In late December last year, when Curtis Shannon was pulled over by a police officer in St. Petersburg, Florida, less than a block from his home, he decided to record the encounter with his cellphone. The footage he captured shows a verbal altercation between Shannon and the officer, with the officer ordering Shannon to step out of his vehicle and Shannon refusing to do so. Shannon eventually agrees, and after the video stops rolling, he says he was subjected to a beating at the hands of the officer.
This week Shannon’s video went viral, picked up by news outlets like Raw Story, the Tampa Bay Times, and RT, most of which were sympathetic to Shannon’s story in the wake of nationwide discussions about police brutality and excessive force. And by Thursday morning, Shannon was $3,700 richer, thanks to a well-timed GoFundMe campaign through which he is seeking funds to recover his legal costs.
Shannon is not alone in turning viral attention into crowdfunding dollars. Since Kickstarter exploded on the scene five years ago, crowdfunding has been an increasingly common way of life. But what began as an opportunity for bottom-up capital for great ideas -- toys or smartwatches finding an audience of backers by virtue of what they offered the world -- has morphed into a top-down approach whereby the success of a campaign hinges upon virality itself.
Consider Austin and Brittany Null, the husband-and-wife team behind the popular YouTube show “The Nive Nulls.” When they discovered recently that one of their friends had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they turned to GoFundMe, leveraging their 156,000 YouTube subscribers and asking for help with their friend’s mounting medical costs. The result was more than $10,000 in just two days.
This is not to suggest that the Nulls’ campaign is not a worthy one. But it is one example of a system that has emerged in the wake of top-down crowdfunding: a campaign’s level of success correlates more with pre-existing virality than it does with merit. For instance, regardless of where you stand on Darren Wilson -- the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who shot teenager Mike Brown -- it’s hard to imagine what he will do with the almost half a million dollars raised in his name on GoFundMe over the last few weeks. Is that a realistic number for mounting a possible legal defense, or does it merely represent the fact that Wilson is involved with the biggest news story of the summer?
Either way, it’s impossible to overlook the questions of accountability that come up time and again when high-profile GoFundMe campaigns catch the public’s attention. We’re reminded that the site allows people to raise money for almost any reason, and it doesn’t vet each campaign for authenticity. In fact, it has an incentive not to -- it takes a 5 percent cut of every dollar raised. GoFundMe absolves itself from responsibility with a terms-of-service catch 22: urging donors to contribute money only to users they “personally know and trust” while benefiting greatly from donors who ignore that suggestion.
Earlier this week, a GoFundMe representative told IBTimes the site has “no reason to suspect fraudulent behavior” in regards to Wilson’s campaign. But the people collecting the money in Wilson’s honor remain a mystery to those who have contributed. All we know about them is that they launched a GoFundMe campaign shortly after Wilson was identified as the officer who killed Mike Brown. When IBTimes reached out to the campaign creators via GoFundMe’s message system, we received this response from an anonymous email address:
“Thank you for reaching out to us. We are not interested in speaking with the press at this time. Please do not attempt to contact myself or any member of my family. I appreciate your understanding regarding this matter.”
More recently, Wilson’s campaign was transferred to Shield of Hope, a tiny Missouri nonprofit whose tax filings show no track record for dealing with the kinds of funds it is now responsible for doling out to Wilson. The organization’s media representative has not responded to our requests for more information.
So the mystery continues, and if it turns out not to end so well, it wouldn’t be the first time for GoFundMe donors. Last year, when 33-year-old family man Alexian Lien was pulled out of his SUV and beaten by bikers on the West Side Highway, a GoFundMe campaign appeared shortly after video footage of the motorcycle chase went viral. The campaign had raised just over $2,500 before a lawyer representing the bedridden Lien told IBTimes that the person who launched it was not authorized to collect funds on his behalf.
As for Curtis Shannon, he is now aware that the mere act of launching a GoFundMe campaign attracts suspicion, as some commenters on his page expressed their belief that he might be scamming them out of their money. In an update Thursday, Shannon wrote his donors assuring them that he was committed to being transparent with how their money is being spent. He added that, as a show of good faith, he is holding off on withdrawing the funds, even though GoFundMe allows campaign creators to begin doing so immediately. “Although I CAN choose to pull money every time you give, I feel that would only feed into the skepticism,” Shannon wrote.
Healthy skepticism or paranoia? Watch Shannon’s video below and decide for yourself.