Taipei, Taiwan – GoFundMe froze a fundraising campaign for the far-left news outlet The Grayzone due to “external concerns”, in the latest case to highlight the contentious role of tech companies in regulating controversial speech.
The Grayzone says it was unable to access more than $90,000 that about 1,100 contributors donated to support the work of three reporters.
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Max Blumenthal, the founder and editor of The Grayzone, said the California-based crowdfunding company informed him in mid-August that he would not be allowed to transfer the donations pending a review of the fundraiser related to unspecified “external concerns”.
The donations were ultimately refunded to the donors after The Grayzone moved the fundraising campaign to a rival crowding funding platform.
Blumenthal said he believes the review was undertaken for “political reasons” related to the website’s coverage of the war in Ukraine.
“They only told me due to some external concerns, and I assume that someone would have to be fairly powerful to get GoFundMe to overlook the profit motive that usually governs companies like this to cancel a fundraiser that is extremely successful,” Blumenthal told Al Jazeera on Friday.
Blumenthal added that The Grayzone’s managing editor Wyatt Reed had similar problems with payment platforms Paypal and Venmo following his reporting on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
GoFundMe said that every fundraiser on its platform is subject to review and that The Grayzone was able to continue to solicit donations until it cancelled the fundraiser.
“Throughout this evaluation, the fundraiser continued to be live and open to donations on the site,” GoFundMe’s Director of Public Affairs Jalen Drummond told Al Jazeera.
Drummond did not elaborate on the concerns related to The Grayzone, but confirmed that the platform’s terms of service do not allow users to “promote inaccurate or misleading information”.
The Grayzone is known for its critical coverage of US foreign policy and anti-war views, but has been accused of spreading misinformation and Chinese and Russian government propaganda, including debunked claims about the conflict in Ukraine and whitewashed accounts of Beijing’s repression of ethnic minority Muslims in far-western Xinjiang.
The move by GoFundMe is the latest case to underline thorny questions about the role of Big Tech in adjudicating truth online.
Over the past decade, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LINE and PayPal have been embroiled in an increasingly polarised debate about the line between protecting free speech and combatting misinformation.
The COVID-19 pandemic, the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, among other events, have underscored the potential real-world harms of online misinformation.
GoFundMe’s treatment of controversial views has come under scrutiny before, including a decision last year to freeze millions of dollars in funds collected on behalf of the “Freedom Convoy” truckers in Canada.
GoFundMe President Juan Benitez later told the Canadian Parliament that the campaign was initially approved but the company reversed course after the movement became increasingly violent and confrontational.
Last year, the platform also suspended fundraising efforts by a Canadian First Nations group engaged in blockading a rail line through British Columbia.
Free speech advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have raised concerns about tech companies suppressing unpopular speech given their “utility-like” status and role as “gatekeeper to the modern-day public square”.
The ACLU has also criticised payment platforms for denying access to sex workers, likening such moves to “financial censorship”.
The International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders did not respond to requests for comment. The Committee to Protect Journalists did not provide a comment in time for publication.
Some tech companies have recently backed off from their role of moderating online speech amid calls for greater tolerance of controversial and fringe views.
Ahead of the 2024 US presidential election, Facebook owner Meta and Youtube have walked back policies aimed at combatting misinformation about COVID-19 and the 2020 election result.
Those moves have prompted alarm among some disinformation analysts and lawmakers, with Democratic Senator Mark Warner warning that allowing election information to proliferate “undermines trust and has dangerous consequences.”
Last year, PayPal came under fire for appearing to add misinformation to its list of prohibited activities subject to a $2,500 fine before clarifying that the update was an “error” and would not go ahead.
X, the social media network formerly known as Twitter, has significantly scaled back its moderation of misinformation and hate speech under billionaire owner Elon Musk, whose management of the platform has polarised critics.
“The way that misinformation is defined and applied by social media sites from Wikipedia to the old regime of Twitter and Facebook is determined by state-sponsored entities and those state-sponsored entities want to suppress the flow of any information or reporting that contravenes their objective,” said Blumenthal, who has since raised $110,000 toward a $150,000 goal on crowdfunding platform Spotfund.
“In this case, the objective is to maintain public support for massive amounts of US military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine,” he added.
“So anything we do could be called misinformation but no one ever defines what it is.”