Print-on-Demand Services Are a Boon for Enterprising Exploiters of Political Division

Nasmul Ahasan, the San Francisco Chronicle:

In early February, Facebook removed two large pro-convoy groups after inquiries from the news site Grid, which had found that Bangladeshis were managing the groups. When a spinoff trucker convoy launched in Australia, it was also propped up by deceptive Facebook groups, including those run by Bangladeshi spammers, the news site Crikey reported.

The motives of these groups are not always easy to pin down. Some have diverted followers to digital donation sites organized by real protesters, others to “content mills” filled with pay-per-click ads.

But The Chronicle uncovered an extraordinary new set of players in the battle: Internet entrepreneurs in developing countries who take advantage of Western political division — and inflame it — with the sole aim of juicing sales of customized T-shirts, mugs, tumblers, ballcaps, tote bags, pillows and phone cases, with the profits shared by American companies.

I had wondered what benefits were being reaped by people elsewhere promoting groups like these. Now I know: the merch, stupid. Some of the protesters contributed thousands of dollars to these efforts, so maybe they would also buy an overpriced t-shirt and phone case.

Still, the Chronicle is likely exaggerating the influence of these groups. It says that one of the biggest had about 15,000 members, but the groups profiled by the Grid had memberships in the hundreds of thousands. It also says it did not know how many sales were made.

This article is an interesting look behind the scenes of these Facebook groups, but I do not think the takeaway is that some entrepreneurs in Bangladesh are manipulating the political process in Canada or doing anything particularly untoward. There are merch tents at all these demonstrations.