Well before the deadly attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, GoFundMe banned hate groups and causes from its platforms. In its terms of service, the company says its services cannot be used to promote “hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, terrorism, or intolerance of any kind.”
But alt-right groups appear to be skirting moderators, and campaigns set up before the Charlottesville protests may show just how easy it is to evade those rules. This month, a left-leaning alternative media group called Unicorn Riot began publishing leaked screenshots from Discord, a chat service popular with the alt-right. The chats, which also revealed discussions about violence, were from a server convened to plan out the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” protests.
The leaked Discord chats included screenshots of channels created to “sponsor” trips to Charlottesville. Several people came through the channel to ask for travel money, and in at least two cases, provided links to GoFundMe pages. Likely realizing that those pages would be targets for banning, however, they were disguised in innocuous and misleading descriptions. “One of our dear friends has fallen on some hard times financially and lives in a very remote area,” one of the pages said. “He would like to attend a family reunion and see all of his Brothers.”
The page was organized by an “Ignis Faatus,” a name used by a host of a racist alt-right podcast. The fund was also promoted last month on a page hosting the podcast. Sometime after the screenshots were leaked, the campaign was pulled — but not before it reached its $1,250 goal. It’s unclear whether the fundraiser money was used for travel, but the organizer of the page, a “Paul Hooberson Walsh,” appeared on a purported list of attendees.
Another campaign organized under Walsh’s name was set up for the “Detroit Right, a self-organized group of young Republicans and Conservatives,” which claimed to be planning an August road trip to Dixie. The image on the page showed Rodin’s The Thinker and included the text, “With beautiful convictions come beautiful strengths.” On Discord, the group was referred to as “people from the Greater Michigan Reich.”
That campaign raised only a few hundred dollars, but even after the screenshots were leaked — and well after the rally — the page was still accessible, and was marked as completed. (GoFundMe takes about an 8 percent cut on campaigns, plus a 30-cent fee per donation.) When The Verge approached GoFundMe and asked why the page hadn’t been banned, the company quickly removed it.
In a statement, a GoFundMe spokesperson said “white nationalists and neo-Nazis cannot use GoFundMe to promote hatred, racism, or intolerance, and if a campaign violates GoFundMe’s terms of service, we’ll remove it from the platform.” The company said it had banned the campaigns and users from its platform, and also pointed to its work removing campaigns for the alleged Charlottesville killer.
In the wake of Charlottesville, a number of companies, including GoFundMe and Kickstarter, as well as titans like Facebook, have made an emphatic push to rid their platforms of alt-right and neo-Nazi users and causes. It’s unclear why these campaigners decided to crowdfund their efforts using GoFundMe, and not the numerous other platforms that have emerged with less strict moderation policies, including RootBocks.
Still, the pages raise questions about how to effectively police platforms like GoFundMe, and whether it’s possible to rid platforms of these causes entirely.