‘Rope. Tree. Journalist.’ T-Shirt Shows Need for Online Moderators

A human moderator would've stopped this "Rope Tree Journalist" T-shirt from appearing on CafePress.

A human moderator would’ve stopped this “Rope Tree Journalist” T-shirt from appearing on CafePress. CafePress

This is not a good look—in more ways than one.

Online retailer CafePress was in hot water this morning for selling T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

CafePress pulled the shirts soon after the outcry began, but then the question shifted to why it carried them in the first place.

The “Rope. Tree. Journalist” message has been seen at Trump rallies for almost two years. But the fury over the message has increased since last week, when five journalists were killed in a shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

It’s unclear when the shirts first appeared on CafePress, but they went viral last night after the Twitter hordes discovered them.

CafePress initially ignored the controversy, tweeting instead about July 4 accessories.

But this morning, the site couldn’t ignore it any longer and tweeted out explanations to angry followers.

When users asked CafePress for further explanation, it simply tweeted out the same statement again.

“Although we strive to ensure that no inappropriate content appears on the website, occasionally issues like this arise,” a CafePress spokesperson told Observer.

The content on CafePress is indeed user-generated and customizable. Customers add their own graphic design, logo or text to the products (in this case, T-shirts).

But the problem is these designs are unmoderated. Users can upload whatever they want, and the site’s review team doesn’t remove content unless there are complaints.

Therefore, CafePress still profits, even if users abuse the platform. And given the site’s do-it-yourself nature, if something goes wrong, CafePress tries to absolve itself of responsibility.

The company has used this tactic multiple times in recent days, even before the journalist controversy.

Last week user Patricia Lopez tried to buy her daughters beach towels on CafePress. One accessory featured a photo of President Barack Obama with the MS-13 gang—Mike Huckabee tweeted a similar image last week.

CafePress again passed the buck, saying that it was a “self-service forum.” It did promise to remove the image within 72 hours, however.

In an era where threats of violence online are common, it’s downright dangerous for a site to allow its users to upload whatever they want with no moderation and to only remove content when the internet demands it.

These issues may even end up affecting CafePress’ bottom line. The company has traded on the NASDAQ exchange since 2012, and shares were down this morning after the controversies.

CafePress was able to wriggle out of a few tough spots this week, but if these issues keep piling up, its luck will soon run out.

‘Rope. Tree. Journalist.’ T-Shirt Shows Need for Online Moderators