Sunday, 7 Mar 2021

Online merchants linked to QAnon down, but not out, following platform bans

By Jeffrey Dastin, Sheila Dang and Anna Irrera

(Reuters) – Since last year, entrepreneur Dustin Krieger has faced bans by an expanding list of big tech companies: four blocked PayPal accounts, half a dozen Twitter deactivations, de-listed merchandise by Shopify and most recently Amazon’s removal of his widely reviewed book promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory.

But he’s not giving up.

“We’ll maintain our own presence everywhere we are allowed,” Krieger, president of a Wyoming-registered company, told Reuters.

Technology firms including Amazon.com Inc, eBay Inc, and PayPal Holdings Inc, which have taken action against businesses peddling extremism in recent years, have come down hard after the deadly Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Yet merchants like Krieger show how efforts to “de-platform” vendors, while lowering their revenues, have resulted in a game of whack-a-mole as individuals set up new accounts or shift to different sites, sometimes using cryptocurrency.

Krieger estimates he lost between $1 million to $2 million in sales from a crackdown that he said was being directed by a “rabid leftist cancel culture mob,” but he believes he can recover. “The benefit of my business model is many legs to stand on, many patriots support one another and choose to shop patriot with our sponsors,” he said over email. Krieger goes by “Dustin Nemos” on social media.

As of Sunday, Krieger’s websites offered $19.99 “Sleepy Joe” sleep aids that refer derisively to President Joe Biden and a $15.45 per month ground coffee subscription named after the so-called “Great Awakening” linked to the QAnon theory, which claims Trump secretly fought a cabal of child-sex predators including Hollywood figures and prominent Democrats. Visitors can pay for some items through Visa Inc-owned Authorize.net using major credit card networks.

A Visa spokesman said, “We are vigilant in our efforts to deter illegal activity on our network, and we require our affiliate banks to review their merchants’ compliance with our standards.”

DE-PLATFORMING

While it is difficult to estimate how much far-right and fringe causes earn in the United States, experts who study extremist groups say it can add up to big business.

Following the Capitol riot, Stripe suspended payment processing for Trump’s campaign website. Reuters found that Trump merchandise sales on top e-commerce platforms and the president’s campaign site, as well as supporters’ fundraising to maintain billboards and fly aerial banners over cities, have garnered about $30 million in the past year, according to data from web analytics firm SimilarWeb and studies from several researchers.

Last year, fringe groups in particular generated at least $2 million according to researcher findings and an estimate of e-commerce sales. This included over $150,000 crowdfunded by an author under the name Neon Revolt to publish a QAnon book. Also included were $559,000 in bitcoin payments to individuals or organizations that promote extreme right views, according to data from Elliptic, a blockchain analytics firm. Bitcoin payments have reached $17,400 in 2021 so far, Elliptic said.

Amazon confirmed its removal of the QAnon products and declined further comment. EBay and PayPal likewise said they take action against merchants that promote violence per company policies.

The “de-platforming” after the Capitol raid and a retreat to less popular forms of payment like bitcoin will severely hamper fundraising, said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate.

Since Amazon recently removed 32 items sold by Florida-based MericaWear, its owner Andrew Arnold has considered quitting the business. A black Tee promoting the QAnon conspiracy was a best-seller, and Shopify required takedowns of QAnon goods from MericaWear’s website as well, he said.

“The unfair targeting of MericaWear has proven to be an economic calamity,” Arnold told Reuters in written statements, estimating $10,000 of losses.

As of Sunday, Reuters was able to prepare orders of Trump hoodies costing $17.76 each with his site. The price reflected the year of the United States’ founding.

‘RE-MONETIZE’

Others have survived by hunting for new “unexploited” platforms such as niche crowdfunding sites before potential bans by mainstream services and payment processors, said Mark Pitcavage, an expert at the Anti-Defamation League who studies right-wing extremism.

Though more rare, Pitcavage said some groups require membership dues to maintain consistent revenue, such as the Oath Keepers militia movement. Several of its members have been criminally charged after the Capitol siege.

Even when far-right personalities are booted off tech platforms, some have turned to alternative technology companies to skirt bans, said Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University who studies online extremism.

For instance, Nicholas Fuentes, a commentator who has voiced anti-Semitic views and hosts a show every weeknight, has used third-party websites including Microsoft Corp’s Github to continue live-streaming on various YouTube channels in recent days, despite a ban on his own channel by the Alphabet Inc streaming service in February, Squire said.

Software from Entropy, which bills itself as “creative streaming solutions in an era of mass censorship,” lets Fuentes and other content creators who were blocked from earning money on YouTube continue receiving donations from their videos, Squire said. Entropy’s website says it processes the transactions and takes a smaller cut of the money than YouTube does; however, it is unclear how much creators are earning.

When asked about Fuentes’ use of Github, the software development platform said in a statement, “We suspended user accounts … that replicated activity that had been removed from other platforms for inciting violence.”

Fuentes did not respond to requests for comment through his website, which also marketed “America First” merchandise. YouTube said it had terminated multiple accounts trying to stream Fuentes’ content, while Entropy representatives did not answer a request for comment.

Squire said she observed Fuentes on YouTube each night this past week, and that YouTube took down the channels after she reported them.

“The game of whack-a-mole continues,” she said.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco, Sheila Dang in Dallas and Anna Irrera in London; Editing by Kenneth Li, Jonathan Weber, Lauren LaCapra and Daniel Wallis)

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