October 1, 2020

According to the European Commission “Crowdfunding is an emerging alternative form of financing that connects those who can give, lend or invest money directly with those who need financing for a specific project. It usually refers to public online calls to contribute finance to specific projects.” During COVID-19 lockdowns, these platforms saw a significant increase in their traffic.

Our previous investigation regarding a French white supremacist network already called these services to our attention. This extremist network was using a French crowdfunding platform called Tipeee as a way to monetise polarising content and disinformation. We investigated more deeply how these platforms address disinformation on their services. For this blogpost, we had a closer look at Kickstarter, Patreon, GoFundMe, Indiegogo and Tipeee. Here are our main findings:

  • It is possible to monetise disinformation or conspiratorial narratives on crowdfunding platforms  both indirectly and directly.
  • Some crowdfunding platforms have taken action against instances of monetisation attempts connected to COVID-19 disinformation and scams on their services. But these actions seem incoherent (ad hoc) and are not regularly enforced.
  • Conspiracists and fringe movements use crowdfunding platforms to raise money even when their content has been demonetised/removed on other mainstream social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube.

Indirect monetisation of disinformation on crowdfunding platforms

We found instances of indirect monetisation on crowdfunding platforms. In practice, users display multiple links on crowdfunding platforms. These links redirect potential audiences towards disinformation content hosted on other platforms (YouTube, Vimeo, BitChute…) where part of the monetisation takes place.

On Patreon, we found several accounts aiming to redirect general audiences to QAnon-related content on Youtube or on other platforms. (see for example this account or this one). On the French crowdfunding platform Tipeee, the “independent journalist”  Vincent Lapierre, who manages the alternative media “Le Media pour tous”[1], encourages you to have a look at his Youtube channel.

Direct monetisation of disinformation on crowdfunding platforms

More worrisome is the direct monetisation of disinformation happening on crowdfunding platforms: on Kickstarter, we found a user openly raising money for a documentary project suggesting that COVID-19 is a conspiracy.

On Patreon, we found several instances of direct monetisation of COVID-19 disinformation, including posts promoting a device allegedly protecting against COVID-19 and 5G, as well as posts related to the “Plandemic” conspiracy video, which gained attention on YouTube before being removed by the platform.

We also found an account called “Stranger than fiction” entirely dedicated to disinformation, which openly states that their content was Banned by screwtube and fakebook, our videos have been viewed over a billion times.

Alternative news channel “Stranger than fiction” on Patreon: “Stranger Than Fiction News delivers powerful reports on politics and current events… if you’re tired of the GMOs, the endless wars, the mandated vaccines, the geo-engineering then STFN is the place for you.”

This behaviour, calling attention to the content moderation or ‘censorship’ policies of one platform to encourage donation on another, is not uncommon. The French account Libre Penseur, who was identified by a report from NewsGuardTech as one of the main sources of COVID-19 disinformation on French-speaking Twitter, finances a big part of his activities thanks to the French crowdfunding platform Tipeee. On Tipeee, to attract donations, he openly explained that his videos have been de-monetised by YouTube and that donations are the only thing allowing him to continue to work. Similarly, a QAnon supporter asserts that she makes her videos only available to Patreon donors because she cannot use YouTube any longer due to censorship.

On the US-based crowdfunding platform IndieGogo, EU DisinfoLab found a successful crowdfunding campaign of €133.903 for a book called Revolution Q. This book, now also available on Amazon, claims to be “Written for both newcomers and long-time QAnon[1] fans alike, this book is a treasure-trove of information designed to help everyone weather The Storm.”

On a positive note, it is also possible to address disinformation on these platforms. We found crowdfunded projects related to media literacy and the fight against disinformation. There are, however, no labels on the platform to help users distinguish a project promoting disinformation from a project responding to it.[2]

Crowdfunding platforms policies against disinformation and harmful content

Disinformation about 5G exemplifies the extent of the problem caused by a lack of actions from crowdfunding platforms against disinformation. [4]

A closer look at 5G conspiratorial narratives on a platform like Patreon, yielded dozens of results in English but also in Italian, Swedish and German. Examples include: “5G – Das steckt wirklich dahinter” (5G what truly lies behind), “The 5G Apocalypse-Radiation Warfare”, “How 5G Could be Used to Block Oxygen”; “Vad är 5G: Fördelar eller faror?” (what is 5G, advantage or danger?)… all these narratives are accessible on Patreon and monetised, or used to advertise  accounts and support further disinformation content.

In April 2020, the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, announced that it would ban from its platform conspiratorial content falsely linking 5G and COVID-19.. However, looking at 5G and keywords linked to radiations, we could still find anti-5G conspiracy campaigns present on GoFundMe such as this one labelled with a URL saying “Stop 5G AMP Tyrannical covid 19 regulations”, another one using a video explaining a conspiracy between Australian public authorities and mobile operators to impose 5G despite health dangers, or this last one funding a Belgian association which promotes conspiracy theories around COVID-19, vaccines and 5G.

Moderation policies on crowdfunding platforms differ widely in both their scope and the type of content they prohibit. Tipeee does not take responsibility for the content but leaves the possibility of removing harmful content. Kickstarter bans health scams claiming to cure illnesses or health conditions as well as projects that promote discrimination, bigotry, or intolerance towards marginalized groups. Despite such policies, we found at least one instance of a campaign promoting COVID-19 masks, claiming they work better than surgical masks.

Example of a campaign to promote masks that claim to work better than surgical masks on Kickstarter

Patreon claims they would review and take action on “serious attacks on people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability or serious medical conditions.” They also claim it is prohibited to “use Patreon as a prank or to fund non-activity. For example, a Creator cannot collect funds for *not doing* something, such as, I will stop tweeting videos of playing the harmonica badly if I reach $200 per month.”  According to a report from the nonprofit research organization Data & Society, Patreon content moderation team was composed of only “six full-time members, serving around 100,000 creators around the world” in 2018[1].

These platforms seem to depend heavily on users’ reports to moderate content (see for example “How GoFundMe protects donors from fraudulent activity”), raising questions about their ability to actively reduce the spread of disinformation and scams during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.  On Patreon, which also claims to rely heavily on user reporting of content that violates its community guidelines, creators can nonetheless publish private posts that are available and can only be reported to moderation teams by users who support them financially (and are thus unlikely to do so). This effectively creates a loophole whereby users can spread and finance disinformation without moderation.

In this example, the owner of a Patreon account disseminated conspiratorial content (an interview with Dr Mikovits, the creator of the controversial documentary “Plandemic”) to his entire community with some private posts. These private posts can be seen at least partly by everyone. However, only those supporting financially this Patreon creator can report this content to Patreon’s Trust and Safety team.

In addition to its 5G policy announced in April 2020, we found that the crowdfunding site GoFundMe also took action to remove a fundraiser in favor of the author of the conspiratorial documentary “Plandemic” and some specific anti-mask content. In the anti-mask case, the Alaskan campaign called “Truth Unmasked” did raise $5000 on the platform before being removed. GoFundMe’s policies allow the company to take down any campaigns that it deems “misleading”. However, no clear explanation was given by the company on the reason for this content to be removed (except “violation of the platform’s terms of service”), underlining that it might not have any clear policies for such specific cases. Moreover, we found out that this campaign kept fundraising, and moved to another crowdfunding website called Fundly, where it raised another $5000.

On a similar topic, both GoFundMe and IndieGogo announced in 2019 they would ban anti-vax content. But during our research, we could find campaigns promoting antivax content such as this ongoing one, which has already been raising more than $80.000.

Conclusion and recommendations:

Major crowdfunding platforms have taken incoherent and ad hoc actions against the monetisation of COVID-19 disinformation and conspiratorial content on their services. The policies of crowdfunding platforms are irregularly enforced, relying mostly on users reporting content or on media pressure related to hate speech. Thus, we found it is possible to monetise both indirectly and directly disinformation on coronavirus conspiracies and scams.

At the same time as so-called “gatekeeper” social media platforms are updating their policies to limit the spread of disinformation on their services, we observe that conspiracists and fringe movements are investing in social presence on crowdfunding platforms to raise money whether or not their content has been demonetised or removed from other services. We also found that, once banned from a website, these actors have the capacity to join less-heavily moderated crowdfunding platforms to maintain their fundraising activities.

This is insufficient to protect users in the context of a pandemic crisis. This research shows that, despite the focus on addressing disinformation on gatekeeping platforms, the policy void on crowdfunding platforms leaves open the possibility of financially supporting disinformation campaigns. Crowdfunding platforms represent an important terrain for policymakers, activists, and other stakeholders involved in responding to dis- and misinformation.

[1] To know more about what is the QAnon conspiracy movement, you can read this article: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/25/qanon-conspiracy-theory-explained-trump-what-is

[2] https://archive.vn/iKIwO

[3] According to an analysis from Newsguard Tech, Le Media Pour Tous mostly republishes content  from other sources, “including widely debunked conspiracy theories”: https://www.newsguardtech.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/LeMediaPourTous.fr_ENG.pdf

[4] The anti 5G narrative is particularly difficult to respond to and to debunk because it stems from legitimate concerns, and a lack of published research (an information void), mixed with fabricated content. As a result, this type of narrative has motivated people to respond during the pandemic by burning 5G pylons and harassing technicians.

[5]  https://datasociety.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/DS_Content_or_Context_Moderation.pdf