Are crowdfunding sites becoming too political?

Experts believe controversial, political crowdfunding campaigns show no signs of slowing down.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
3 min read

A crowdfunding campaign for South Carolina police officer Michael Slager raised more than $1,300 before it was shut down by Indiegogo. Screenshot by CNET

Moments after Oklahoma reserve deputy Robert Bates was charged with manslaughter in the fatal shooting of a suspect, a $25,000 fund-raising campaign to pay for his legal bills kicked off on Indiegogo.

By the next day, as cable news channels played footage from police body cameras that captured, in visceral detail, the shooting of the black suspect by the white officer, the popular crowdfunding site suspended the campaign with little comment or warning.

The site has now officially removed the campaign, saying it "did not meet their standards." Not a single dollar was raised.

This wasn't an isolated incident. Just a week ago, Indiegogo removed another campaign to raise cash to pay the legal bills of a white officer charged with murder in the killing of a black man, after a witness' smartphone video of the shooting went viral. In that case, the campaign for now-former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager raised more than $1,300 of its projected $5,000 goal before it was taken down. GoFundMe, another crowdfunding site, removed a similar page supporting Slager.

A shift is happening. Crowdfunding sites are typically places where people seek public donations for projects ranging from paying medical bills to helping the homeless to starting up businesses to manufacturing a product. Some campaigns even invite donors to contribute in exchange for one of the finished products.

Now those same crowdfunding sites -- whose reputations were built on helping musicians, artists and other people behind good causes raise money -- are becoming new portals to fund people involved in controversial, emotionally charged issues.

It's not just to help policemen accused in shootings. A campaign for a small-town Indiana pizzeria that publicly supported a controversial "religious freedom" law critics said was anti-gay took in more than $800,000 in crowdfunding -- despite a national backlash. Similarly, a Washington state florist that was fined $1,000 for refusing to sell wedding flowers to a same-sex couple netted nearly $170,000 in crowdfunding.

Also, before the coast-to-coast outcry over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, who was black, by white Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson last summer, fund-raising pages were set up for both men. Wilson's GoFundMe page even netted more than a quarter-million dollars before it was shut down without explanation.

It raises the question: Is every major polarizing issue now a cause worth crowdfunding?

"I think it was kind of inevitable that crowdfunding would be used to address more controversial, divisive issues," said Rodrigo Davies, a crowdfunding researcher at Stanford University. "I'm not at all surprised. It was just a matter of time."

However, Davies, who also is the head of product at the civic crowdfunding site Neighborhly, said what does surprise him is that Indiegogo and GoFundMe pulled the crowdfunding pages of the officers involved in the recent shootings, and that they did so without any rationale.

"They can't just hold their hands up and say, 'Hey, we're just a host,'" Davies said. "What they have done now sets the tone for future campaigns."

A GoFundMe spokeswoman declined to comment and an Indiegogo spokesman had no immediate comment.

Richard Swart, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley who focuses on crowdfunding, has a similar point of view.

"I would've yanked them down, too," Swart said, but that doesn't mean the sites should have. "I think they were politically polarizing, and I don't think crowdfunding is meant to create polarization."

Swart said this hot-button type of crowdfunding has been happening in America for the past couple of years with no signs of letting up.

Both researchers say more politicized, niche crowdfunding sites will eventually sprout up.

"We're just scratching the surface for sure," Davies said. "Is there an issue you're passionate about, and can we apply collaborative funding to it? Probably."