What influence does social cause crowdfunding have on civic discourse?

To date, crowdfunding has played only a relatively minor role in Australian life. However, recent cases – like Israel Folau’s campaign against his contract termination by Rugby Australia – illustrate the increasing influence crowdfunding might serve in both advocacy and adversarial engagement.

I have little to add to the Folau saga, whether it is theological perspectives, employment law implications, or the contested functions of charitable institutions. Still, a few themes emerged during these debates that merit further consideration, for it may help in envisioning what role crowdfunding serves in shaping political participation.

Speech claims and regulation via brand reputation

The first theme to discuss is the use of crowdfunding towards protecting ‘religious freedoms’ and other potentially divisive modes of public expression. Such debates reached highly combustive levels on crowdfunding platforms during 2015, when several campaigns in the US insisted on the right to refuse service according to faith-based views.

Infamous among these cases was ‘Memories Pizza’, whose owners raised more than USD$800,000 after conservative pundits rallied behind their refusal to cater gay weddings. Similar campaigns followed, emerging around the same time as the US Supreme Court’s ruling on the fundamental right to marriage for same-sex couples.

Comparable cases are not common in Australia, though the marriage equality plebiscite did produce one striking example of conservatives crowdfunding a skywriter to write ‘VOTE NO’ in the Sydney sky.

Image Source:  ABC

Image Source: ABC

Perhaps more significantly, the enthusiasm of the Australian Christian Lobby to host Folau’s campaign – raising over $2m in two days – could foretell a more ideologically-driven array of crowdfunding platforms in Australia.

Currently, the acutely brand-conscious GoFundMe dominates this space, claiming at least 80% of the global market. This has worrying implications regarding gatekeeping, visibility, and potential algorithmic bias.

Yet, a dominant platform trying to be palatable to the widest possible market is (maybe?) better than highly restrictive gatekeeping. This is because latter approach can stoke ‘anti-free speech’ conspiracies, edging controversial views into darker corners of the web, where radicalization threatens.

Such possibilities were evident during the brief popularity of crowdfunding platform Hatreon (hate-reon), which prided itself on ‘absent speech policing’ and became a hangout for various alt-right figures.

Hatreon ceased operations after companies like Visa refused to provide operational services. Is this comforting? Maybe. But, as Jarryd Bartle cautions, we should be wary about relying on the moral authority of corporate entities to police each other’s conduct.

Closer to home, the de-platforming of Folau from GoFundMe – and subsequent rejection from the Australia-based MyCause platform – has fed into narratives of Christians feeling ‘bullied’. Why? Well, GoFundMe and MyCause may be private companies, but to many they are also the public square, presumably open to all.

In any case, the resulting furore may have given Scott Morrison an easier task in selling the Religious Discrimination Act (see here and here for arguments for and against).

Is crowdfunding democratic participation by other means?

Meanwhile, we might also be concerned about the long-term implications of ‘voting’ with our dollars. Admittedly, the appeal of cause-driven crowdfunding is neither surprising nor illogical. If, for example, citizens feel elected officials are unrepresentative or more beholden to others, then expressing views through micro-patronage seems an understandable response (though perhaps strategically dangerous).

In any case, these micro-patronage expressions of frustration are often found in satirical campaigns, such as the Trump Baby blimp, or among those seeking to ‘buy’ the vote of politicians alleged to be in the pocket of special interests, or raising funds to access the browsing histories of US Congress members.

Alternatively, one curious development is a currently active campaign against Republican Senator Susan Collins. Senator Collins had indicated she would not support a Supreme Court nominee willing to overturn Roe v. Wade (which protects the right to an abortion under provisions of privacy).

However, many suspected that the nominee – and now appointed Justice – Brett Kavanaugh would indeed be liable to weakening reproductive rights.

To try and thwart this possibility, a campaign was established on Crowdpac, with donations to be given to Collins’ future electoral opponent if she failed to vote against Kavanaugh’s nomination. Over USD$4m has been raised so far.

Collins described the tactic as a ‘bribe’ and others questioned its legality, but supporters framed it as a progressive intervention in lobbying arenas awash with cash.

In Australia, political cause crowdfunding has yet to really take off, though a smattering of campaigns are worth noting. Among them were Senator Sarah Hanson Young’s defamation case against David Leyonhjelm, the counter-campaign to ‘Fight the Greens’, and a few wholly unsuccessful efforts to re-elect hard right nationalist Fraser Anning.

Funnily enough, Anning’s arch-nemesis ‘Egg Boy’ (Will Connolly) was more successful, with well-wishers raising substantial funds for Connolly’s legal fees. When expenses were covered pro bono Connolly donated the funds to victims of the Christchurch mosque shooting.

At their best, cause-based campaigns serve purposes of both care and resistance. They generate positive outcomes for marginalized persons and pressure governing powers to address sources of harm.

An immensely praiseworthy current example is ‘FreethePeople’, which raises funds to free Indigenous women imprisoned for inability to pay fines. This (still active) campaign has achieved immediate impact while sending a resounding message that such practices are wholly intolerable.

Another innovative Australian platform is GIVIT, a not-for-profit which focuses on alleviating poverty and deprivation, proving its worth amid the devastation of the 2011 Queensland Floods, and again when floods hit north Queensland earlier this year. Current GIVIT campaigns also include drought relief for farmers in NSW and winter clothes for vulnerable persons.

Using a ‘virtual warehouse’ model, GIVIT directly matches needs with resources, avoiding situations where charities are swamped with less-than-useful goods. This approach also avoids ‘winner takes all’ scenarios, which occur regularly in crowdfunding (highly sympathetic campaigns attract great attention, while comparable cases can languish unnoticed).

Still, less heartening is the realization of how often crowdfunding is needed to correct failures of the state, or suffering caused by private interests. An obvious example is medical expenses, which easily comprises the most common type of campaign despite the very low chances of success and threat of further harm.

Protestors hold images of Ms Dhu, who died in a WA watch house in 2014, after being detained for unpaid fines. Stories like this were the primary drive behind the ‘FreethePeople’ crowdfunding campaign. Source:  ABC

Protestors hold images of Ms Dhu, who died in a WA watch house in 2014, after being detained for unpaid fines. Stories like this were the primary drive behind the ‘FreethePeople’ crowdfunding campaign. Source: ABC

Competing for attention in markets of sympathy

It was these types of heart wrenching campaigns many pointed to when criticizing Folau’s claim he was in ‘the fight of my life’.

Social crowdfunding platforms are effectively markets for sympathy, where users weigh claims to moral worthiness. Such mechanisms currently create many losers and few winners. Even worse, suffering can also be compounded in witnessing how much one’s life is worth, according to ‘the crowd’.

Crowdfunding is a popular tool of recognition and redistribution, promising new ways to govern ourselves and determine what values we hold. However, this is often enabled via for-profit platforms that sell ideals of ‘caring capitalism’ (see Emily Barman’s work on this concept). These platforms exercise exclusive power over who is granted access and legitimacy.

In short, crowdfunding can achieve wondrous things, but we must ensure it does not become a substitute for good governance and institutional protections.