Is crowdfunding at risk of being weaponized for extremist causes?

How do crowdfunding sites maintain their legitimacy as ‘open’ platforms while avoiding complicity with divisive, injurious, or even outright violent campaigns?

In recent years, far-right and other extremist causes have typically found it difficult to fundraise through online donations. This is largely due to deplatforming efforts, particularly after the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, during which a white supremacist killed a young woman. In response, digital platforms and infrastructure companies made concerted efforts to deny extremists access to fundraising tools. Several retaliatory but short‐lived crowdfunding sites were created, such as the antisemitic GoyFundMe and Hatreon (pronounced hate¬reon). These intentionally antagonistic platforms soon became defunct, usually after payment processors and hosting providers refused services. But what about fundraising campaigns where underlying extremist motives are more difficult to discern? Or where a crowdfunding platform stakes its reputation not on careful stewardship of content to avoid complicity in extremist harms but rather on their refusal to make such determinations, instead privileging ‘free speech’ above all other concerns?

These dilemmas arose during the 2022 Freedom Convoy, a month-long occupation of downtown Ottawa where hundreds of truck drivers and other participants created blockades that brought the city to a standstill. Though ostensibly assembled to protest vaccine mandates for truckers crossing the Canada‐US border, the protests rapidly evolved into a broader movement against all COVID‐19 mandates. Concerns were heightened by the organizers’ close association with far‐right interests. As the occupiers swelled into the thousands, fears grew that violence could erupt in ways comparable with the January 6 US Capitol insurrection.

The Freedom Convoy was supported via crowdfunding, with campaigns on GoFundMe and GiveSendGo raising enormous sums and attracting donors worldwide. Amid criticisms of their complicity in aiding extremism, GoFundMe and GiveSendGo adopted radically different stances, reflecting a growing and concerning divide between ‘Big Tech’ and ‘Alt Tech’ platforms.

In our study, ‘Crowdfunding platforms as conduits for ‘ideological struggle and extremism’, we addressed the following questions:

  • How do crowdfunding sites maintain their legitimacy as ‘open’ platforms while avoiding complicity with divisive, injurious, or even outright violent campaigns?
  • How are such risks recognized and assessed by crowdfunding platforms—especially during rapidly evolving political events—and do differing responses to removing or abiding by such campaigns reflect underlying ideological stances?
  • Given that crowdfunding platforms do not simply moderate the expression of speech but rather the enactment of potentially dangerous ideas, are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that crowdfunding platforms are not weaponized by extremist causes?

We found that GoFundMe has gradually shifted towards more interventionist, safety‐based approaches by restricting campaigns that may cause harm. GiveSendGo, meanwhile, adopts a liberty‐at‐all‐costs approach, doubling down on ‘free speech’ and aligning themselves with a ‘parallel society’ movement.

Consequently, as tensions escalated, GiveSendGo reaffirmed its refusal to suspend the Freedom Convoy campaign. Indeed, when later asked during a parliamentary inquiry on whether GiveSendGo would allow hate-based organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to use their platform, co-founder Jacob Wells stated he would, declaring that ‘We believe, completely to the core of our being, that the danger of the suppression of speech is much more dangerous than speech itself.’ Fascist groups, such as the Proud Boys, have thus had significant fundraising success on GiveSendGo, and it remains popular among white supremacists.

Given the growing threat of extremist fundraising, our study recommends that domestic financial intelligence units (FIUs) take a more proactive role by mandating reporting obligations to ensure the timely identification of anomalous fundraising campaigns. Crowdfunding platforms cannot be left to conduct their own internal audits of potentially harmful campaigns. Instead, greater cooperation between private and public entities is needed, for a damning finding of the Freedom Convoy saga was an apparent lack of coordination between police, intelligence agencies, and private firms. GoFundMe was aware of the Freedom Convoy fundraiser within hours of its creation, long before the first significant arrivals in Ottawa. However, they were not able to perceive the threat the movement posed. Earlier reporting to intelligence agencies would have enabled a brief window of opportunity to intervene before it gathered unstoppable momentum.

We also offer further recommendations relating to oversight mechanisms, as accumulating trends in giving practices—including the massive growth in online giving, more peer‐to‐peer donations, and less direct giving to established institutions—have resulted in a compounding lack of safeguards. Increasingly, funds are given to largely unknown entities with unclear ends, with little accountability, and with shrinking means to recoup funds in cases of criminal activity. In networked worlds where money buys voice, voice fosters ideas, and ideas generate realities, renewed efforts to establish stronger boundaries in online caused‐based giving are urgently needed.

Note: the above draws on the author’s work published in Policy & Internet.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Policy & Internet, nor the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.