If you’ve happened upon Donald Trump’s Twitter feed in the last few months and clicked on any of his tweets, chances are a black mug labeled “Liberal Tears” is a familiar sight.
The mug has been a popular meme among Trump supporters, often used to taunt liberal or left-leaning users who showed up to Trump’s Twitter account either to fact-check his misleading posts or fruitlessly debate his fans. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the mug. It made sense that Trump supporters, or those hoping to make money off of them, would embrace an item that made fun of their enemies. Haha, Trump won, shut up, you lose — this seemed like a common sentiment among conservatives.
But the mug wasn’t just popular — it was really popular.
The mug links were everywhere. People tweeted pictures of the mug, screencaps of their receipts, and links to the page to buy the mug. Its omnipresence started to feel weird. It seemed like every single MAGA cap owner on Twitter was buying these cups. This is a real craze, I thought. How many of these things were being sold?
So I decided to find out, and that’s when things got interesting.
Someone once mentioned that almost every Twitter thread discussing Donald Trump has someone talking about a "Liberal Tears" mug pic.twitter.com/jo5RX6s2Q1— Renekton Bot (Jolly) (@RenektonBot) December 22, 2016
The first time I clicked on a mug link from Twitter, I was directed to the mug’s page on TeeChip.com, a business that allows you to print your own designs on products and then sell them. The mug was for sale for $18.95, but a countdown clock at the bottom of the page said it was in “Limited Supply” and the sale would end soon. A few days later, the mug was still available — but the price had gone up to $19.95 with the clock counting down to a new fictional deadline.
This strange scamminess is a symptom of the bizarre business that is TeeChip. At first glance, it looks like CafePress, or RedBubble, or any user-generated merchandise site allowing people to print their own designs on faceless crap and sell it for a profit. Except there’s no seller profile or any information that could lead me to the person making what had to be beaucoup money off of these mugs.
When I called the customer service line I expected a quick and curt refusal to divulge information. What I got instead was a 23-minute concert of “Clair de Lune.” When I did finally speak to someone, she told me I’d had it easy. She’d heard customers clocking wait times of over an hour. She couldn’t help me, however, and gave me a new number to call that went straight to voicemail.
I left a message, emailed TeeChip through the address on its website, and pinged the company through Facebook. I only asked one question. How many liberal tears Trump mugs have been sold?
Well someone is probably making a lot of money on Twitter with all these 'liberal tears mug' bots... They're everywhere. pic.twitter.com/GEj636lhB8— Emily Grossman (@goutaste) December 13, 2016
While I was waiting for TeeChip to get back to me, I did a little research and quickly realized that the company has a terrible reputation. It has long entries written about it on scammer watch sites like Sitejabber.com (466 complaints), ScamGuard (38 complaints), and PissedCustomers.com (1,561 complaints). There are Change.org petitions begging for sites like Facebook and Paypal to ban TeeChip from using their platforms. There are even entire Facebook pages and groups dedicated to warning potential buyers away from the scammy site.
Here’s a taste, from TeeChip’s own social media profiles: “30$ for the worst printing ever.” “Fraudulent business.” “STOP STEALING FROM PEOPLE.” “Please respond to my msg. I have yet to receive my order & I want a refund ASAP!!” “Hey Teechip, quit stealing my fan art! Quit blocking me when I try to tell people the truth that you're thieves! Reply to my DMCA emails! Please just stop stealing from me!!” Most commenters have the same three complaints: The print quality was poor, the product never arrived, or their designs were stolen and reproduced without permission. TeeChip’s Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts are full of customers desperately pleading for a response from the site — some even posting their order numbers publicly, shouting into the ether about disappeared shipments and hideous misprints.
The Better Business Bureau has logged complaints but noted that it was unable to reach the company directly through its registered address in California. However, TeeChip’s BBB profile revealed TeeChip’s alternate business names, all of which have been similarly panned by customers. One of these alternates, which seems to be a parent company, is called ooShirts Inc.
OoShirts was founded in 2007 by Raymond Lei. The company is still operating with conspicuous stock photos intact and a familiar-sounding litany of complaints on its social media pages. (Many of the comments are hidden, but the angry emoticon responses are un-hideable and convey enough on their own.) OoShirts has a rating of F and boasts 992 complaints on the BBB site.
Lei started ooShirts at the age of 16. He opened another operation, TeeChip, in 2015 according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. If you believe the customer complaints, TeeChip and ooShirts allow stolen designs to be printed, have no remorse when designs are printed erroneously, and lie about everything from shipping times to product quality.
When Lei was asked in a 2010 interview what advice he would give other teens looking to start a business, he replied simply, “Believe in yourself.”
So back to the mug. When I started this story, there were scores of tweets about the mug. But recently, I discovered that many had disappeared. Unlike the flood I’d found before, there were no new liberal tears mug tweets bubbling up in Trump’s mentions. Had the mug bubble burst?
@IvankaTrumpFC was gone. @LelyaFyodorova? Vanished. @comhuakenear, @comteotuli, and the 16 other handles I found enthusiastically tweeting links to the TeeChip page have all had their accounts suspended. They had all been using the same language — the exact same language — to tweet about the mug.
According to a 2013 guide to spotting Twitter spam bots — automated Twitter accounts created for the sole purpose of promoting a business/product — “[i]f all of a user's tweets are too-good-to-be-true deals (‘whiten your teeth with this one easy trick!’) or very vague (‘OMG check this out!’), and come with an attached link, there's something spammy going on.” Were the muggers in Trump’s mentions actually spam bots? The evidence certainly looks that way.
Is there a Block Together list for every Twitter account that has tweeted that Liberal Tears mug? pic.twitter.com/KwWeEBaMgC— Matt Laroche 📎 (@mlroach) December 16, 2016
It’s difficult to pinpoint who made these bots. It could have been a particularly persistent TeeChip seller, who saw an opportunity to capitalize and exploited it as best they could. It could have been a maneuver by TeeChip itself to sell more product and optimize profit — there are rumors of such tactics in the anti-TeeChip groups. Either way, it seems like Twitter cracked down on these suspicious accounts, and no more are popping up to replace them.
This could have been the end of the Liberal Tears mug saga. But wherever there’s money to be made, the story never ends that easily. Within the last week, three new pages have popped up on Facebook, two with the same name (“Liberal Tears Mug”) but slightly different handles: @libtearsmug and @liberaltearsmug. The third page goes by a simpler “TeeChip Mugs”, but it uses a profile picture similar to the other pages and lambasts Twitter on its about page: “Twitter is censoring the Liberal Tears Mug link www.teechip.com/lib-tears which is why we had to create this page. Can you imagine they're afraid of a mug!” (No, I can’t really.) There are few posts among these three newborn pages, but they have hundreds of likes and shares.
It’s unclear how long this multi-platform scampaigning for the mug will last. (Another question: The language on the mug says “president-elect.” Will it be replaced by “president” after Jan. 20?) The Outline has placed an order for a liberal tears mug, and we will be updating this story with our own customer experience.