Controversial Idea or Harmful Content?

How the Spreadshirt community is helping to exclude hateful content and empower freedom of self-expression.

The right to freedom of self-expression is a fundamental part of our platform. We are firm believers in the power of freedom of expression and the strength it has to lift, enrich, and fortify the global community. At Spreadshirt, our five digital brands enable individuals and businesses to express themselves with print-on-demand products they can use, wear and carry.


The challenge comes at the line between controversial ideas and malicious intent. We acknowledge that where some people find a message provocative, others will not. So we have had to ask ourselves; what is hate speech or harmful content and how can we monitor it as an organisation? Our approach is to manage that boundary through our updated standards, an improved reporting process and the vigilance of our community.

Report Design Function

We’ve learnt some lessons over the years about identifying and managing hateful content. It’s an ongoing process for us, but three things we’ve learnt are; that context is key, online and in real life are linked and it’s an ongoing process.

Context is everything.
Developments online and in real life can turn a design or a word from innocuous to inflammatory. We are often alerted to a shift like this by our community and we invite them to get in touch if they see something suspect on the Spreadshirt platform. Every product has a report flag. When someone reports a product as not meeting our standards we review it to determine whether it contravenes our community standards and therefore what action to take.

For example, We have recently removed designs that include the American Confederate flag. Many regions across the world have local symbols of identity. These emblems can be fairly neutral for years. Then real life events change and they become associated with a toxic viewpoint or violence. Recent developments in the USA mean that the Confederate flag has become overtly, and consistently, associated with hate speech and violence. So we have taken the flag down.

Online and In Real Life are linked.
The speed of online content gives it a greater ability to spread hateful content; but real life is where that hate has a physical effect. Spreadshirt has a foot in both camps; whilst we operate online, our aim is to enable self-expression in real life.

We encourage our community to let us know about these connections. One user alerted us to the public comments that Heinz-Christian Strache was making in his bid to become Mayor of Vienna.

Although the Strache campaign’s Spreadshirt shop consistent mostly of bland ‘Team Strache’ style t-shirts, his online comments were considered like to incite hatred and violence. So despite the fact that the slogans didn’t appear in an online design, we took down the shop.

Online and offline of course are connected, but print-on-demand means that the design only exists in real life if someone orders it. So if we find a design or slogan that breeches our community standards and remove it, we are not left with a pile of unsellable t-shirts. Our five brands empower self-expression on demand, and so the core of our business model is that we only print something when a customer orders it.

It’s an ongoing process.
Managing the line between controversial ideas and harmful content involves a series of measures. Reviewing reported words is one challenge; reviewing reported symbols and images is another level of complexity. To do this we set Community Standards and explain our approach. This helps to prevent hateful content appearing on the website in the first place and keeps tabs on the changing context of any words, symbols, or even, in the case of QAnon, individual letters! We also involve the Spreadshirt community, asking them to report anything they think is suspect.

Community Standards

This level of management has to be balanced with the importance of speed in getting ideas online. We have an average of 20,000 designs uploaded a day (roughly 10m in 2019). So, we usually allow designs to go up if the partner confirms they have the right to do so, accepts our T&Cs and if they pass the image recognition filters. Designs can also be reviewed manually which happens when the filter finds a potential infringement.

If every image had to be scrutinised by a committee before they appeared online it would prevent positive campaigns, like Black Lives Matters, from gathering momentum through real life expressions of support.

We are working towards being the company we want to be and it’s definitely an ongoing process for all platforms. We will continue to remove content and accounts that go against our values and standards. We will continue to check the context and the boundaries when it comes to our attention. We will continue to support and stand up for the freedom of self-expression.

Further Reading

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