Earlier this week, the founder and chief executive of Canada’s second-most valuable company took to Twitter to condemn racism and address the political protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
“We stand with the Black community who are our teachers now. They hold the vision for a more just society and we all need to amplify,” Shopify Inc. founder and chief executive Tobias Lutke wrote. “Racism of any kind is one of the bleakest aspects of humanity. Those of us without the vision have to be students and, more importantly, helpers.”
The statement earned praise from many, but a host of Twitter users also called the company out for its apparent hypocrisy: Among the million merchants that use Shopify’s technology to run their e-commerce sites are the campaign store for U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been accused of inciting violence during the protests, as well as several pro-police Blue Lives Matter merchandising stores and far-right media outlets.
For Shopify, which has grown into a global giant while for the most part flying under the radar, Lutke’s decision to weigh in on the protests could come with costs, marketing experts say, in the form of greater scrutiny of just who is using its platform and greater pressure to screen that user base going forward.
“It does seem a bit hypocritical,” said David Soberman, University of Toronto professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management, when asked about Lutke’s recent remarks.
“If you’re going to make such a statement, you should make sure you’re not just talking the walk, but you’re walking the talk.”
Unlike social media giants, or other e-commerce titans such as Amazon.com Inc., which sells under its own brand, Shopify’s name and logo are often invisible on the websites of merchants who use its software.
A search of the source code on those sites, though, reveals that in addition to the Trump campaign, Shopify is being used by Canadian far-right outlet Rebel News as well as American outlets such as Gateway Pundit, which suggested in one article this week that the Black Lives Matter movement should be labelled as a terrorist group.
Shopify is also the software behind at least two stores that sell “Blue Lives Matter” merchandise, a slogan many feel subverts the Black Lives Matter movement by redirecting sympathy toward police.
In recent years, Lutke’s public stance has evolved on who can use the company’s e-commerce platform. In 2017 the company came under fire for providing software to enable the store of Breitbart, a far-right news site closely tied to Trump.
“We don’t like Breitbart, but products are speech and we are pro free speech,” Lutke said in a blog post at the time. “This means protecting the right of organizations to use our platform even if they are unpopular or if we disagree with their premise, as long as they are within the law.”
A year and a half later, Lutke updated his perspective, adopting an “Acceptable Use Policy” for Shopify, which forbids hateful content, harassment and bullying and was recently updated to ban false claims and price gouging related to COVID-19.
When Shopify introduced the policy in 2018 Lutke explained his change of perspective by writing, “Solely deferring to the law, in this age of political gridlock, is too idealistic and functionally unworkable on the fast moving internet.”
Breitbart still uses Shopify software.
In an emailed statement, Shopify said the company avoids talking about individual merchants on their platform.
“Shopify’s mission is to make commerce better for everyone,” the statement said. “We exist to ensure more voices can be heard through entrepreneurship. We are committed to having conversations with communities who are directly affected by racism to better understand how we can impact this issue across the world.”
On Monday, Lutke said Shopify was donating a total of $1 million to three organizations, the Black Health Alliance of Canada, the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, and Campaign Zero, an organization devoted to research and advocacy to prevent police violence.
Monica LaBarge, assistant professor of marketing at Queen’s University Smith School of Management, said consumer expectations are shifting, and the public is placing a higher onus on companies.
“We do have this increasing cancel culture where, when something is highlighted, there is this risk that it gets so much viral attention that you can lose business,” LaBarge said.
“There has been this creep that you have to be some sort of corporate citizen, that you have to have some sort of political or moral stance.”
LaBarge said that Shopify has likely escaped the kind of scrutiny and controversy that surrounds public-facing technology companies like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, because Shopify is more of a business utility for merchants, and therefore out of sight for consumers.
LaBarge said she also sympathizes with Shopify, because it’s much more difficult for a company to pick and choose who they’ll sell their services to, rather than promoting social change through internal company policies or donating money.
She said even if Shopify decided to take a political stance on which kinds of merchants could use their platform, it would be very difficult to enforce.
“That is a very high bar, and I don’t think people are necessarily being very rational about that,” she said. “How would they actually go about vetting companies or organizations that do want to use their platform? And what would be the standards by which they would decide, and who would make the decision?”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020