But while critics on Twitter devolved into paroxysms of rage, the fund was neither edgy nor particularly surprising. Instead, it seems, this has become the Internet’s kneejerk response to every polarizing national controversy: Regardless of whether you know the parties involved, start a hyper-politicized fundraiser and use it to megaphone your beliefs.
To wit: Memories Pizza, the Indiana restaurant at the heart of a recent religious rights debate, made more than $840,000 on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe; Arlene’s Flowers, which refused to serve gay patrons in Washington state, has made more than $150,000. In the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, funds were immediately set up in support of both men. A campaign for Wilson has garnered more than a quarter-million dollars.
Even George Zimmerman received more than $200,000 in Internet donations to his personal site before his trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin. He used part of that fund to pay bail.
The primary venues for these politicized campaigns are crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and Indiegogo, both of which cater to small-time fundraisers panhandling for medical expenses, youth group field trips and other personal concerns.
“The beauty of GoFundMe is that it allows campaign organizers to … share [their] dreams, pursuits, celebrations and challenges online,” that site’s bubbly FAQ reads. But a new trend toward crowdfunding-as-advocacy has fundamentally challenged that vision: It’s no longer very personal, and it’s often very mean.
Take, for instance, the case of the Eric Garner fundraiser — or the Eric Garner fundraisers, since there were at least 19. In the wake of Garner’s death at the hands of New York City police, thousands of people flocked to Fundly, GoFundMe and Indiegogo to make donations to his family. In hindsight, however, it would seem that many of the people running these campaigns had no affiliation with Garner’s family; they were, in the words of Garner’s mother, “reaping the benefits” of Garner’s death — profiting off tragedy.
Incidentally, that’s a criticism that’s also been made of other controversial fundraisers, from Darren Wilson to Memories Pizza: These funds are less genuine, philanthropic endeavors than “publicity stunts,” claimed one writer for the liberal site Forward Progressives. (That claim was echoed, if less critically, by the chief executive of fellow crowdfunding site Tilt: “Money is tied into the equation of online communication,” he told Forbes. “It’s a subtle but powerful shift.”)
Despite the controversy, however, crowdfunding platforms have little incentive to address these issues. None of the largest fundraising sites have ever vetted or screened their fundraisers as a matter of policy — it would make them legally responsible if the campaign fell through. Instead, sites like GoFundMe like to tell users to “only donate to people you personally know & trust” — which is fine for the next-door neighbor’s charity drive, maybe, but not particularly practical for a newsy, national fund.
It also doesn’t help that platforms make money off of each campaign they host (four to nine percent of the proceeds for Indiegogo, and five percent for GoFundMe), which is a pretty good reason to allow just about anything. That was, at least, GoFundMe’s policy until last September, when the site was caught in the crossfire of an Internet abortion debate: Anti-abortion groups petitioned the platform to take an abortion fundraiser down, and women’s rights groups boycotted when GoFundMe acquiesced and deleted the page.
Since then, PR concerns have forced GoFundMe to adopt a pretty rigorous set of community standards, including a ban on “campaigns in defense of formal charges of heinous crimes.” That may explain why GoFundMe deleted the Slager fundraiser within a day. But it just migrated to Indiegogo, where — per a spokesperson — “we don’t judge the content of campaigns.”
Is that a good thing? A bad thing? A totally neutral and user-empowering thing, as Indiegogo likes to claim? That will inevitably depend on your politics and your positions on issues like social justice and police brutality. (It’s no coincidence that many of the more controversial campaigns spring from the right wing; they’re self-professed reactions against progressive laws and/or the cultural mainstream.)
But there’s no denying that crowdfunding — long considered one of the Internet’s most affirmational pursuits — has been gradually turned to more divisive uses. There may be no better proof of that than Alix Bryan, a Richmond TV reporter who flagged the Memories Pizza GoFundMe campaign for potential fraud last week.
Was she being cautious, in light of incidents like Garner’s? Political? Vindictive? Something else entirely?
No one really knows, of course. But she’s received more than 35,000 vicious, sometimes violent, pro-GoFundMe tweets.
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