Journalists and Patronage

(See also my essay on Patreon and its literal problem with nazis.)

It's about ethics in journalism. Seriously, it is. The rise of direct funding of creative and business projects through Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and others, and the ongoing support of same through Patreon (which is not sui generis, but generates the only substantive volume), brings out new issues regarding conflicts of issues between journalists and the people and organizations they cover.

This has been highlighted speciously as a major component of GamerGate (GG). Somewhere a few months ago, it became a trope in the harassment campaign against Zoe Quinn (that morphed into GG) that journalists contributing to Patreon projects were de facto corrupt: their collusion in helping a creator make things on a regular basis (Patreon is per item created or per month) meant that they couldn't fairly review or write about that creator's work.

There's a kernel of truth in this. It's not absolute, and the basis on which the conflict arises isn't the one that GGers maintain.

Journalists are expected to avoid conflicts of interest. As I wrote a month ago, personal ethical standards and disclosure to one's editors are key tenets in avoiding conflicts. Editors have to be vigilant as well, especially when dealing with large numbers of freelance writers, to ensure that policies aren't violated.

Journalists can write about friends, enemies, family members, projects towards which they have donated money, financial vehicles in which they have invested, companies in which they own stock, firms they have founded, etc. But that can only be done when the publication in which the article appears has been fully informed of all the connections and, typically, disclosed them all to readers. (Some publications fall afoul of this by deciding not to disclose even when a writer has provided full disclosure, and then get called on it later.)

Hanna Rosin penned a remarkable example of this in The New Republic recently, describing getting back in touch with noted fabulist Stephen Glass, who was a good friend of hers at that publication before his lies were uncovered. It's both a work of solid journalism and a deeply personal essay that's informed by her biases and emotional response, which she reveals as she goes.

The odd part with patronage and conflicts, though, is that journalists typically aren't prohibited from buying things — we're allowed to pay for stuff we want and use. The exception is investment. If you work for a news organization, you're typically required to not invest in specific companies; if you have a financial planner who handles this for you, it can be ok. It depends on the publication. This is done to put reporters and publications beyond reproach, although most reporters, except with penny stocks, cannot move the price of an investment. (Reporters may obtain inside information, however, which is illegal to trade upon, so that's another reason to be disinvested from individual companies.)

Reward-based crowdfunding was essentially zero in 2009, and now represents hundreds of millions of dollars a year. A recent US law also enabled investment-style crowdfunding, which will likely grow into the billions per year, but is more easily dealt with, because a return on the investment is expected, and thus conflicts must be avoided.

If I give $50 to a Kickstarter campaign and am both supporting a person making a thing, but also expect to get a DVD and a poster of the final result, is that a conflict? The answer would seem to be no. In that case, it's like a pre-order, even if it costs more than the final result, because I'm getting something premium. Do I expect something from the creator as a result? Only the reward.

It gets murkier, in my view, when you go into purely patronage level support. If I give $1,000 to become a Supreme Angel of a project, and get my name emblazoned in the credits, can I credibly write about the project later? Again, disclosure matters. If I want to write about it, I have to be clear with my editors that I paid that money and my name is splashed all over the place. I have a bias towards the project's success as a result.

In Patreon, the equation is typically different. Patreon offers ongoing support for creators, where you pledge a fixed amount that is billed either monthly or at project milestones, such as the creation of a video. The nature of support is different. The goals may be specific (an artist plans to make five new casual videogames over two years), but the intent to me always seems more warm and fuzzy than with a goal-based, closed-end crowdfunding campaign.

However, money is still a key defining attribute. If someone gives $1 per month to Zoe Quinn, as I have done for months, does $12 per year actually make a difference in Quinn's life? Does it give me undue influence over her work or make it possible for me to demand an exclusive interview that would boost my pageviews? (Never mind that I don't write about or review games, and that I don't write for any outlet that pays me based in pageviews.)

It's de minimus: something so small, that it doesn't matter. In aggregate, 5,000 people giving $1 per month each is significant; but my individual contribution is nearly meaningless on its own, except as a point of morale and support. If I were giving $20 per month, that's not much each month, but it starts to add up to something decent over a year.

I think the crux is that aspect of support versus purchase. If the primary intent, expressed even by the low dollar amount, is for me to indicate that I agree with someone, that is a conflict, even if there's no "corruption" to use GG's favorite word. I am not corrupted by giving money, nor the recipient by receiving it. But it does indicate the basis of a relationship, and should be disclosed. When I give $25 to a Kickstarter campaign, it's both de minimus and it doesn't indicate that I care for more than the value of what I'll get in return.

I supported Brianna Wu's Kickstarter campaign to bring Revolution 60 to Windows for $25, but I don't own a PC, and it was a gesture of support. But I also publicly promoted the Kickstarter, and as someone rallying others to contribute, it would only be fair for me to be clear in writing about the game or Brianna that I was a booster.

It's a problem to try to impose a blanket ban on patronage by journalists and reviewers, and not just because it's seemingly a demand of GamerGate. (In the confusion that is GG, some of the leading voices — represented by the graph of those who profess support for GG and who follow those people — have used crowdfunding and are game designers or writers. And many people cited as being "corrupt" aren't writers or aren't involved in games journalist whatsoever.)

Rather, it boils down to personal agency. Most people who write about games are freelance or independent. Freelancers (like yours truly) are allowed a lot more leeway, because we don't strictly represent a publication. This requires that we disclose more to ensure our editors aren't tripped up by connections they don't know about. But it also means we're more free to engage outside one aspect of our professional lives. Some games writers make games; some game developers also write. Full-time writers face many more restrictions already against what they can do because of that paycheck. Kotaku decided Patreon, for some of the reasons I mention, is simply too entangling in general, and now bans contributions through that means by all their writers.

Part of the irony in GamerGate is the idea that many indie developers and games journalists make robust livings from their work. One trope in GG has it that both categories are nearly entirely comprised of those with parental wealth, trust funds, or millions earned through other means. Yes, GGers seriously believe this.

It's the thought that counts more than the money: if all publications banned all contributors from using Patreon, I would suspect the reduction in patronage would be slight for any individual creator. Most games journalists don't make enough money to support anything heavily.

The Problem with Patreon: Nazis, Pedophilia Pushers, Harassers, and More

This post updated with information about 8chan on December 16.

Note: On December 21, Patreon updated its guidelines for creators. We have yet to see precisely how they will apply them, but it is likely that the three examples below will be warned or banned.

Update: On January 5, both weev and the 8chan Patreon account pages now show the message, "This page has been removed for not complying with Patreon Community Guidelines."

Update: In December 2018, the New York Times reported on Patreon removing creators for a variety of what it characterized as hate speech and violations of its policies, and that 10% of Patreon’s staff now deals with “safety and trust.”

Patreon is the single greatest thing to come into being to support the ongoing needs of creative people by allowing those who want to ask for financial contributions that allow them the time to make art, music, podcasts, videos, and much more from people who most want to support them. Rather than the tip jar of old or a PayPal link or what have you, Patreon is about direct patronage. Give $X per thing (video, cartoon, song) or $X per month, and that person or group will make those things.

This is a fantastic idea embodied in a site that's celebratory. I kind of love everything about Patreon, and used it myself for over a year (collecting around $3,000) with my podcast The New Disruptors. It's a pretty frictionless way to provide ongoing patronage, and establish a wonderfully direct conduit between people who make ideas and things and their audience. I know dozens of folks for whom Patreon pays the rent up to paying most of what they need to make. Some "superstars" are on the system, too, like Zach Weinersmith, who gets over $8,700 a month for creating cartoons in addition to his other revenue sources.

But Patreon has a problem. It hasn't drawn a bright line about what constitutes acceptable kinds of things to fund. In not drawing that line, it is allowing people who engage in and perpetuate in hate crimes, online abuse, and other forms of harassment to have a forum from which they raise money that lets them perpetuate their ideology. And yet. Where do they re-draw that line to exclude them without throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

I'll focus on three cases that are extreme; I'm sure there are many more, but these three highlight the problem.

Weev

Andrew Auernheimer ("weev") is a notorious Internet troll who took credit for orchestrating and being involved in an array of harassment against others, until he decided he could troll everyone again by denying any involvement later. He is a literal national socialist, with a large swastika tattooed on his chest. Most of his public utterances are beyond the pale of acceptable speech in most online forums, and yet carefully calibrated to fall within the provisions of constitutionally protected speech in government-controlled venues. Pando published a superb interview with him in Lebanon that links to a lot of the background as well. It neither overstates him nor plays down his worst attributes.

He became a darling of some because the US government prosecuted him for a ridiculous hacking charge involved AT&T's unsecured iPad account system. He should never have been charged, prosecuted, or convicted, and a judge had him released because of a technicality involving venues. However, that doesn't mitigate the hateful ideology he pursues against both individuals and groups. And he has a Patreon account which raises a modest sum (under $300 per month) as well as promotes his crypto-currency addresses for contributions.

In his Patreon campaign, he carefully avoids blaming Jews and using racial and other obscenities to stay within the ostensible rules. It takes a moment's searching to find out his actual sympathies and the behavior he engages in elsewhere. He notes that he's been banned from another service.

8chan

When 4chan, a notoriously freewheeling site that is known for launching pranks and far worse, kicked out the GamerGate forum, 8chan was there to welcome them. 8chan was founded more than a year ago as a no-holds-barred site, in which "free speech" — really, "no site moderation," since 8chan isn't a government entity — was the essential rule.

Daily Dot documented how 8chan's lack of restrictions has led to content that goes beyond unpalatable into the very possibly or absolutely certainly illegal. The site's operator openly finds appalling some of the content on 8chan, but he doesn't make judgments about what is posted. This is why both legally odious and likely illegal (and much actionable) content has migrated to 8chan.

The site's operator uses Patreon to raise funds that cover his costs, and apparently partly or in full allowed him to focus on the site full time. He's currently in the Philippines, apparently working on a joint project with another site.

The Sarkeesian Effect

Two rabid individuals, Jordan Owen and Davis Aurini, use Patreon to receive funds for every monthly update video they make about their movie, The Sarkeesian Effect. Their backers currently fund them at over $9,200 per monthly video.

Owen and Aurini's behavior is well documented. They believe "social justice warriors" (SJWs) have a specific agenda to change society and are succeeding, particularly in the area of game journalist and game development. We Hunted the Mammoth, a site that exposes and dissects the Men's Right Activists (MRAs) movement has a large number of articles about Aurini. Both Owen and Aurini regularly post long videos talking endlessly about Sarkeesian and others.

Their campaign raises more specific issues than Auernheimer's: his threats are of a general variety; their campaign focuses on a single person, who is absolutely in the public eye and clearly qualifies as a public figure. Yet they have kept the tone of their Patreon campaign calm and almost professional. Yet they slip at times:

The lie that Ms. Sarkeesian has perpetuated is that there is no legitimate criticism of her views whatsoever and that anyone who disagrees with her is harassing her. This, among many other falsehoods, will be debunked in our film."

This skirts the line on personal harassment, but seems to fall just short of it.

As with Auernheimer, it takes no effort at all to determine the nature of their typical behavior outside fundraising.

Should Anything Be Done?

Here's the tough part: should Patreon be considering the behavior of people except on their site, in what is stated or posted there? There are absolutely other Patreon campaigns that tiptoe on the boundaries of topics that I believe strongly in. Under what standard can those campaigns be evaluated without taking a political or personal stance?

Jack Conte, Patreon's founder and half of Pomplamoose, responded around the end of September on Twitter to concerns about The Sarkeesian Effect. Among other things, Conte wrote:

please try to understand. This is so hard - as a society, we must let the fringe have a voice - it's so important, even if we disagree

who doesn't deserve an opportunity to speak. Even murderers get a right to a fair trial, right?

There's a longer post from November signed by the Patreon team that goes into more depth, but seems to continue to focus on the creative angle, rather than sorting out the difference between abuse and a range of free expression.

I find myself trying to sort out whether Jack is right or not. As a neutral platform that doesn't have an opinion about the nature of the content that creators make, it is a horribly slippery slope — even when you have a literal Nazi — when said national-socialist troll isn't posting hateful ideology that violates the rules of the site. Likewise, 8chan may host terrible things, but they don't post those terrible things on Patreon itself, nor do they per se create them, but give a place for such awfulness to fester.

Patreon's terms of use has these three items about content that is posted:

  • Defame, abuse, harass, stalk, threaten or otherwise violate the legal rights (such as, but not limited to, rights of privacy and publicity) of others.

  • Publish, post, upload, distribute or disseminate any profane, defamatory, infringing, obscene or unlawful topic, name, material or information.

  • Use the Service for any purpose, including, but not limited to posting or creating content, in violation of local, state, national, or international law.

Kickstarter has a quite similar policy on these aspects, though more broadly defined:

We prohibit projects that are illegal, heavily regulated, or potentially dangerous for backers, as well as rewards that the creator did not make. … [later in the list] Offensive material (e.g., hate speech, encouraging violence against others, etc).

For the Owens/Aurini updates, it's possible some of the posted content violates point two, but they may be exceedingly careful again about material posted to Patreon as updates versus what they unleash on their own followers.

Patreon isn't required to either apply a legal standard ("a fair trial"); they're not the government. Free speech isn't absolute in the public sphere, and it's not a requirement for an inclusive online service designed to help people create things. The flip side is that marginalized people, whose opinions are disliked, do find it hard to speak online because the Internet is so largely a commercial space. The positive parts of Reddit and 4chan are that they allow legitimate speech that is difficult to hear a place to flourish and challenge; they too often also permit activity that is blatantly over the line, and that's their fault.

As a result, any approach that limits unpopular points of view that aren't actually violating the principles cited above would remove points of view that you, dear reader, and I also think should be expressed (even when we don't support their stridency or specifics): on one side, anti-SJWs and people who admire Timothy McVeigh without specifically advocating for repeating his behavior; on the other, say, people who believe the police are criminal gangs in America or believe the Tea Party is an evil force that will destroy America.

Far below a legal standard of proof, there's the question of whether Patreon is encouraging speech and behavior that is detrimental to the Patreon community and larger society. I would argue that it is: that in supporting fringe opinion, you can differentiate between activities that intend to incite harassment or harm on others, whether specific individuals or entire peoples. As a Jew who has friends directly and regularly attacked by the component of the gaming community that agrees with Owens and Aurini, I see specific harm that has and could come of such opinions.

And yet. As I gathered the materials for this post, I kept asking myself: can Patreon vet behavior by its creators outside the scope of its site? The answer seems to be yes, but then one has to ask the limits. There are sex-positive and other kinds of creators on the site, yet Patreon bans pornography with a number of specifics, including "anything we forgot to put on this list but makes our users uncomfortable." If those creators are squeaky "clean" on Patreon, but have explicit material elsewhere, should their Patreon campaigns by canceled, too?

I am so not a believer in the slippery slope in most cases, yet I find myself on one. Patreon has to navigate these troubled waters, and is likely up to their neck in the same conundrums I am. It has to draw the line somewhere, and its current mark seems to enable those who wish to cause distress or harm to others. Can that line be moved without destroying what makes Patreon great?

Update: As noted at the head of this post, two of the three accounts highlighted—weev and 8chan's founder—have been removed for violating the new community guideline rules. The Sarkeesian Effecct and similar pages that promote harassment on linked YouTube accounts, Twitter accounts, Tumblr sites, and more, remain active. This is a good step forward, but enforcement is still uneven based on Patreon's new stated goals.