Feature

Can masks spread conspiracies? Inside the world of QAnon merch

The merch is the message.

Dewey Saunders for Inverse

Shane Petty sees himself as a serial entrepreneur.

So when 2020’s defining garment became the face mask, it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

The mask market is projected to reach about $9 billion by 2021. In such a competitive marketplace, Petty’s products had to appeal to an audience. Like any good marketer, he looked for a niche. He settled on a sizable demographic: The people who don't want to wear a facemask at all.

“We've realized there's a certain portion ... that is simply anti-mask. They only wear them because they have to, but that doesn't mean that they won't buy one to push their opinion,” Petty tells Inverse.

His business is called “My Patriot Facemasks.” He sells masks featuring the Punisher logo and the gun rights slogan “molon labe” (Greek for: “come and take them”). One mask features a Q and a white rabbit poking through the hole — a literal invitation to follow the would-be wearer down the rabbit hole.

This is a logo associated with the conspiracy group QAnon.

The QAnon-themed mask Petty used to sell on Etsy. It has since been removed by the platform.

With that design, he joined dozens of sellers on Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, and Etsy who have realized that conspiracy communities are also untapped e-commerce markets with money to spend. QAnon, with its growing power and reach, is chief among them.

The core conspiracy pushed by Q, the group’s anonymous leader (or leaders), is that the government is run by Devil-worshipping pedophiles, many of them prominent Democrats. President Donald Trump was sent by top military leaders to dismantle the system from within, according to QAnon canon.

The QAnon movement has attracted other conspiracy theorists, from 9-11 Truthers, to Plandemic adherents and #Pizzagate acolytes. Along with other fringe conspiracy theories, it was labeled a growing domestic terror threat by the FBI.

Petty's online tore isn’t explicitly pro-Q, and neither is Petty. He calls himself a “watcher,” rather than a participant, in QAnon. To him, the Q mask is a “symbol of the people that are patriots.” But he’s not about to wear a Q T-shirt or put a bumper sticker on his car.

He sees Q acolytes as no more than a potential market – one of many “passionate niches,” he says. He put the mask up for sale on his website, and, like any good businessman, he also advertised his masks on social media. In late August, a post went up on the store’s Facebook page with some classic QAnon hashtags — including “#wwg1wga,” short for “where we go one we go all” — and a few others for good measure, like “#Trump2020.”

“When I saw [QAnon] out there I thought, let's just throw that out there and see if people were interested in buying it,” he says.

The Q mask wasn’t an immediate success, but it was among the top three sellers on his website – the top two were a Trump-themed Punisher mask and a Punisher themed molon labe mask. Every now and then, sales of the Q mask will spike to about 10 or 15 in a five-day period, Petty says. The cost of testing the market was low, and the payoff good enough to keep it up, he adds. For Petty, it is just a side-hustle, anyway. But for others it appears to matter more.

"They’re using that as another mechanism of circulating ideology."

Irene Pasquetto is co-founder of the journal Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review, and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. She studies QAnon’s rise in Europe – where she’s watched the movement find footholds in conference merchandise and paid seminars.

“What we’re seeing is it’s becoming a sort of money machine,” she tells Inverse.

Shane Petty’s entrepreneurial instincts were spot-on. His one Q mask, then sold on Etsy and on his personal website, tapped into an entire world of conspiracy theory e-commerce and merchandise. It’s a world decorated with Plandemic masks and QAnon logos.

But Petty’s is a risky line of business. The platforms he relies on to sell are also under pressure to censor or remove any conspiracy content. Facebook, for instance, announced in October that it would ban pages, groups, and Instagram accounts representing QAnon.

E-commerce platforms like Amazon and Etsy have escaped the same level of scrutiny as social media sites, but the world of conspiracy theory merchandise has proved to be nimble. As sellers cash-in on conspiracy theories, these platforms are grappling with two crucial questions: Do these products really fan the flames of conspiracy? And what role should the platform play in helping sellers make money off them?

QAnon conspiracy supporters attend a protest of coronavirus skeptics, right-wing extremists and others angry over coronavirus-related restrictions and government policy on August 29, 2020 in Berlin, Germany.Getty Images/ Sean Gallup

How does merch spread conspiracies?

As late as September of this year, it was easy to buy a conspiracy theory mask on Etsy. And if you wanted one, you could visit to The Supreme Alien, an online shop run by Spencer Manes.

Manes’ store was initially focused on gag gifts, but when he got into the mask business, he also saw a niche in catering to conspiracy theories. Personally, he’s more drawn to those of an extraterrestrial nature. But he’s happy to print most just all sorts of messages on face masks, provided they don’t state anything explicitly political, like “Trump 2020,” he says. QAnon, considered by some to be a political movement, is more of a gray area for Manes.

Most of the conspiracy slogans that he prints on masks are write-in suggestions from people who contact him. That’s why he printed a mask with the phrase “6 6 6 Phase One,” a popular police-state conspiracy theory, but not one he necessarily ascribes to.

“Something that we've talked about is targeting the conspiracy market,” he tells Inverse. “We want to target those people that go, ‘you know, what if that's real.’ I see that as a big market.”

"Something that we've talked about is targeting the conspiracy market."

The write-ins are also to blame for a mask Manes made that read ‘#Pizzagate.’ The hashtag is a reference to a viral 2016 conspiracy theory that has since been embraced by QAnon. Manes also created a mask reading #savethechildren, and another reading “Save The Children.” Both are phrases that have been used by QAnon supporters to organize online. Manes came up with those designs himself.

Manes says he is now aware that “Save The Children” has Q connotations. But he claims he did not know that when Etsy removed the listings. Rather, he says he thought it was indicative of a wider movement against child sex trafficking.

“It was such a big trend. It was trending so much that we made a mask to get the message out there,” he says.

Etsy wasn’t buying it. Etsy removed the #Pizzagate and “Save The Children” mask listings on September 4, 2020, according to emails sent to Manes by Etsy and reviewed by Inverse.

The removal is part of a sweeping movement on Etsy’s part to get rid of all QAnon merchandise from the platform. Etsy also cracked down on other conspiracy-related items, like those that promote misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement to Inverse, an Etsy spokesperson described the new policy, first reported October 7, as follows:

“Etsy is firmly committed to the safety of our marketplace and fostering an inclusive environment. Our seller policies prohibit items that promote hate, incite violence, or promote or endorse harmful misinformation. In accordance with these policies, we are removing items related to ‘QAnon’ from our marketplace.”

Sellers who have had a listing removed due to QAnon association also receive an email noting that “even if it isn’t a seller’s intention to encourage or condone harmful misinformation,” Etsy reserves the right to remove items. So even if Manes really didn’t know, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

E-commerce platforms like Amazon and Etsy have escaped the same level of scrutiny as social media sites, but the world of conspiracy theory merchandise has proved to be nimble. Dewey Saunders for Inverse

Etsy’s move echoes a new understanding of how conspiracy theories spread. It hinges on the idea that merchandise is also a way of promoting conspiracies, just like Facebook posts or tweets. Essentially, it represents a way to foster disinformation and extremist ideas offline, too.

There’s good evidence that merch is part of how conspiracies and extreme ideas spread, says Ashley Mattheis, a postgraduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She’s also a member of the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right.

“Clothing is absolutely a way that, in the last 20 years and particularly online, movements share their message,” she tells Inverse. “They’re using that as another mechanism of circulating ideology.”

"Clothing is absolutely a way that ... movements share their message."

In the case of QAnon, the cues are subtle. Q merch doesn’t tend to actively proclaim the existence of a child-sex-trafficking ring, but the symbols the group uses, like #savethechildren or the white rabbit peeking through a Q logo, imply the idea instead.

Boiling ideology to a simple logo means it probably doesn’t serve as a primary recruiting tool, Cori Dauber tells Inverse. Dauber is a professor of communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Instead, the logo both normalizes the conspiracy and lets subscribers know others like them are out there. It creates a community.

“It might be the final push” a person needs to fully buy-in to the conspiracy, Dauber says. “You make it easier for them to see that there's already a lot of support out there: ‘I'm not alone. There's a lot of people who believe.’”

Sellers don’t necessarily see it that way. Petty says he’s not concerned that he may be pushing the ideology of Q. He’s not selling thousands of masks, he says. And he doesn’t see QAnon as a threatening ideology.

But he wouldn’t be too bothered if sales picked up, either. When Inverse inquired if he would worry about it if orders spiked into the thousands, he paused.

“Not necessarily,” he answered. “Watching what’s going on in our country, it would be an indicator that something else was going on.”

Etsy, for its part, appears to have agreed to the idea that merch promotes conspiracies. But not all platforms have made the leap. Platforms are engaged in an “ongoing struggle” over removing imagery that’s associated with a conspiracy, Mattheis says.

Petty’s Q mask is still for sale on Amazon, where there appears to be a far more robust QAnon product ecosystem.

A brief Amazon search for basic QAnon related hashtags and phrases returns T-shirts, bumper stickers, masks, baseball caps, and numerous books in the Kindle store that all tote Q logos or ideology. This includes books by anonymous authors with titles like “Pizzagate: the Complete Story” (it argues that the central theses of the conspiracy have become “alarmingly plausible”) and “QAnon: The Battle for Earth and Our Souls” (free on the Kindle store, but $9.99 in paperback).

QAnon merchandise on Amazon. Amazon has not taken action to remove QAnon-linked merchandise as other platforms deplatform sellers or remove listings. Amazon declined to comment for this story.

Inverse contacted Amazon for comment three times, but the company declined to comment.

A great awakening for platforms — Social media sites and e-commerce platforms are being treated to their own great awakening. Not only is there a booming market in conspiracy merch, but platforms have also played a role in disseminating the conspiracy theories, too.

In March 2019, the QAnon propaganda book “QAnon: An invitation to the Great Awakening” was algorithmically pushed to Amazon’s “Hot New Releases” page. It reached number 56, and was ranked higher than Fahrenheit 451 in books about censorship on Amazon.

QAnon propaganda books are available on Amazon’s Kindle store (some of them are free). But sellers on other platforms have noticed that their marketing strategies for their conspiracy-themed merchandise seems to fall flat as platforms have woken up to their game.

Petty says he purchased Facebook ads for his QAnon-themed facemask, the ads were approved, but then removed about three days later (although he can’t be sure). Facebook did not respond to Inverse’s questions seeking to verify this claim.

Jason Kint is CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade organization for the digital publishing industry. He says it’s clear why platforms would limit the ability of such sellers to create paid advertising around their products. It allows accounts to still exist without amplifying the conspiracy theory by putting products in front of people likely to bite.

A man wearing a Q Anon vest held a flag during a No Mandatory Flu Shot Massachusetts rally held outside of the State House in Boston on Aug. 30, 2020.Getty Images/ Boston Globe / Contributor

“If you've watched it happen in real life, you know it's a problem,” he tells Inverse. A good way to think about it, he says, is to imagine if these online marketplaces were actually brick-and-mortar stores and they knew the things social media sites know about users’ private lives. You would know how to expertly target shoppers.

If your product happened to be linked to a conspiracy theory, “That would be a problem,” he says.

What’s less clear is the responsibility platforms have to regulate content that’s not paid for.

And though banning accounts seems like a simple answer, it’s far more complicated than it seems. In some cases, such an action may even appear to play into a narrative already pushed by conspiracy theorists. It goes back to a perception of being silenced.

Ninety Percent of Republicans say it's likely that social media sites censor political viewpoints that the sites’ founders “find objectionable,” according to a 2019 Pew Research Center Survey. (59 percent of Democrats through the same, according to the survey). Whether strict banning policies fan the perception of a left-wing platform bias is a burgeoning area of research, Mattheis says.

Whether that is true is hotly contested. For example, on Facebook right-wing viewpoints appear to be more likely to be amplified than left-wing ones on the platform, according to numerous reports.

But being able to claim bias, even when it isn’t there, is an important and useful tool.

“That becomes a kind of rhetorical hook that content producers can use to circulate their stuff more broadly when they have to move, like if they've been deplatformed and they'd have to move somewhere else,” says Mattheis.

Right now, we don’t know whether or not these producers actually succeed in building similar followings elsewhere once they are deplatformed – but sellers do know how to prepare for when the banning inevitably happens.

“They cannot control word of mouth!”

In August 2020, Etsy store MaskedStatement had a hand in more than one conspiracy pie. The store’s primary website sold masks with messages like “vaccines kill” and the QAnon motto “save the children.” At some point between Thursday October 29 and Friday October 30, a mask stating “WWG1WGA” was removed from the site, according to screenshots taken by Inverse. The phrase is explicitly QAnon.

The QAnon-themed mask that has since been removed from maskedstatement's website.

My Patriot Facemasks and The Supreme Alien have sold hundreds of their masks (per their public Etsy profiles), but compared to MaskedStatement, they are small fish. This shop has made more than 5,000 sales.

In early September, Etsy deactivated 17 listings on MaskedStatement’s store, according to MaskedStatement’s Instagram account. Etsy communicates directly with sellers whose posts are removed, usually sending them an email and encouraging them to review listings to better comply with policies (both Petty and Manes received such emails).

By October 5, Etsy had completely banned the store from the platform.

Later that month, MaskedStatement’s store was reactivated on the Etsy site – this time without explicit QAnon content. One mask remains that reads “Save the Children” — broken into three words, it is distinct enough from #savethechildren to pass Etsy’s sniff test.

“Christina P.,” the name given of the owner of MaskedStatement on Etsy, declined a phone interview for this story, stating that our readers are not their target market and that her store has already attracted enough attention.

During the ongoing saga with Etsy, “Christina P.” turned to other platforms, including Instagram and Facebook, to advance the brand. The MaskedStatement Etsy store also morphed into a third-party website MaskedStatement.com, and a link to it is clearly advertised on the reactivated Etsy page.

In late October, “Christina P.” took to Instagram to suggest that other platforms, not just Etsy, were taking notice of their merchandise, too. In an Instagram story posted October 23 she said her content was “censored” by Etsy, Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

“They are trying to make me invisible."

“They are trying to make me invisible,” the now unavailable Instagram story reads. “I am asking you to share my small business website and share it with your like-minded friends. They cannot control word of mouth!”

She has a point. The QAnon ecosystem may be nimble enough to pick up, move elsewhere, and leave enough breadcrumbs behind on traditional websites to let someone follow their trail further down the rabbit hole.

Maskedstatement's facebook page after Etsy banned the store from the platform.

According to Crowdtangle metrics, the MaskedStatement website’s Facebook pages were first created in May 2020 and June 2020. Since then, the most referrals from Facebook to the actual website, according to metrics tool Crowdtangle, appear to come from two private groups: “Governor Whitmer is Bad for Michigan” and “Fauci Gates & Soros to prison worldwide resistance.” MaskedStatement’s Instagram content was also reposted by anti-vaccine influencer account “@thetruthaboutvaccines,” which has more than 40,000 followers.

Pinterest confirmed to Inverse that it has taken action against MaskedStatement’s QAnon-related posts. Google did not confirm that the platform took any action against the website.

Inverse contacted Facebook four time asking for comment on websites that link out to QAnon and conspiracy-related merchandise like MaskedStatement. Hours after Inverse’s final email before story publication, sent Thursday October 29, a Facebook company spokesperson responded:

Facebook pages and Instagram accounts representing QAnon are not allowed on Facebook and we have disabled the accounts in question.

As of October 30, the MaskedStatement Instagram and Facebook pages linking to the third-party site have been removed from both platforms. The facemask printed with ‘WWG1WGA’ has also been removed from the third-party site.

“What you are finding in your research is a representation of the current state of affairs with Facebook: they have no coherent strategy for moderating disinformation content,” says Pasquetto, the editor of the co-founder of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review.

“You found one example, but there are many more.”

"It's an ongoing struggle"

The debate over whether platforms should be responsible, both legally and ethically, for promoting conspiracy theories is heating up.

Legally, the platforms have no responsibility to moderate content. They’re protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields publishers from liability from content created by users (but it doesn’t extend to content like child pornography, for instance).

But the controversy over that law has resulted in Senate Hearings this month on how far platforms should extend their oversight.

The leaders of Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s parent company Alphabet have all had to appear in Washington in recent weeks to answer questions on censorship and political content.

“The debate about Section 230 shows that people of all political persuasions are unhappy with the status quo,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in his opening statement at the hearing, made on October 28.

The conversations that social media sites are currently having about their platform’s content, Mattheis says, should also include mentions of merchandise, too.

“It's an ongoing struggle,” she says. “But I don't see why clothing wouldn't be considered different than something like a manifesto in terms of seller-platform relationship.”

In some ways, the cottage industry of conspiracy merchandise, especially QAnon merchandise, “cuts right to the heart” of this issue, Mattheis says. A mask with a white rabbit on it or “#savethechildren” doesn’t, on face value, contain harmful material. But it is still a message.

Members of QAnon await the arrival of US President Donald Trump for a political rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on August 2, 2018.Getty Images/ MANDEL NGAN

They are an invitation into the wider world of conspiracy, swaddled in attractive wrapping paper.

QAnon is especially adept at using that wrapping paper to coat their message. Mattheis points to the QAnon-linked hashtag #savethechildren: “If someone says well, we have to save the children, what’s your response?”

“It's an effective co-opting of a non-offensive narrative.”

Like #savethechildren itself, merchandise bearing these slogans also seems to occupy a strange in-between zone. It’s not strictly misinformation, but it also contains a message, says Dauber, albeit a different one. This message is dangerous in its own, slippery way: How out there can a message really be, if it's on a T-shirt?

And if you’re considering a detour into the world beyond the rabbit hole, there are a host of sellers betting you might want a souvenir.

“[Merchandise] isn't sufficient to radicalize someone into membership,” she says. “But it could be sufficient to convince them that there's nothing wrong with membership.” Essentially, it may be enough to give them a clear sense of identity, even offline.