Damned if we …

Daryl HattonConnectionPoint, Entrepreneurship, FundRazr

When I started FundRazr I never expected we’d end up on the horns of a moral dilemma…

Crowdfunding helps people deal with life’s financial challenges by collecting contributions from family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and others in our personal networks. Sometimes these challenges are tragic in nature such as for emergency healthcare or recovery from accidents and are easy for the community to get behind and support. However, as crowdfunding has grown, some of the challenges are starting to involve the “messy” parts of living in a complex civil society.

Last week brought a great example of this. Michael Slager, a white South Carolina police officer, was captured on video shooting eight rounds into the back of an unarmed and fleeing black man named Walter Scott. On receipt of the video, the chief of police fired Slager and arrested him on charges of murder. Given the current racial tensions in the US this situation has been covered extensively by the media.

A social media group was formed on Facebook to help support and defend Slager. They launched a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to raise funds for Slager’s legal defense. After two days, GoFundMe shut down the campaign on grounds it violates their Terms of Service which provides for stopping campaigns that match a list of issues including:

  • Campaigns in defense of formal charges of heinous crimes, including violent, hateful, or sexual acts

The defense group shifted their efforts to running a similar themed campaign on Indiegogo. At the time, an Indiegogo spokesperson claimed, “Indiegogo allows anyone, anywhere to fund ideas that matter to them and just like other open platforms — such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — we don’t judge the content of campaigns as long as they are in compliance with our Terms of Use.”

Two days later, and after suffering significant negative social media pressure, Indiegogo terminated the campaign claiming it did not meet the criteria of their Trust and Safety team.

On FundRazr, we had one campaign start to raise funds for the same purpose as the campaigns on the other platforms. However, the campaign owner deleted it after receiving negative social media feedback and before we evaluated it. Even during the short time the campaign was live, it attracted traditional and social media attention and they demanded to know if we intended to allow the campaign to continue. If we had, given the tone of the queries we can safely assume we would have had to endure an onslaught of negative media coverage.

Some would say, “And you’d deserve it! Why would you allow him or anyone who supports him to run a campaign? He committed a terrible crime and doesn’t deserve any help!”

While I personally agree that it appears he committed a despicable crime we have a number of important concepts in our supposedly civil society that become very important in situations like this.

The first is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

It seems pretty clear from the video evidence that Slager did what he has been charged with. We have a legal system run by very qualified and experienced individuals whom we entrust to rule on this issue in accordance with the laws of our society and dispense punishment (if appropriate) on our behalf. I expect they’ll do a good job and justice will be served.

Yet, in this case, some vocal members of the crowd (and some members of the media for that matter) are outraged at his (alleged) crime and are looking for immediate and satisfying punishment. This is vigilante behavior.  As you can surely see, this is in direct contravention of a principle most of us would desperately want to rely on if we made a major mistake in our own lives and is a cornerstone of a fair and just legal system. In addition, as a side effect, in the vigilantes’ view anyone associated with wanting to help him is immediately suspect and judged morally inferior. This is worrying.

The second is the right to a fair trial.

These days a trial involving charges of murder, especially one with high profile media coverage, can be very expensive. It can be expected that in this sensitive situation the prosecution will invest significant time and resources to develop and present their case. In that light, and to fully counter that investment, the defense team will need to expend similar resources. This level of expenditure would bankrupt most people if they could even afford to pay any of it. Crowdfunding is one way a person could help themselves in this circumstance.

Bankrupting the defendant can be viewed as all well and good if we think we are just punishing the person accused of the crime. But by extension, this also affects Slager’s pregnant wife and unborn child and his two step-children. While we may question her judgement for being involved with a person capable of this crime it is highly likely there is way more going on than we can fully learn and understand and it certainly doesn’t make sense to accuse the unborn child or step-children of any complicity or for them to suffer because of it.

One of the concepts expressed by the social media group raising money was that Slager’s wife may require financial support through what will be a very challenging period in her life. While I doubt the intentions behind the campaign were actually good (I suspect someone was taking an opportunist view of the situation and was trying to inject themselves into it for other reasons) there are compassionate arguments that can be made to fully justify helping her out. Sadly, given the nature of the crime and the anger of the community this is not likely to happen. And therein lies the rub.

While the Indiegogo campaign was live, there were loud and angry calls across social media for the company to shutdown (censor) the campaign. When the initial protests were not responded to immediately, the crowd started to demand a boycott of Indiegogo and even tried to raise money using the service (!) to place a billboard across the street from their headquarters accusing them of supporting racist cops.

At FundRazr we’ve experienced similar calls in the past for boycotts and threats of disruptive behavior against ourselves and other campaigns on our platform. It cannot be said strongly enough that this is bullying, disrespectful, censoring, anti-social and even vigilante behavior that has no place in a civil society.

We’ve managed to survive these attacks in the past but usually because the issues were less sensitive and dramatic. For example, our platform is currently used to raise money for the legal defense of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden among others. We could have barred their campaign on the basis that some in the US government painted their actions as treasonous acts. However, the same issues of innocence and fair trial are present in those situations as well and we elected to allow the campaigns to continue to help support the fundamental principles behind them. This occasionally results in negative social media but in general has been tolerable.

I care deeply about respecting and supporting the foundations of our society and especially in the areas of fundamental freedoms. We are in a unique situation in our small company in that we are creating a massive change in the way critical situations around the world are funded. As a very young company and young industry we are constantly encountering new situations and are developing our policies and responses as we go. We take this duty very seriously and do our best to act with the best interests of society in mind at all times. Our hope is that we can provide a platform that can be trusted to not only operate securely and in the best interests of our customers and community but to be there to help people when they need it most.

However, we are very vulnerable to the actions of the vigilante crowd. If we stand up for what is right and just and in protection of our joint fundamental freedoms we stand the risk of losing everything we have built and killing off our ability to execute our mission to help everyone who needs a mechanism to deal with critical funding challenges in their lives.

But every time we pull back and censor a campaign based on some arbitrary criteria we might establish to keep ourselves safer while still delivering our service we weaken our society. We can think of this like seeing bullying behavior in the workforce and turning away without addressing it so that we keep the peace. Eventually the bullying behavior will take over as the norm and everyone will get hurt.

So we are damned if we do (allow controversial campaigns to run) and damned if we don’t. In the first situation we harm ourselves and our ability to help our customers as we take the brunt of their social media displeasure. In the second, we undermine our fundamental freedoms and slowly chip away at the foundations of our society.

I likely can’t be perfect in this but I need to be courageous and chose to let campaigns run. Many people gave their lives to help me have these freedoms. I need to remember that and act accordingly.