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#PatreonPurge: Why YouTube’s Political Creators Distrust the Crowdfunding Site

#PatreonPurge: Why YouTube’s Political Creators Distrust the Crowdfunding Site

YouTube is no safe haven for controversial political content. Since last year’s Adpocalypse, the advertiser boycott campaign that emerged after an exposé published by The Wall Street Journal revealed major corporations were accidentally funding far-right extremists via their own online commercials, the popular video-sharing website has gone to aggressive lengths to ensure politically divisive content is unprofitable. 

YouTube’s administrators showed their hand with the rise of limited advertisements, reduced network reaches, shadowbanning and even complete demonetization if videos or tags involved sensitive political-cultural material, whether tame or extremist in nature. This caused political content creators of all bipartisan stripes to crowdsource their income via third-party sources.

This was a golden opportunity for Patreon, the online membership service offering over 100,000 creators this liberty with the promise of allowing a “cornucopia of creativity.” All good things, however, come to an end. In the vein of big tech’s ultimatum, Patreon has stated their terms of service policies are enforced their way or creators can hit the highway. 

By design, the company’s one-sided relationship with their base has no middle ground. This is why the private platform can enact three bans of highly controversial political figures within the span of a week without any assurances their conduct actually violated Patreon’s TOS. We just have to take the word of their administrators at face value.

The first account removed was British YouTuber Carl Benjamin, otherwise known by his pseudonym Sargon of Akkad, who was previously earning more than $12,000 a month by his base of loyal followers. Benjamin had received no warnings about his account until he messaged the “trust and safety team” directly, received an email explaining that his use of the n-word on another channel, where he was retaliating against harassers of the alt-right, was a violation under hate speech. Despite the word being uttered outside of his YouTube channel, where Patreon’s jurisdiction should end, it was somehow subject to the removal process. 

This ban was followed by the swift removal of notorious provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos who was removed 24 hours after the account was published. The former tech editor for Breitbart was told his association with the far-right group the Proud Boys, while recently disavowed, meant he couldn’t use the platform ever again. This too is quite ironic given progressives are rejecting the concept of progress through redemption and literal social justice. But alas, ‘once a sinner…’

The last ban was of James Allsup, an actual member of the online alt-right who helped organize the Unite The Right rally where his band of anti-semitic thugs marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. He hasn’t disavowed these extremist groups and has actively pushed debunked conspiracies, such as Heather Heyer dying of a heart attack, to improve the optics of the far-right.

These are all very different people, who should be judged on their own individual merits, who were given swift non-justice by the broad hand of unaccountable administrators. Should it need explaining why due process, whether in the public or private sector, is fundamental to ensuring justice? Should these decisions at least be considered by an independent adjudicator? Or is Patreon truly a no-tolerance website? Does Patreon owe proof to their consumers that the creators that they choose to support via their platform have actually violated the terms the company claims that they have violated? 

After all, this isn’t the first time Patreon has landed themselves in a censorship controversy. In July, 2017 the site removed conservative activist-commentator Lauren Southern for her role in filming a right-wing effort to block refugee boats in Europe. Their claim was her footage, which was actually filmed by her crew while she was at home, could cause “loss of life.” Southern rightfully declared this an incredible statement worthy of incredible evidence that should be presented before a neutral body with representatives to make their cases. 

Instead of this, Southern was booted by the platform overnight while CEO Jack Conte did media rounds explaining away the issue. He claims this trend isn’t about politics, but the vast majority of deleted or banned channels self-described as either “politically incorrect” or “anti-social justice,” which happen to disagree with the hate speech policies by which they were removed over. YouTubers turned to Patreon as a beacon to subvert big tech censorship, meanwhile, the site conducts itself in the same unaccountable manner. 

In his interview with The Rubin Report, a Koch-linked right-wing talk show, Conte explained Patreon was different from traditional big tech institutions in saying “advertisers are not stakeholders in the Patreon ecosystem” thus leaving them free from censorship by corporations… despite being a corporation that earns creators over $350 million per year, according to estimates from The Guardian. The site is a free marketer’s wet dream, meaning it’s subject to the exact same deadly catch of censorship being a feature, not a bug, of inscrutable capitalism.

As described by independent journalist Diana Davison, “moral outrage can be a good business strategy” for those of the social justice variety. “The core issue is freedom of speech,” Davison writes. “In the midst of culture wars that have become extremely polarized, the open discussion of ideas is vital. While Conte declared the lack of advertiser influence made his platform different, he stated that they eliminate content that may cause preferred creators to avoid Patreon. Basically, they were still vulnerable to pressure groups.”

Due process, through a truly independent body analyzing concrete policy, would ensure this model of moral pressure for profits isn’t prioritized over market consumer rights. Allsup wouldn’t survive a trial given his record, Yiannopoulous’ fate would be debatable and Benjamin could be exonerated if given a proper trial. Conte even told Rubin “the second you turn that speech into action, that’s the line in our content policy.” Speech, no matter how vile, isn’t the same as action. By his own admission, the site clearly overstepped because of their dislike for Benjamin uttering the unspoken racial word, which is petty enforcement at best and emotionally tyrannical at worst.

By terminating Benjamin’s account, Patreon has cultivated a movement of users refusing to use the site for its untrustworthy behaviour. Rubin uploaded his thoughts on receiving messages declaring the removal of pledges. He was joined by other Patreon users, such as controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson and Quillette journalist Claire Lehmann, noting this vindicates the slippery slope fallacy given ambiguous policy from unnamed judges leaves everyone’s online liberties at a potential risk. It’s not enough to say “Well, they have the right to do this” because of free market worship. For those truly against privatized censorship, a demand for due process, whether through government or outsourced arbitration, is a necessary right.

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