Internet entrepreneurs from foreign countries, such as Bangladesh, are using political divisions in the West to sell merchandise with partisan themes by using fake Facebook profiles to promote online retail stores, some of which are powered by software platforms such as GearLaunch.
On a wintry morning in the town of Moulvibazar in northeast Bangladesh, 21-year-old Saeed Ahmed was reading news on Facebook when he came across an unusual story: Truckers were staging a mass protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the Canadian capital of Ottawa.
Much of the world was bewildered by the Freedom Convoy and its disruptive blockades, but Ahmed was excited. He sensed an opportunity — one made possible by two tech companies with roots in the Bay Area.
Ahmed created a fake Facebook profile, pretending to be an American named Krystle Marie, and used the profile to build a pro-convoy group called Convoy Freedom 2022. Writing as Krystle, Ahmed sent a flood of posts supporting the truckers and bashing liberals such as President Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Many people found his group simply by searching for terms like “Freedom Convoy,” but Ahmed also hooked people by sharing viral pro-convoy messages and memes. His Facebook group swelled, attracting more than 15,000 followers at its peak.
It was only then that the savvy spammer made his move: Ahmed, as Krystle, began to steer his followers to an online retail store where he offered shirts, coffee mugs and other items emblazoned with symbols like flags and big rigs and slogans like “Don’t Mess with the Truckers” and “Truck You, Trudeau.”
“Our objective,” Ahmed said in a phone interview with The Chronicle, “is to sell T-shirts.”
The spread of fake news and disinformation by malicious actors and bots has become a crisis by destabilizing countries, exposing failures of oversight at Facebook and other social networks and making it hard for people to differentiate between what is real and what is not.
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 spin-off trucker convoy started 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, ball caps, tote bags, pillows and phone cases, with the profits shared by American companies.
“Foreign spammers targeting polarized political audiences can often inadvertently boost perceptions of a position’s prominence or legitimacy,” Jared Holt, a misinformation researcher at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said when told of The Chronicle’s findings.
“Though it may seem silly to be concerned about T-shirts and other novelty products, these items can give a reinforcing effect to their target audiences,” he said. “Fringe political movements may be somewhat validated when they are chosen for marketing.”
It’s unclear how many people bought pro-convoy merchandise after following this type of fake Facebook account. But after locating more than two dozens similar online stores promoted by Bangladeshis on Facebook, The Chronicle found that the scheme has been made possible not only by Facebook but by an e-commerce company founded in San Francisco in 2013.
GearLaunch, which moved its headquarters to Salt Lake City in 2020, cultivates a loose network of “marketers” such as Ahmed. The company’s software platform allows them to — with just a few keystrokes — place designs on shirts and other products and sell them in online storefronts. GearLaunch handles payment, customer service, shipping and the “print on demand” manufacturing of the products, a business known as POD.
“GearLaunch is the only e-commerce software provider to cover the entire value chain,” the company’s Facebook page states, “so marketers can focus on what they do best … marketing.”
But the company has gone further: A GearLaunch point person in Bangladesh, The Chronicle found, has encouraged marketers to trick customers by creating and maintaining fake Facebook accounts — outfitting the accounts with real people’s photos that they download without those users’ knowledge.
The Chronicle sent requests for comment, and detailed questions about this story, to GearLaunch founder and CEO Thatcher Spring, as well as to a designated press email and the “Contact Us” page on the company’s website. There was no response.
In a statement, Facebook parent company Meta said it had removed groups run by spammers “who used abusive tactics to mislead people about the origin and popularity of their content to drive them to off-platform websites.” The company said it would “enforce against violations when we find them.”
GearLaunch has built huge marketer bases in Bangladesh and Vietnam, where it stations employees to cultivate and train marketers, who do not directly work for GearLaunch but use the platform. T-shirts and other items related to Donald Trump have been the big sellers for years, but less political items are popular, too, including those geared for cat and dog lovers.
The company said in 2019 and 2020 that it was generating more than $100 million in annual sales from thousands of merchant websites.
GearLaunch’s Bangladesh-specific Facebook group is administered by a person identified online as the company’s country manager, S.M. Belal Uddin, and others including Elly Pham, the company’s global growth director. At least four Bangladeshi marketers who controlled large pro-convoy Facebook groups were members of this GearLaunch group, The Chronicle found.
Uddin, who has a GearLaunch email address, organizes training sessions and uploads tutorial videos for GearLaunch’s Bangladeshi users. In some of the videos viewed by The Chronicle, he shared tips on deceptive marketing tactics — tactics that resembled those adopted by merchants like Ahmed.
In a tutorial video he published on YouTube, Uddin created a fake Facebook profile — “Joanna A. Gibson” — by using an online name-and-address generator and cloning an actual American’s profile. Uddin showed how to make an account seem legitimate by uploading other peoples’ photos, then blocking those people on Facebook so they could not see their photos on the deceptive account.
In the video, Uddin then created and joined Facebook groups related to cats in an effort to direct people to purchase cat-related T-shirts and mugs from a GearLaunch-powered store. He suggested to marketers that they needed to practice patience, first making organic posts to gain the trust of fellow Facebook members and followers.
“If you join a group and immediately start off by sharing links (to your store), other members will be able to detect that you are a spammer and that you are here for marketing,” Uddin said.
Someone removed the video from Uddin’s YouTube channel after The Chronicle sent GearLaunch a list of questions. He did not respond to a request for an interview. When a reporter tried to call him via a company phone number, the person who answered claimed not to be Uddin, said it was a “wrong number” and declined to comment.
Rejwan Ahmed Ruhel, another Bangladeshi spammer who has worked closely with Ahmed, said in an interview that he understood GearLaunch was aware of these marketing practices, including the choice of explosive political topics such as the Canadian trucker convoy.
“Why wouldn’t they know?” he asked.
In one training session for GearLaunch marketers, Uddin displayed a T-shirt with a firefighter and the words “Every Life Matters,” a slogan popularized by critics of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a PowerPoint presentation, he included a slide titled “Never Ending POD Game,” depicting Donald Trump as “the hottest product in America.” A day before the 2020 presidential election, however, he posted a photo featuring Biden on GearLaunch’s Bangladesh group with the caption, “Bid farewell to Trump, start selling Biden T-shirts.”
Fake Facebook groups are not the first controversy for the print-on-demand industry. In 2017, San Francisco firm TeeSpring, now rebranded as Spring, was criticized for failing to moderate sales of shirts featuring racist, violent and misogynistic slogans. In 2021, after a U.S. Capitol rioter wore a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt, TeeSpring apologized for selling similar shirts and removed them from its platform.
“Many vendors operating under this model have failed to act when individuals and groups have used their services to sell inflammatory or derogatory products until doing so generates a public relations problem,” said Holt of the Atlantic Council.
Because of the nature of the POD business model, the industry has faced significant criticism over intellectual property rights, trademarks and copyrights, as marketers often steal other people’s creative work or borrow popular brands to decorate T-shirts and other products.
GearLaunch alone has been sued at least 10 times in federal court over such disputes, records show, including by prominent companies such as Harley-Davidson, which won $19 million in damages against another POD company in 2018, and by a group of more than two dozen universities including Duke, Northwestern and UCLA. The company reached settlements with the plaintiffs in most if not all of these suits.
In one of the cases in 2016, GearLaunch blamed the marketers, many of whom do not live in the U.S., saying it assumed the marketers had obtained copyright permissions for their designs.
The print-on-demand industry has long relied on marketers in developing countries such as Bangladesh, which has 160 million people. TeeSpring’s former country manager in Bangladesh, Zafar Hossain Zafi, estimated that up to 40,000 people, mostly young men, work as POD marketers in the country.
“The primary reason for this is unemployment,” he said in an interview. “Young people are becoming desperate to find a source of income.”
Protesters dance and embrace in February in Ottawa as a song plays over the speakers, during the Freedom Convoy trucker rally against COVID-19 measures that grew into a broader anti-government demonstration.
For a young man living halfway across the world, Ahmed possesses a surprisingly firm grasp of Western political fault lines. From debates over COVID-19 restrictions and gun control to Black Lives Matter activism and the Capitol insurrection, Ahmed not only understands the nuances of the biggest issues but the movements and memes they generate.
Mostly, he knows how to cash in on them.
The Chronicle found him and other marketers after noticing they had added their authentic Facebook profiles as administrators of the pro-convoy groups. A reporter contacted five Bangladeshi men who had used fabricated identities on Facebook to build the groups and interviewed them on the phone in Bengali.
They said they put together product designs and marketing strategies but left the logistical side of the business to GearLaunch. Many of the images and slogans collected for the T-shirts and mugs appear to be widely available on the Internet.
To sell the pro-convoy T-shirts through his store, Ahmed said, he signed up on the GearLaunch website and, once his registration was approved within a day, installed the company’s software. When the storefront was live, he uploaded designs — in this case, symbols and slogans of the convoy movement that he found on the Internet — to be imprinted on blank T-shirts. He then displayed the mock-up of the T-shirts to potential customers on his store.
Some online marketers promote e-commerce stores by buying online ads. But Ahmed went straight to his customers. He pushed the link to his store to the Facebook group started by “Krystal Marie,” the one he had grown virally on the back of a hot political issue.
According to promotional materials from GearLaunch, the company’s print-on-demand operation would handle everything else. When a customer puts in an order for a shirt, a company-affiliated production facility prints and ships it.
“With Print on Demand (POD), you create the designs (or hire a designer) and choose from a list of products available for printing,” GearLaunch said in text accompanying a promotional video on YouTube. “Then you market your store and once a customer places an order, the POD service does the rest!”
Ahmed could also set the price, which determined the potential profit. According to a FAQ page on GearLaunch’s website, the company takes a 7% cut of profits, in addition to the cost of production.
For marketers like Ahmed, timing is everything. At his online store, some themes for T-shirts rise and fall with the tide of global politics, while others are consistent winners. These include dogs (“Best Dachshund Dad Ever”), cats (“Check Meowt”) and military veterans (“I’ve Done Bad Things to Bad People and I’ll Do It Again If Necessary.”)
By late February, the Canadian trucker convoy had ended. In turn, marketers like Ahmed reoriented their focus. Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, his store began to sell T-shirts and other items with the messages “Stand with Ukraine,” “Ukraine Strong” and “Puck Futin.”
Nazmul Ahasan (he/him) is a student in the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @the_nazmul