Over the last couple of years, the term “antifa” has been moved from its historic role describing a type of militant anti-fascist organizing to a codeword for any militant, left-wing protest by right-wing ideologues bent on manipulating white anxiety. As a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests began in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a frantic far right in the U.S. has accused every demonstration as being orchestrated by “antifa,” despite no antifascist organization being in the driver’s seat and the protests being an organic mass uprising. Donald Trump has accused antifa “outside agitators” as being responsible for riots and looting, and Attorney General William Barr has suggested that antifa is staging a revolutionary war in the streets of the U.S. Many on the right, from Fox News to Sen. Ted Cruz, intimate that anti-fascists are responsible for all things lawless, and despite the lack of evidence for any of these claims, the rhetorical abuse continues.
This has prompted social media and crowd-funding platforms to attempt to regulate how their platforms are used by radical political organizations. Recently, Facebook decided to shut down a number of far right pages and groups, including those associated with the right-wing conspiracy theory “QAnon.” In an effort to be “balanced,” Facebook also closed a number of pages they labeled as “antifa,” though this simply meant anarchist news outlets like It’s Going Down and Crimethinc (as well as the PNW Youth Liberation Front, a group involved in organizing the anti-brutality protests in Portland, Oregon). This raised condemnation since there seemed to be no logic to the left-wing and radical antiracist pages that were taken down, but instead the vague belief that antifa was staging violence (and that these pages must also be antifa) that led to their closure.
Social media companies aren’t the only platforms retaliating: The print-on-demand t-shirt company Teespring decided to temporarily deplatform a long-time account holder, Antifa International, which organizes the International Anti-Fascist Defence Fund. The organization sold t-shirts through Teespring to raise money for victims of far right violence or for those facing legal repression for antifascist activism, which they distribute from the Fund. On August 6, organizers of the Fund say they received an email from Teespring saying that their shirts were deleted from the website for “copyright violations.” The Fund organizers say they own the trademark on their logo, and responded with documentation. Teespring replied explaining that the shirts were removed for using the word “antifa.”
“Teespring says they removed anything with the word ‘antifa’ in it [because] of a lot of recent campaigns being set up promoting violence and using the word ‘antifa’ — both for and against anti-fascism,” says Walter Tull, an organizer with the Fund. “But we have a history with them taking a very heavy hand and unreasonably removing anti-fascist campaigns going back at least two years.”
Teespring had earlier taken down a shirt that raised money for Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Action in 2018, as well as a shirt with Mjolnir, Thor’s Hammer, that says “This Hammer Smashes Fascists” on the back.
While the Fund is not an anti-fascist group that does on-the-ground organizing, a big question has been raised as to why it was deplatformed, particularly since Teespring had maintained accounts that are selling images associated with far right politics, many of which have been traced to verifiable acts of violence.
“The whole idea is that anti-fascists put themselves in dangerous situations and when they run into trouble, all antifa need to stand with them in solidarity,” says Tull. “That means we help bail antifa out of jail, help them get proper legal representation, help them pay off fines, help pay their medical bills, help them relocate if they’re no longer safe where they live, etc. But we don’t use the money we raise to fund other antifa projects or operations — ‘violent’ or otherwise.” The Fund’s assistance includes providing financial support to survivors of the Charlottesville attack in 2017, and other donations of about $83,000 to over 500 people in 22 countries.
The Fund documented a number of shirts that Teespring had kept on the site over the years, including Proud Boys and Three Percenter militia shirts, both of which have been tied to dozens of acts of violence.
Several far right pages are still active on Teespring at the time of this writing. This includes pages for QAnon, a conspiracy theory tied to acts of violence that claims that the Democrats are running a Satanic cabal of pedophiles. Truthout found numerous Three Percenter shirts, which represent one of the largest far right militia organizations in the country. There were also “anti-antifa” shirts still available, including one using the far right meme “pantifa.” There are still numerous items depicting far right conspiracy theories, such as Pizzagate, and “God Emperor Trump” images popular with members of the “alt-right” or white nationalists. Truthout also found shirts with the Nazi “Waffen SS” on it; shirts for the neo-fascist “identitarian” movement; the far right slogan “It’s Okay to Be White”; and the nationalist slogan “America First.” Teespring had previously caused controversy by hosting a shirt that mentioned lynching, selling a shirt that celebrated Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, and offering “white pride” shirts, which were taken down after this writer sent a message to the company inquiring about them.
Much of these inclusions can be explained by Teespring’s model of print-on-demand, where the company may not give a great deal of attention to each design coming in. This has changed, however, as certain politicized terms are being identified as potential problems, such as anything mentioning “antifa.” This leads many to wonder why antifa is getting the specific treatment while the same has not been universally applied to far right movements.
The Antifa International Defence Fund inquired with Teespring to ask if antifa-themed products were being disproportionately targeted, or if the company had more allegiance to the far right. “Teespring is not a fascist company. Due to the recent increase of violent Antifa content, we have removed all Antifa related listings until we are able to review the intent behind the designs. We have reviewed your content and it has been re-enabled,” said Teespring in its email to the Fund, which did not cite any specific “violent Antifa content.”
After they first learned of the take-down, the Fund started posting their questions publicly, encouraging supporters to reach out to Teespring to ask what happened. The incongruency in the policy on political organizations felt glaring, and Teespring responded by reinstating the Fund’s account. While the company said in its email to the Fund that it “removed all antifa related content,” it is unclear if this means that other anti-fascist organizations are likewise going to be reinstated if they have been banned.
Teespring press relations representative Daisy Leigh responded to Truthout’s request for comment with a prepared statement:
It has come to our attention that some violent content surrounding the anti-fascist protest movement Antifa has been circulating on Teespring. As soon as the word Antifa was flagged in our system, we took listings down for both pro & anti supporters, until we were able to review the intent behind the designs. If the content (containing the word Antifa) does not violate our policies we will re-enable the listing in due course.
Leigh, however, did not indicate what “violent content” the company was responding to. “The company invests in both human and machine review technology to flag content which violates our policies and community guidelines, which are in place to both support and protect our creators and customers alike. We categorically do not support the promotion of any offensive, unlawful or violent activity on the platform, and are continually striving to perfect this reviewing process,” the statement concludes.
Teespring is not the only tech company trying to adapt to changing user-generated content and figure out what does and does not violate acceptability standards, and it is likely that similar controversies will erupt as public pressure mounts for these companies to address problematic political behavior.
Antifa International has decided to not continue working with the company, and to instead use other avenues for their fundraising. “Since we went public about Teespring, we’ve received multiple offers from other shirt-printing operations, so we’re taking a close look at them to figure out which is the best one to go with,” says Tull. “Happily, selling antifa t-shirts is just one of many ways we raise money for the Defence Fund. We still have dedicated monthly contributors, crowd-funders, private donations and fundraising events that together comprise a much larger portion of the fundraising efforts than t-shirt sales.”
It is unclear if anti-fascist organizations will continue to be deplatformed, from Facebook to pay services to print-on-demand options like Teespring. Much of the claims about “antifa” are based on hyperbole and conspiracy theories, putting many of these organizations and projects at further risk of losing platform access and revenue. This may only increase as the Republican Party and right-wing media outlets continue to use “antifa” as the new “Red Scare” boogeyman in an effort to trump up their “law and order” bona fides. As we have seen with the increased police violence at protests and the repression activists are facing, this kind of rhetoric has real consequences, and deplatforming is only the beginning of them.
UPDATE: After Truthout contacted Teespring for comment, the company removed the Waffen SS t-shirt that was previously hosted on the website prior to publication of this article.