Teespring blames code, human error for racist t-shirts

SAN FRANCISCO – A custom t-shirt design company backed by some of Silicon Valley's biggest names apologized Tuesday for allowing a customer to create and then share products with racist phrases, products it said both its automated and staff monitors failed to catch.

Teespring, which has sold more than $300 million in merchandise since its founding by two college seniors six years ago, allows users to design t-shirts and other merchandise, like mugs, and have them made and shipped via the site. Its customers typically promote their products over social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

That's where users started to notice — and express outrage — over a campaign selling T-shirts that said  "Black Women Are Trash." Other T-shirts contained other slurs against African-Americans, according to links shared by Facebook users.

New code pushed out by the Teespring's engineering team over the weekend tagged the slogans as offensive but failed to remove them from the store as the company's policies dictated, the company said in a statement to USA TODAY Tuesday.

"Once we learned of the error we immediately took steps to remove all content in question and ban the offending seller from our platform. We have since fixed the issue," Brett Miller, director of seller success at Teespring, told USA TODAY.

“I guess my question really is how did these shirts get passed the screening process. Anything to make a dollar? While I see an apology, I do not feel as though it was sincere. Had those of us not pointed it out over the weekend, this campaign would still be going on. What will you do to make sure this doesn't happen again?” wrote one user on Teespring's Facebook page.

The company says it has acceptable use policy that bars racist and other offensive content, and monitors for such content using a combination of automation and human review — both of which failed to prevent the campaign.

The San Francisco-based company graduated from the influential start-up incubator Y Combinator and raised close to $57 million from firms including Andreessen Horowitz and Khosla Ventures, according to Crunchbase. It's built on a relatively simple model of taking a cut of all sales from the small entrepreneurs who use the site to create and sell items with a custom image or slogan.

The model has worked, in part, because these entrepreneurs can direct their products to niche groups on the Internet via Facebook and Twitter by easily sharing their designs via social sharing buttons on the Teespring item's page.

Teespring in many ways is just like a social media platform itself, said Melissa Arnoff, a crisis communications specialist based in Washington D.C.

“You can share any idea you want — even if the shirt’s not printed yet you see the image on the website. So it’s got many of the issues that social media platforms have. As in so many areas, it’s made ideas so accessible,” she said.

In the case of the "Black Women Are Trash," some users on Facebook shared the Teespring item with each other. This was not a paid ad, which on Facebook feature the phrase, "sponsored content."

Teespring wouldn't say who was behind the campaign.

In its apology, Teespring said the content “does not reflect our values or our views as an organization and it violates our company policies. Our team has removed these items from our site and we’re monitoring closely to take down any other products that violate our content guidelines.”

The site's general content includes popular topics such as variants on the WWII slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On," topical phrases, support items sold by groups and political messages.

On Tuesday those included things like hoodies that read  "Only awesome Moms get hugged a lot" and mugs saying "Heaven help a fool who falls in love." Under Awareness, items included a shirt that read "I Support Louisiana Search and Rescue" and "Destroy the patriarchy, not the planet."

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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