In December, the College Republicans at the University of Washington launched a GoFundMe campaign called “Help Bring Milo to the UW.” The goal was to raise $7,000 to help bring “the necessary contrasting voice” of Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. That event will occur on January 20, the same day as Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Yiannopoulos is an alt-right figurehead, part of the political movement associated with white nationalism, racism, sexism, and neo-Nazism. Its members have been categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many of those members–Yiannopoulos included–also vocally supported Donald Trump during the presidential election.
At first glance, the event itself doesn’t appear discriminatory. Yiannopoulos, who is gay, has billed it as a stop on his “Dangerous Faggot Tour”–a term he uses in a vain attempt at shock value. But that’s a classic alt-right tactic: As an editor at Breitbart News, Yiannopoulos cowrote what’s largely considered to be the group’s manifesto, which argues for free speech in a radically transgressive way that essentially condones expressions of racism, bigotry, and harassment. At alt-right rallies, that’s created the sort vitriolic environment that many upset with the election results now fear may become mainstream.
This is, suffice it to say, probably not how GoFundMe envisioned its service being used. Since launching in 2010, the social fundraising platform has worked to change philanthropy through crowdfunding. And, of course, to grow. To that end, the company purposely kept the concept of what constitutes a “cause” fairly undefined, welcoming all manner of individuals, groups, and charities seeking assistance for everything from educational expenses, to business costs and traditional or emergency aid. It worked: Last December, GoFundMe reached $3 billion in total funds raised with 2 million campaign organizers and 25 million donors.
But things have become more complicated as the site has grown. As The Stranger recently reported, at least nine different groups have used the service to solicit funds for bringing Yiannopoulos to their campuses. That includes schools in California, Texas, Minnesota, Ohio, and Virginia. Searching the site’s campaigns by keyword also reveals more than 400 groups loosely organized around “Hillary for Prison”—one of the dog whistles for alt-right support.
In a way, GoFundMe is facing the same sort of philosophical questions that several supposedly agenda-free platforms are struggling to answer as they expand. If your business model can be co-opted to further an unethical agenda, is it really agenda-free? And at what point does acting apathetic about that issue become dangerous to society at large?
Facebook is facing a similar issue with fake news. While the company may have started as a social network, it’s also become a media service by default because it serves as many people’s primary source for news. The company’s failure to deal with that directly led to the spread of serious disinformation during the presidential election. Meanwhile, Twitter has had similar issues with group trolling. It may have started as a public messaging service but has failed to address how unruly crowds can lead to serious harassment. (While notoriously slow to act, the service did finally permanently ban Yiannopoulos this summer for inciting racist abuse against actress Leslie Jones.)
Similarly, GoFundMe is no longer just an experiment in group giving–they’re remaking how charity works. CEO Rob Solomon has predicted that the company will generate $40 billion in giving over the next decade, creating a new age of rapidly delivered, democratized, peer-to-peer assistance. “We want to reach a place where we are doing more than the largest organizations and foundations in the world,” he recently told Co.Exist. In mid-January, the company acquired CrowdRise, a competitor that works with nonprofits, to find new ways to expand.
The company takes 5% of each transaction, so it will obviously profit from more participation. As a private company, though, it has a different standard of accountability than the foundations it’s seeking to eclipse. “We don’t agree with or support Mr. Yiannopoulos,” writes Bobby Whithorne, a GoFundMe spokesperson, in an email to Co.Exist. Yet it is still allowing the fundraiser to happen.
Why? Yiannopoulos fans are exploiting a loophole: Technically, GoFundMe’s terms of service ban campaigns from “the promotion of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, terrorism, or intolerance of any kind relating to race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity, or serious disabilities or diseases.” Most of these solicitations are structured simply to cover related event fees, while Yiannopoulos is promising to speak for free. (The Stranger story highlights that fact: “No, this is not promoting hate . . . This money goes towards safety so that this can be a successful event!” organizer Jesse Gamble reportedly added in a comment on the campaign page.)
From a business standpoint, it’s a profitable scenario. GoFundMe can both enforce their terms and allow questionable events to keep running. “Campaigns created by students to cover specific costs, like security, for an event do not violate our terms,” confirms Whithorne. “We have a clear set of terms of service that are applied and enforced to all campaigns on the platform. We have a team of individuals monitoring the site to ensure all campaigns comply with those terms.”
The impact of such propaganda going viral has yet to be addressed. Part of why GoFundMe campaigns are so popular is because they exist as their own sort of medium, and transcend it. They’re designed to be shared across Facebook and Twitter. The pages themselves have comment sections and donation trackers, all of which generate more viewer engagement. For a small event, the UW Yiannopoulos appearance gained great traction; it was shared, complete with an incendiary and argumentative comment thread, about 900 times before shutting down on January 13.
It’s not hard to imagine where all this is headed. When Facebook announced its fake news fix of flagging but not removing disputed stories, critics countered that they were creating a must-read list for people who don’t trust mainstream media. The UW campaign may have become a must-donate for the same sort of reason. As the event page drew fire, the group not only met their $7,000 goal, but raised more than $5,000 more, which they’ve said will be spent on any extra fees and future events. As funders rushed toward the cause, GoFundMe stayed out of it.