Merch Startup Spring allowed creators to spread misinformation and conspiracies
- Merchandise startup Spring offers print-on-demand services for designers.
- But some of the company’s best-selling creators have been spreading misinformation.
- Insider spoke with former employees who said Spring was willing to ignore problematic designs.
QAnon conspiracy theorist Philip Godlewski started working with start-up Spring last year. He quickly generated a healthy business and was assigned a dedicated “partner manager”.
At the time, The daily beast recently reported that Godlewski admitted bribing a miner.
It didn’t take long for the employees to start talking. Rather than using the company’s Slack account, they texted each other to express concerns about its store.
“This is bad,” a former employee wrote to coworkers, according to a screenshot seen by Insider. This person was linked to the Daily Beast story and Godlewski’s storefront, which featured products like a mug that said “Trump was right,” as well as a t-shirt that read “I told you so. , signed, conspiracy theorist”.
A second former Spring staffer echoed the first’s concerns, telling Insider they weren’t comfortable with the company letting Godlewski earn revenue using Spring’s services. Godlewski did not respond to a request for comment.
Godlewski wasn’t the only person Spring staffers objected to working with. Spring, formally Teespring, has a history of allowing far-right creators to use his platform to spread misinformation, hate and QAnon conspiracy theories through products such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, posters and mugs.
Spring gained national attention for it after the January 6 Capitol Riot, when the company was among several online marketplaces that sold T-shirts with designs associated with the riot. For example, the platform sold a t-shirt that read “Biden loves minors.” according to CBS News, with the letters B, L and M in bold in a reference to Black Lives Matter. He also sold a shirt worn by a rioter that read “Camp Auschwitz.”
Five former Spring staffers told Insider that it’s an open secret that the platform works with problematic creators, often because those creators make a lot of money for the company. Two former employees said this often caused unease among staff. All former employees Insider spoke to spoke on condition of anonymity to protect career prospects.
In an emailed statement to Insider, a Spring spokesperson said, “At Spring, we do not allow or condone any content on our platform that promotes hate, harassment, or violence (our guidelines policies can be found here).”
“With thousands of designs uploaded daily by independent creators, we use our technology platform, community, and teams to flag and remove designs that violate our policies and disable accounts of users who violate our policies.”
Insider found dozens of products on Spring creators’ storefronts spreading hate and misinformation, including merchandise with phrases referencing QAnon conspiracy theories, such as “I told you so” and “Where are the children? Stop human trafficking!”
Insider emailed Spring in late September asking about these products and Godlewski’s showcase. The items have since been removed, as has Godlewski’s display case.
Spring isn’t alone in selling merchandise with phrases that spread misinformation or hate. Other print-on-demand companies and e-commerce platforms, including Amazon, Walmart and Etsyhave a habit of selling merchandise peddling QAnon conspiracy theories and other extremist views.
But what set Spring apart from other print-on-demand companies was its team of partner managers – Spring employed multiple partner managers. before layoffs in July – who has worked closely with top content creators, influencers and other personalities in the business, offering personalized support.
“I tried to get them off the platform as much as possible, and I was told no,” a third former Spring staffer told Insider, referring to creators who spread misinformation. .
“Even if they were making a lot of money, I didn’t want the team to put up with that,” added this former employee. “The majority of them were bad actors selling bad products but not enough to be deactivated and removed from the platform entirely.”
“They were making us money”
Spring’s willingness to overlook some of these problematic designs and creators was something of an open secret among staffers, former employees who spoke with Insider said.
It “has always been uncomfortable,” said the third former Spring staffer.
The second former staffer said many of these designs — and others that violated Spring’s copyright guidelines — “have slipped through the cracks” of the company’s content review protocols. company. The product quality and content moderation team was manually reviewing thousands of images a day and was “understaffed,” the former employee said.
“There were creators that we were willing to turn away slightly from because they were cashing checks for us,” the second former staffer said. “They were making us money.”
Take the far-right blog We Are Change, founded by creator Luke Rudkowski. Rudkowski is known to spread misinformation online. For example, he shared tweets saying Vaccinations against COVID-19 can lead to HIV and that Google hides search results for vaccines being linked to heart attacks.
Five former employees told Insider that We Are Change, and other similar storefronts, were among the platform’s bestsellers.
The third former staffer said We Are Change’s store “promotes absolutely despicable content under the guise of political freedom” and that many far-right creators use Spring to “vomit hate and violence”.
That same person said they raised concerns about We Are Change with Spring’s head of trust and safety, Tracy Reeves, CEO Chris Lamontagne, and Chris Elsheikhi, VP of business and director of creator growth.
“I showed them the store, and I gave them examples of why it was problematic with screenshots and research papers. And Chris Elsheikhi told me not to worry about it and that’s it. It was his job to make money for the company, and for these people to make money for them,” the third former staffer said of the We are Change store.
Reeves and Elsheikhi did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
Partner managers have been ordered not to discuss ‘sensitive creators’
Prior to the July layoffs, Spring had a team of partner managers who worked directly with top sellers to generate promo codes, offer one-on-one support, and help develop storefronts.
The third former staffer said partner managers were instructed not to chat in forums like Slack or email problematic products they encountered.
“We weren’t supposed to discuss creators or sensitive content in a documented location. It usually happened over video calls,” the third former staffer said. “Leadership was playing favorites, picking and choosing which problematic material we would leave on site. That meant we couldn’t get any sort of trail as to what had been decided and why.”
When employees flagged certain products as problematic, they said senior managers took little or no action.
The third former employee said some people were so frustrated with the inaction of their senior colleagues that some partner managers eventually refused to work with specific creators assigned to them.
Taking matters into their own hands, the team of partner-managers created an unofficial program called the “Do Not Engage Group”, which they used to flag any creators they didn’t want to engage with for support. individual. Most of the staff knew about it, the first former employee told Insider, and hid it from management.
“Basically just let them be in the shadows,” said the third former staffer.