Last week, Etsy, an online marketplace known for selling handmade goods from independent artists and makers, announced that it had removed a t-shirt with the ‘Camp Auschwitz’ slogan from its website, after it was alerted to the listing by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
It wasn’t alone. Similar designs could be found on Teespring and Teechip, e-commerce sites that allow people to create and sell custom apparel. And until recently, Amazon was offering products with the anti-Semitic phrase ‘6MWE’. Referring to the Holocaust, it stands for ‘6 million wasn’t enough’.
The tip of the iceberg
Etsy and Teespring both released statements condemning hate speech and reiterating their policies prohibiting the sale of such items on their platforms.
“We removed this item immediately when it was brought to our attention and have also banned the shop that attempted to list this item. Items that glorify hate or violence have no place on Etsy and we are committed to keeping our marketplace safe,” a company spokesperson told Inside Retail.
Teespring said its teams and technology are working to flag and remove designs created by groups and individuals that it does not support.
“The products in question are prohibited by our policies and values as a company. Anyone uploading this type of content is and will continue to be swiftly and permanently banned from our platform,” said a Teespring spokesperson.
An Amazon spokesperson said it was in the process of removing several Q Anon products and would take action against sellers attempting to evade its systems.
Teechip did not reply to a request for comment.
However, a few days after these statements were made, an expert on the visual culture of far-right groups said he could still find a lot of problematic products on mainstream retail sites.
“They’re less explicit than ‘Camp Auschwitz’,” Jordan McSwiney, a University of Sydney PhD student, told Inside Retail. “But I did a five-minute search and found a ton of other things – Q Anon t-shirts, ‘Make Zimbabwe Rhodesia Again’ t-shirts and explicitly anti-Semitic abstractions of the ‘happy merchant’ meme.”
While he welcomed the actions that Etsy, Amazon and other companies have taken to remove items from their websites, he said it is important to note that they are “only just scratching the surface”.
Statements aren’t enough
The problem is rooted in the very business model of these companies. Online marketplaces like Amazon and Etsy have succeeded in large part from the ‘flywheel effect’ of having third-party sellers on their platforms, giving them access to a wide range of products and, in turn, helping to attract millions of customers – and dollars.
But while most marketplaces require sellers to agree to company policies prohibiting hate speech, among other guidelines, the sheer number of sellers makes it virtually impossible to screen products before they’re listed. Often, platforms only become aware of a racist or anti-Semitic product if a customer flags it.
At that point, the marketplaces might use a combination of human review and technology to determine whether the item violates company policy. But retailers are not experts in far-right iconography, and not all slogans and symbols used by these groups are as obvious as ‘Camp Auschwitz’ or a swastika.
“Some of it can be quite abstract,” McSwiney said, pointing to the number 8 being used to refer to the letter H, the eighth letter in the alphabet and the initial of Hitler.
‘Print-your-own-apparel’ companies like Teespring, Teechip and – closer to home – Redbubble are the worst offenders when it comes to unwittingly selling far-right products, according to McSwiney.
Redbubble told Inside Retail that the rapidly evolving meaning of various slogans and symbols is one of the key issues it faces in keeping its marketplace free of designs that violate its guidelines.
“An example […] is when symbols or phrases are appropriated and take on new meanings due to the changing social climate. In order to address this head on, we keep a close pulse on the social climate and overlay our review process with this external lens,” a company spokesperson said.
Hidden – and not-so-hidden – symbols
British sportswear brand Fred Perry knows better than anyone how quickly and seemingly randomly a slogan or symbol can be co-opted by far-right groups. Its yellow-and-black polo shirt has been adopted as the official uniform of the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group in the US.
In September 2019, the 69-year-old brand made the decision to pull the polo shirt from the US market, and last year it reiterated that the shirt will not be available in the US or Canada until its association with the Proud Boys has ended.
“That association is something we must do our best to end,” the company said.
While it’s unclear why the Proud Boys chose Fred Perry, other brands have been co-opted for more straightforward reasons.
Another iconic British brand, Lonsdale, has been synonymous with neo-Nazis in Europe since the early 2000s because the brand name includes a string of four letters – NSDA – that form part of the abbreviated name for the Nazi party in German (NSDAP).
“It’s illegal to wear Nazi symbolism in Germany, so they were able to circumvent the ban by co-opting Lonsdale,” McSwiney explained.
New Balance shoes are also popular among Nazis, he said, for the straightforward reason that there’s a big ‘N’ on them. The fact that the ‘N’ is actually the New Balance logo gives them plausible deniability, according to McSwiney.
“It’s really difficult for retailers and brands to deal with this, but I think what Fred Perry has done with the Proud Boys sets a really good example for how to combat this,” he said.
Time to act
McSwiney thinks retailers should be doing a lot more to ensure they’re not contributing to the rise of far-right extremism and violence.
“Companies need to get serious about this stuff, and quite frankly, they should have a long time ago,” he said.
Before the attack on the US Capitol, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 were evidence of a growing far-right movement. And yet, McSwiney believes if the events on January 6 hadn’t happened, companies still wouldn’t be confronting this issue.
“There really isn’t much incentive for companies to crack down on hateful and extremist content until it starts to affect their bottom line,” he said.
The image of the ‘Camp Auschwitz’ sweatshirt has left them no choice.
“How can they address it? It’s going to cost them money, they’re going to have to invest in greater content moderation, whether manually or through algorithmic forms. And frankly, they should work with experts in the area,” McSwiney said.
“They should consult with academics or NGOs who work in this space. That would at least be a starting point for cracking down on these things in a more proactive way, and in a way that goes beyond the most obvious or most explicit.”