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How Dangerous Groups Abuse E-Commerce Platforms

If left unchecked, the growth of e-commerce platforms provides bad actors with the opportunity to hide and organize in plain sight while sharing harmful materials worldwide. This ActiveFence report investigates the types of abuse, and how to safeguard both the marketplaces and the legitimate users who visit each day. Download the complete report below for a more thorough analysis and examples.

Background

Retail trends show significant year-on-year growth in e-commerce sales worldwide. eMarketer.com, a leading business intelligence company, forecast globally that e-commerce as a proportion of total sales will rise from 10.4% ( $2.382T) in 2017, to 22% ($6.542T) by 2023. This significant growth in sales requires a huge increase in the numbers of items listed for sale, and individual merchants providing services. While this will provide significant revenue opportunities, the expansion of user generated content will lead to a heightened risk of platform exploitation. Keeping these platforms safe from bad actors will require significant attention and proactive company policies.

The Risks

The volume of content hosted on, and the traffic to platforms such as Amazon (9.6M seller accounts in 2021), eBay (19M sellers in 2020) and others has exploded. Legitimate businesses are able to use the growth of these e-commerce platforms to encounter growing numbers of potential clients. Conversely malignant actors also have the opportunity to exploit the platforms for their end. The sheer volume of registered sellers and the products they list means that moderation must be advanced and conducted at scale, if it is to be effective.

White supremacist, Islamic fundamentalist, and conspiracy theorist organizations, locked out of most mainstream platforms, have been gravitating towards e-commerce sites to continue their network solidarity and generate revenue. Beyond the dangers inherent in permitting harmful organizations to persist and organize online, their presence on mainstream platforms exposes innocent users to harmful and offensive materials. E-commerce platform providers must continue to act to prevent reputational damage, as well as the proliferation of dangerous materials. Despite the efforts of major platforms, harmful content and merchants continue to appear.

It is essential to understand how such users are able to evade detection, and how the threat they pose can be neutralized.

Camouflaged Merchandise & Category Manipulation

The digital assault of harmful organizations and movements plaguing social media is well documented and understood. Less obvious has been the additional front, that plays out within the e-commerce platforms. While a mug, or a flag being sold with the insignia of a harmful group appears innocuous, the transmission of these goods allows these groups to rally together, maintain group cohesivity, and generate revenue to fund activities.

Major retail platforms have taken steps to ban and remove items that obviously relate to banned or censored organizations and movements such as QAnon. However, ActiveFence research was able to find that despite this, many QAnon materials continue to be listed for sale on many e-commerce platforms. Side-stepping the algorithm that picks up keywords, QAnon retailers switched to describing their goods with the letter “Q” and its numeric value 17, the phonetic “Cue”, and other related symbols from the Q mythology. 

Similarly, ActiveFence identified accounts offering hidden neo-Nazi content on major e-commerce stores. The merchandise for sale, features Nazi symbols, such as the Algiz Rune, and the TotenKopf (symbol of the Nazi SS). Specifically, it does not use neo-Nazi keywords, in order to avoid detection. ActiveFence’s external and holistic perspective on bad actors online, meant that we were able to locate these stores, though mapping a white supremacist network of a Telegram channel, social media accounts, and a Nazi propaganda website.

Algiz Rune a pagan symbol appropriated by Nazis
The Algiz Rune is a Pre-Roman pagan symbol appropriated by Nazis, it is now used as a general symbol for white supremacists

Understanding whether the content of books for sale meets the criteria of harmful material can be very difficult. The purchase of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ can be for historical research, or for instructional purposes: the first is innocent, the second is nefarious. However, books which claim the Holocaust was a hoax, or argue for other racist positions are found and removed by the major platforms, using keyword searches. This removal at scale, often takes place without the works themselves being read. This vulnerability means that bad-actor merchants can manipulate, or subvert the moderation process, by uploading misleading or ambiguous descriptions.


Holocaust denial book, using misleading categorization on Amazon

ActiveFence found ‘Tales of the Holohoax: A Journal of Satire’. The book is listed for sale today by an otherwise reputable seller, on a major e-commerce platform. The book is listed in the Humor & Satire categories, and it is initially ambiguous whether the satire of the book is about the Holocaust, or about those that spread the hoax conspiracy theory. This uncertainty of classification has been used by the seller to conceal the book’s contents. However, from checking the comments section it is clear that the true subject is Holocaust denial.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Extremist organizations can and do operate successfully, taking advantage of the blind spots of content moderators. To moderate platforms successfully, significant understanding of each organization and its associated symbology is required. This is essential to identify materials posted by harmful groups. With the freedom to trade, they organize and fundraise using mainstream platforms without hindrance. While Nazi paraphernalia bearing the swastika is banned across many sites, ActiveFence was able to find multiple accounts, on a variety of mainstream platforms selling the insignia of dangerous organizations. These included T-shirts bearing the symbol and slogan of the terror organization ISIS, flags of the British Union of Fascists (1932-40), used by the fascist organization the New British Union (2013-Present); and merchandise for the Three Percenters (III%), one of the largest ultra-nationalist paramilitary groups in the USA.

To prevent such activity e-commerce platforms require support to better regulate their market places.

Carnage following the Oklahoma City Bombing, which involved easily accessible bomb-making recipes

Dangerous Content

The merchandise that allows dangerous organizations to maintain cohesivity at a time when they are being removed from social media platforms is concerning, from a reputational perspective as well as social.

However, while some would argue that branded items cannot hurt directly, dangerous pieces of works such as the ‘Anarchists Cookbook’, which detail how to make improvised weapons and illegal drugs are found for sale from multiple merchants across many platforms. The ‘Anarchists Cookbook’ has been used by many domestic terrorists to carry out attacks, most notably the Columbine High School Massacre and the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 and left 680+ injured. Leading US Senator Dianne Feinstein issued a statement in 2015, that the ‘Anarchists Cookbook’ is not, “in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet”.

Extremist organizations can and do operate successfully, taking advantage of the blind spots of content moderators.

Preventing Platform Abuse

The success of e-commerce platforms is that they enable businesses t0 grow and access a vibrant and dynamic market; they connect retailers with a global consumer base. This interconnectivity, used by legitimate businesses to great effect, is also attractive to bad actors. In addition, by operating on global platforms with huge amounts of content, they can hide in plain sight, using the vast array of legitimate business as cover.

ActiveFence’s specialist intelligence capabilities, and proprietary software allows its partners to shine a light into the dark recesses of the internet. By using our joined up approach to internet security, ActiveFence maps extremist organizations’ networks, and in doing so can find hidden accounts on mainstream platforms. We are able to protect users and platforms; together we make the internet a safer space.

For more details and examples, download the complete whitepaper.

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