Technology companies are fond of presenting themselves as neutral, and GoFundMe, the crowdfunding website that lets users raise money for almost anything, is no exception.
Last month, amid intense pressure to remove a campaign raising money for Darren Wilson -- the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed Mike Brown on Aug. 9 -- GoFundMe braved boycott efforts, online petitions and days of social-media fury while shielding itself in a cloak of don’t-shoot-the-messenger detachment.
“GoFundMe is a neutral technology platform,” the company maintained.
It’s an understandable stance, but it’s not the whole story. Earlier this week, when a campaign for another police officer began attracting attention, GoFundMe promptly yanked it down. And it wasn’t because the campaign violated its terms of service; it was because it apparently violated its sense of decency.
In this case, the campaign was seeking legal funds for Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer facing charges of rape, forcible oral sodomy and stalking in incidents involving eight African-American women. Holtzclaw’s sister Jennifer believes he’s innocent, so she turned to crowdfunding, as one does, to help mount what will surely be a costly legal defense. When the campaign was removed this week, Jennifer was told in an email from GoFundMe (forwarded by Jennifer to IBTimes) that her fundraising effort “contains subject matter that GoFundMe would rather not be associated with.”
So what happened to that previously insisted-upon neutrality? Asked why the Holtzclaw campaign was removed while the Wilson campaign was allowed to remain, Kelsea Little, a GoFundMe spokeswoman, said the Holtzclaw campaign was removed after an internal review process. She declined to share specifics of that process, but said such reviews are handled on a case-by-case basis and based on many “factors and considerations.” Some campaigns are removed if they are deemed inappropriate, she said.
There are, of course, many differences between the situations surrounding officers Holtzclaw and Wilson. Holtzclaw is charged with numerous gruesome crimes. Wilson has yet to be charged with anything in the shooting of Brown and may never be. But broadly speaking, these are two fundraising efforts seeking to raise money for what many people would consider undesirable aims, and GoFundMe made a non-neutral judgment call by removing one of them. In fact, its terms of service permit it to make such judgment calls at its “sole discretion.”
Worth noting is that the two Wilson campaigns, which were permitted to stay, have raised a combined $432,000, and GoFundMe takes 5 percent of that. Little did not respond to a follow-up question asking if the amount of money a campaign raises is one of the factors it considers in its internal reviews. But either way, some fundraising experts have expressed concern that the quantity-over-quality business model of crowdfunding creates an incentive for crowdfunding sites to act in ways that are not always in the best interest of donors.
“There is a conflict of interest here," said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator. “The sites can’t make money if they vet and remove appeals.”
It’s at this point where the cloak of neutrality shreds. As with Facebook, Twitter and any number of user-generated platforms, neutrality for GoFundMe is a fleeting concept -- convenient when deflecting criticism and disavowing responsibility for content that appears on its site, but disposable when it gets in the way. Facebook, for instance, was all too willing to shirk responsibility when users were posting content endorsing violence against women. It took a major hashtag campaign and advertising boycott before it finally agreed to get involved, but in getting involved, it acknowledged the importance of drawing a line: Rape jokes accompanied by violent imagery are unacceptable.
The problem is, drawing a line can be costly. GoFundMe faced a similar quandary last week. It could have taken down the Officer Wilson campaigns, but it chose not to for reasons known only to those involved in the decision-making. Neutrality was a pretext, and apparently a fickle one.