How Conspiracy Theories Took Over the World of Online Fashion
Online marketplaces like Etsy, Amazon, and Zazzle have allowed hatred and misinformation to be marketed to the masses
The world of online fashion has been going through the same reckoning with white supremacist conspiracy theories as the rest of the internet. Platforms such as Etsy and CafePress were skewered shortly after the January 6 insurrection for hosting merchandise celebrating the event, which caused them to scramble to take some of the incendiary content down. If you type “QAnon” into sites such as Zazzle or Etsy, you will not get any hits, except for maybe a parody “QaNOPE” T-shirt.
This more aggressive posturing, however, has not rid these platforms of conspiracy theory merch. With minimal effort, you can still find everything from dog whistles to direct overtures. “The Letter Q, suitable for any occasions, birthdays, Christmas, QAnon…” reads the description for one Q sticker on the site Redbubble. “All legal votes matter,” reads a button sold on the marketplace Etsy, referring to the erroneous belief that widespread voter fraud occurred in the 2020 election. “Handed them out to patriots last week in D.C.,” explains the first comment underneath this product. The date posted is January 13; the implication is that they were present in D.C. when white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol.
These companies have remained indifferent to the rancor swirling about on their platforms, refusing greater regulation for an ad hoc system that removes their worst items while leaving everything else up for sale.
For decades, the online fashion industry’s lack of accountability has allowed hatred and misinformation to be sold at a discount. These companies have remained indifferent to the rancor swirling about on their platforms, refusing greater regulation for an ad hoc system that removes their worst items while leaving everything else up for sale.
When I talk about online fashion, I am referring to digital marketplaces for goods, where the seller uses the platform to hawk their wares. Sometimes these are platforms such as Etsy or Amazon, where the creator uses it to manage orders, payment, and promotion but handles the production and shipping themselves as well as print-on-demand services like Zazzle or Society6. The user uploads an image to print their design on an array of prefab products like mugs, shirts, and phone cases, but leaves the platforms to manage production and shipping.
This flexibility has allowed users to advertise (and in some cases create) products with a click of a button. Almost from the beginning of this industry, users were testing the limits of modern sensibilities with obscene content. Redbubble garnered criticism back in 2011 when a group of designers used the platform to promote their Hipster Hitler clothing line, replete with slogans such as “1941: a race odyssey” and “Death camp for cutie.’’ Amazon made headlines in 2013 when one of its vendors promoted a series of pro-domestic violence shirts that spoofed the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Gawker ran an article about all the conspiracy theory merch on sites like CafePress back in 2015. Zazzle was dragged in 2019 for hosting a design that hatefully read, “At least I’m not Jewish.”
These scandals have never really died. A quick scan of the web reveals dozens of controversies that have popped up over the years across all the major platforms. As recently as February of 2021, Redbubble was under fire for a vendor selling a miniskirt with the image of a recently deceased British army officer. The company responded with a short explanation and then removed that individual design from the platform. A similar design can still be found from a different vendor.
This same pattern emerges on an alarmingly frequent basis. These companies note that the offense has been found, retract the individual post or user, and then move on. They might adjust their internal processes to monitor or flag certain posts or keywords more efficiently — as Etsy did following the January 6 insurrection — but the overall problem remains in place. Hateful rhetoric and misinformation are still for sale on these sites. It just has to be a tad more clever or distinct in its presentation.
For example, when Redbubble eventually pulled the Hipster Hitler line all the way back in 2011, one of the company’s founders, Martin Hosking, committed to adjusting the company’s policy so that they would prohibit parodies of genocide as well as other offensive materials. Yet to this day, the ironic content of fascist dictators is still for sale on the site. If you were so inclined, you could buy a “reich” T-shirt in the style of the Friends logo or a “Papa Joe’s” sticker with a cartoon Joseph Stalin advertising “Better Ingredients. Better Gulags.”
Minor scandals may plague these platforms, but for every piece of problematic apparel that breaks headlines, countless more go unacknowledged.
Likewise, when New York Times writers Sapna Maheshwari and Taylor Lorenz penned an exposé about how white supremacists were using sites such as Amazon and Etsy to sell merchandise glorifying the insurrection, many of the companies were quick to take those designs down. The article specifically mentioned a T-shirt with the text “Battle for capitol hill veteran” being on Amazon, which is no longer hosted there. However, the same design is still on the site Etsy, which was not mentioned in the article for hosting that specific design. If your industry is being grilled in one of the most widely read newspapers in the country for hosting insurrectionist content, you’d think you have someone, at the very least, check to see if none of those designs are on your site. And yet, that clearly did not happen here.
This oversight represents a problem systemic to not just online fashion but really all digital platforms across the tech space. The high volume of content on sites such as Amazon or Zazzle means that they cannot have humans monitor all the content they house. They have to rely on algorithms, and because human language is constantly evolving, often that means mistakes like the ones we have mentioned slip through. As Tom Simonite writes in Wired regarding the difficulty with automating the detection of hate speech:
“Defining and detecting hate speech is one of the biggest political and technical challenges for Facebook and other platforms. Even for humans, the calls are tougher to make than for sexual or terrorist content, and can come down to questions of cultural sensibility. Automating that is tricky, because artificial intelligence is a long way from human-level understanding of text; work on algorithms that understand subtle meaning conveyed by text and imagery together is just beginning.”
The same logic applies to conspiracy theories. We might eventually reach a point where A.I. can automatically sort through all problematic content, but ultimately doing so effectively will require both better A.I. and firmer political stances. Companies will have to decide that certain stances are wrong, even before they break headlines on our news feeds — something that is far from our present reality. While companies might constantly be tweaking their algorithms to better detect hate speech and misinformation, they seem largely content to label the slips up we have noted as the cost of doing business — simply more data points to perfect their A.I.
This has created an environment rife with conspiracy theories for sale, and we have to ask ourselves if it’s worth it.
The problem with online fashion is really the problem with all major digital marketplaces.
One thing that cannot be underestimated is the scale of this problem: We are not referring to a mere one or two conspiracy-driven designs, but thousands scattered across the web. Minor scandals may plague these platforms, but for every piece of problematic apparel that breaks headlines, countless more go unacknowledged.
One prevalent type of conspiracy theorist merch is flat-earther ideology, which is the false belief that the Earth is flat. All other evidence to the contrary is believed to be part of a “round Earth conspiracy” perpetrated by our world’s major governments. If you wanted to, you could buy a “The Earth is Flat Do the Research” T-shirt on Etsy or a “Flat Earth Awareness” postcard on Redbubble with minimal effort. There has not been a serious attempt to curtail flat-earthers in the same way as anti-vaxxers and other more scrutinized conspiracy theories. This conspiracy theory is considered relatively benign by these platforms because it mainly generates misinformation as opposed to promoting neglect or violent action.
However, this merch is not as benign as it first appears. Not only do they serve as a funding mechanism for conspiracy theory platforms such as the Flat Earth Podcast, but they are also an entry point for adherents to expose others to these conspiracy theories. As one commenter wrote underneath the description for a model of a flat Earth they bought on Etsy: “I have it sitting on my dining table and people visiting me have been questioned me about it, which leads into interesting discussions and me explaining the geocentric flat Earth model to those who aren’t aware of it or who have a misconception of what it’s truly all about.”
The belief in one conspiracy theory makes you far more likely to believe in another one. This overlap is because conspiracy theorists are generally not trying to prove one scientific theory right or wrong. According to sociologist Ted Goertzel, they are instead trying “to prove that nothing is provable, that all assertions are arbitrary.” It’s a general distrust in our current systems of knowledge that belies a lot of conspiratorial thinking. This is why even nonviolent conspiracy theories such as those promoted by flat-earthers should be viewed with great caution.
Another area in online fast fashion rife with conspiracy theory merch is anything related to the coronavirus pandemic. The widespread and false belief that the coronavirus is fake has led to the creation of products that discourage mask usage. Ironically, many of these products are masks. “I’m only wearing this mask because I have to,” reads one mask on Zazzle. “Pointless placebo,” explains another. And again, there are hundreds of these items:
We see a similar skepticism with the vaccine. Many items encourage people to skip the vaccine altogether. “I do not consent,” explains the text for a long-sleeve T-shirt on Amazon, paired with the image of a person in a mask and surrounded by needles. This skepticism has even translated into merch perpetuating the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates is using the vaccine to insert microchips into people. “Bill Gates Eugenicist — Evil Vaccine Pusher,” exclaims another shirt on Redbubble.
In an age where there is an active political movement to prevent people from vaccinating against this deadly pandemic, these platforms permit far too much misinformation on their sites. It would take months to catalog all the various conspiracy theories easily searchable on the web, like the many bracelets featuring the words “Epstein didn’t kill himself,” stickers pleading for people to stop chemtrails, and placards challenging the credibility of the 2020 election.
As long as this merch doesn’t call for direct violence, these companies seem content to continue to host it — only removing items if they earn negative attention in the press or social media. Most of these platforms do not have community guidelines preventing the spread of misinformation (for example, check out the guidelines for Amazon and Zazzle). The ones that do (see Etsy and Redbubble) do not seem to be more effective at preventing conspiracy theory merch. Even if these policies were implemented across the industry (and that would be an excellent first step), it would not resolve the core issue.
All of the above platforms do have guidelines that discourage harassment and hate speech, and yet flat-out hatred is sold on them all the time. Want a “feminism is cancer” T-shirt? Buy it on Amazon. A sticker valorizing confederate general Robert E. Lee? Currently in stock on Redbubble. How about a shirt calling liberalism a mental disorder? Etsy has several in stock. If these guidelines were effective in stopping hateful products, you would think these examples would not be so easy to find.
The vastness of these platforms, coupled with an ad hoc editorialization process, means that gaps like the ones already mentioned will continue to exist for some time.
The problem with online fashion is really the problem with all major digital marketplaces. Whether we are talking about Etsy or YouTube, there are too many designs being published at any one time for there ever to be enough oversight. YouTube has over 500 hours of content published every minute. Etsy has over 2.5 million active sellers.
These companies rely on A.I. to filter out some of the most egregious examples. Still, the ever-changing nature of conspiracy theories and hate speech means that some examples will inevitability slip through the cracks. For example, the “I do not consent” T-shirt referenced earlier may have been used to virtue signal skepticism over the Covid-19 vaccine, but that same terminology could appear on anti-sexual assault merchandise. The acceptability of symbols changes depending on their context — a reality that alt-right groups have been very good at navigating. It’s all too common to see hate groups adjusting their language or appropriating new symbols to bypass censors.
Automatic censorship also has the drawback of potentially hurting marginalized creators who use similar language but under an entirely different context. Many LGBTQIA+ YouTubers, for example, noted their videos being demonetized when the platform attempted to regulate hate speech in 2019 more stringently. A.I. may be more efficient, but that efficiency can cut both ways.
The problem with conspiracy theory merch epitomizes a problem fundamental within the online industry. Companies are torn between their desire to turn a profit and their alleged desire to act ethically. They have built up these massive “unmanageable” systems under the assumption that they will one day be easier to control, and in the meantime, the purchasing of hatred is just a click away.