watchdog. Having a branded shirt or hat or other gear helps create community, which Stall said was very important for extremist groups like militias that recruit "highly alienated individuals."
"Some militias really commit to merchandising," he said. So much so that some groups have fought over rights to the Three Percenter logo, he said.
One of the more pervasive fringe ideologies found on internet marketplaces is QAnon, the weblike conspiracy theory that believes President Donald Trump is fighting a secret, satanic cabal of politicians and celebrities for control of the world. QAnon, which emerged online in 2017, spread quickly through the national consciousness this year, and sellers swooped in with T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs and books to feed the frenzy.
Amazon has been a prime market for these goods, despite the ideology's history of inciting violence and warnings from the FBI that it poses a continuing domestic terror threat. A search on Amazon for "WWG1WGA," an acronym for the conspiracy community's motto "Where We Go One, We Go All," turns up a host of items, including a collection of car decals with a QAnon theme.
According to the description, the collection "shares your values, and let (sic) the world know what you're about. (Where We Go One We Go All QAnon)."
The reviews of the stickers are mixed. While many said they enjoyed being able to proudly proclaim their belief in QAnon, others complained they were cheap and faded in the sun. The worst insult for many was the stickers were made in China.
The Amazon seller is GTOTd, which is a trademark of Chinese firm Zhongshan Aita Electronics. Along with its QAnon offering, the GTOTd page on Amazon offers a vast rage of stickers, from those featuring children's cartoons to vegan decals to LGBTQ pride.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have made efforts to remove QAnon accounts after years of allowing the ideology to spread on their platforms. Amazon declined to comment on why it continues to sell QAnon items, but that's hardly the only extremist group represented on the retail giant's website.
Along with QAnon merchandise, Amazon sells many items relevant to the far-right militia movement. Searching "boogaloo," code within that community for a predicted civil war, provides links to clothing and items promoting the idea.
In addition, Amazon sells dozens of books that feed into the radical fringes, including paramilitary guides for militias.
One, the Militia Battle Manual, advertises itself as a book for when "you feel the need to defend yourself from our government, foreign occupation or your damned neighbors." The manual is offered by a publishing house whose other titles include "How to Make Disposable Silencers" and "Build Your Own AR-15."
Squire said Amazon has been somewhat receptive to taking down individual items that advocate violence, but books are another matter. One prominent neo-Nazi author "has had dozens of books he writes and sells on there."
Squire said deciding which fringe group items do or do not violate an online retailer's terms of service can be difficult. But she said Amazon's problem is magnified by the recommendations feature on the site.
Because Amazon's algorithm groups together similar products, customers looking at the militia manual are offered "Light Infantry Tactics for Small Arms," "Resistance to Tyranny," and a "3 Percenter bundle" of military-style arm patches.
Other retailers have different strategies and rationales for dealing with extremist merchandise, but they have their own problems too.
For instance, last month Etsy announced a ban on QAnon-related items. In a statement to the AJC, the company said that ban is "an ongoing process."
The company said it uses "automatic controls" and teams of human monitors to remove items, but sellers have adapted, skirting a ban by avoiding certain terms or images. As a result, it isn't hard to find items referencing the conspiracy.
One merchant, active on the site since at least July, includes a large "Q" in its logo and a photo of a model wearing a T-shirt with "WWG1WGA" in large, white letters. The logo also includes the slogan "The Great Awakening," a reference to part of the QAnon conspiracy theory where a controlling global elite will be arrested and jailed. However, the merchant's actual merchandise — hats and T-shirts — use more oblique references attractive to the QAnon community but without the terms that might get it banned.
Etsy did not comment directly about this merchant, but the page disappeared after the AJC asked about it. A message posted on the merchant's standalone webpage indicated that it had already been removed from Shopify, another e-commerce platform.
Etsy does not prohibit items promoting the militia movement, but items that reference groups with a history of violence, like Patriot Prayer, or make specific violent statements are prohibited. Etsy does offer multiple listings for items featuring the logo and messages of the Three Percenters, even though factions of that sect have been implicated in a number of violent plots around the nation.
While some online retailers say they are working to rid themselves of fringe groups, the AJC found supposedly banned merchandise through simple keyword searches.
Like Etsy, TeeSpring claims to have banned QAnon items on its platform. Yet the AJC found dozens of items from sellers who have been active on the site for months.
QAnon influencer and podcast host Jeffrey Pederson sold T-shirts and mugs from an online shop hosted by TeeSpring. When the AJC asked about the shop, TeeSpring responded by shutting it down. "We found that user to be in violation of our policies and have therefore disabled the account," the company said in an emailed statement. "With regards to content circulating on Teespring related to QAnon, the team has been working hard to track this content. We categorically do not allow or condone content that promotes harmful misinformation or groups known to spread misinformation on the site."
A subsequent search found a shop by "Woke Patriot" that specialized in QAnon clothing. When the AJC asked TeeSpring about it, that shop came down too. But other items remained.
While Amazon would not comment on its decisions to sell merchandise associated with fringe movements, a spokeswoman for the company did ask the AJC for examples from its website.
"I'd like to have the team take a look," she said in an email.
The AJC provided 20 links to books, clothing, mugs, decals and assorted other items. The company did not respond to further requests for comment, but four of the items were no longer available.
One was a shirt glorifying Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager and self-described militia member accused of fatally shooting two protesters and injuring a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Amazon also removed three ACAB items, including a decal with the slogan "All Cops Are Domestic Abusers" and another that featured a pig's head wearing a police officer's cap impaled on a knife. A subsequent search found many other ACAB items are still for sale on the site.
Squire said if the retailers were serious about ridding themselves of extremist items they would employ a "bounty" system common among software companies where customers receive a small reward for finding problems. There's no such system for retailers and reporting offensive or violent items is often a chore, she said.
"That's frustrating for them but it's also frustrating for us, the consumers," she said. "It's very confusing for people."
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