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."

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.