James Thomson, a former Amazon employee and partner at Buy Box Experts, a firm that consults with Amazon sellers, says the company does do some automatic screening before items go up for sale. “If you have certain words in your listings, Amazon will find them right away,” he says, like weapons or drugs. But humans don’t manually review each product, and plenty of goods that violate Amazon’s policies fall through the cracks.
What’s less understood is how offensive items are created and listed in the first place. Some are almost certainly the work of sellers intentionally pushing hateful or racist ideologies, whether to spread those ideas or to make a buck (or both).
But many of these listings are likely the unfortunate byproduct of an increasingly automated ecommerce landscape. In this world, sellers attempt to make a profit by offering vast quantities of easily customizable items to fill every consumer niche imaginable. A merchant, for example, might flood the market with thousands of posters featuring different and sometimes incredibly obscure inspirational quotes, in the hopes that some pay off.
Two of the Amazon merchants who sold Auschwitz-themed Christmas ornaments, Hqiyaols Ornament and Fcheng, are still active sellers on the platform. Both currently offer a seemingly endless array of other ornaments with images from around the world, including a church in Spain, a picturesque house in Nuremberg, Germany, and a colorful wat in Cambodia. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why one location was chosen over another, and almost none of the ornaments have a single review.
That’s because the ornaments likely don’t exist until someone buys one. The sellers behind them have created an enormous ecommerce net of sorts, designed to catch that one person from Cumberland, Kentucky looking for a hometown-themed Christmas ornament when they log onto Amazon. When that happens, whoever is behind Fcheng can print the image onto the ceramic ornament and send it to the lucky buyer. In the meantime, they’re not sitting on expensive inventory, and it doesn’t cost them anything to continue listing ornaments featuring other places on Amazon.
Many of the pictures these sellers use—including one of Auschwitz—can be traced back to Pixabay, a site offering images that it says can be downloaded for free and used for almost any purpose without needing to credit the photographer who took them. Last year, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal similarly traced the images used by a merchant selling posters to Pixabay.
While Pixabay encourages people to use its images for most editorial and commercial purposes, the Pixabay License forbids selling “unaltered copies” of its photographs, like posters or prints “on a physical object,” which would conceivably include ornaments. Pixabay did not immediately return a request for comment.
It’s not clear whether merchants like the ones uncovered by the Auschwitz Museum use computer scripts or other tools to list products in bulk, and Amazon declined to say whether it believes they rely on automation. These sellers’ goods do give off a certain computer-generated eeriness. Encountering them is like stumbling upon a bizarre digital artifact, a consumer product designed to cater to a human desire that may never exist.
When merchants rely on this strategy of abundance, though, they create a mountain of ghost products Amazon and other ecommerce companies need to competently vet, or else they risk facing a scandal like the one that unfolded this week. At the scale these companies operate, there’s no easy solution. Something like Auschwitz Christmas ornaments might just be the cost of doing business the Amazon way.