January 8, 2019

Outside the world of the internet, there are millions of people who have never heard of Patreon and won’t know what you are talking about if you mention the ‘Patreon Purge’. Within the world of the internet, it’s a different matter. The significance of Patreon and its influence is recognised and bitterly fought over. Though most of the old media will allow such a story to float by, the internet is right on this one.

Patreon, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an online membership platform where people can seek crowdfunding from fans. There are ‘creators’ who use the platform to get people to support them, and there are ‘supporters’ who donate to those whose work they favour. To an extent, Patreon, and companies like it, have filled the space that the internet destroyed as it popularised the idea that you can get almost anything you like for free.

So companies like YouTube, for example, allow people to infringe copyright by ripping videos from actual ‘creators’ (musicians, writers, public speakers and others). Nearly all the benefit goes to the platform; a tiny amount (through advertising) in very specific and approved cases potentially goes to the person who has posted it, and zero goes to the person who has actually created the content. This is the way that the internet has been for many years now, and it has come to be accepted as though it was part of nature, rather than the greatest intellectual property heist in history.

Enter Patreon, which has become popular because it fulfils the function of providing salaries to people the internet has already taken salaries away from. Journalists, who would once have been paid for their work when they delivered it, can instead be supported through the site. Bands and other acts who have lost the money they would have made in record or CD sales to free online streaming services can similarly make up some of that shortfall on Patreon.

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It also secures funding for figures who might have had trouble breaking through in the old media landscape. It is in the nature of such things that anybody who has a large (or potentially large) following, but has been unable to find a place in the mainstream, is likely to be edgy – unlikely to crop up in the broadsheets or be invited on terrestrial television discussion shows.

But it is precisely these ‘edgy’ figures who have given Patreon such a headache. Take the Canadian blogger and activist Lauren Southern. Her provocative stunts (she has since branched out into documentary making) and statements all coming from a vantage point that might be described as ‘alt-light’, were never going to sit comfortably with the deciders in Silicon Valley.

Sure enough, eventually she did something which handed Patreon a reason to ban her from their platform. Southern became involved with a group called “Defend Europe” which was sailing the Mediterranean with the purpose of encouraging shiploads of migrant vessels to go back to the north African shoreline whence they came.

There was some dispute between Southern and Patreon over the ban. They claimed they blacklisted her because she was using the funding to embark on a mission which was “likely to cause loss of life”; she said she was only reporting on the group’s activism and hadn’t used any of the Patreon funds in order to do so and so was not in violation of their terms of service.

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But whatever the truth of the matter, you do not have to agree with Southern’s actions or her interpretation of events to recognise that Patreon’s move to bar her from their platform was a highly political one. No action had been taken by the website against groups openly supportive of illegal immigration, so taking a stance against someone clearly opposed to it opened them up to charges of clear bias.

The ban proved to be an early warning sign. At the time, back in July 2017, a number of prominent Patreon users, including Sam Harris, asked the question: if Southern wasn’t satisfying their ethical standards, then who might next fall victim to the ‘purge’? In response, Patreon’s founder and CEO Jack Conte gave personal assurances that there were specific reasons why Southern was a Patreon persona non grata and insisted that others should have no such fears.

But then, just before Christmas last year, Patreon closed the account of the controversial commentator, Carl Benjamin, also known online as Sargon of Akkad, who has almost 900,000 YouTube followers and who was reportedly earning around $12,000 a month from donations. His content roves over a lot of terrain, from political correctness to how to date women and more. It is not to everyone’s taste, but it is demonstrably to a lot of people’s taste.

In justifying their decision to ban him, Patreon claimed he had been found guilty of using “racial and homophobic slurs as insults in a conversation shared online”. In his rebuttal, Benjamin makes the claim that the conversation in question – the contents of which he disputes – was not featured on Patreon and did not have any link to its platform. Nevertheless, the ban remains in place.

In an interview with Dave Rubin, in 2017, Jack Conte had sworn that decisions to expel people from his platform were taken only on the basis of behaviour and not on the basis of political ideology.

Yet the decision to expel Benjamin from the platform without any appeal looked like a specifically ideological move. It also followed hard on the heels of the banning of other controversial Right-wing figures, including Milo Yiannopoulos and James Allsup earlier in 2018.

It was at this point that a movement away from the platform began with the announcement, by Sam Harris, that he was leaving the site. “Although I don’t share the politics of the banned members,” he wrote, “I consider it no longer tenable to expose any part of my podcast funding to the whims of Patreon’s ‘Trust and Safety’ committee.”

Then, at the beginning of this year, Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson (who has been one of the most successful and high-profile users of Patreon) jointly announced their withdrawal from the platform.

In none of these cases has the choice been made easily or glibly. It takes time to grow support on a crowd-funding platform, and switching to another platform will doubtless mean that some of those supporters will be lost along the way.

It remains to be seen whether Patreon will do anything to stem the flow and whether other platforms will be able to match its success. But in the meantime there are a number of important points to be made about its online experiment.

Patreon should have seen this coming. It should have anticipated – just as Facebook should have – that it was going to become an arbiter of what is or is not acceptable speech. As Conte’s interview with Rubin showed, these companies are now attempting to solve dilemmas which, with a little foresight, could have perfectly easily been avoided. If they had stuck to only banning people if their activities were illegal, or if the ‘Trust and safety’ committee’s guidelines had been explicit from the outset rather than a wildly evolving work in progress, then users could have known what they were signing up to and the company would have been within its rights to expel those who broke the rules.

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The second point is that we are seeing John O’ Sullivan‘s law in action in the tech world. That law (which states that all institutions that are not explicitly Right-wing will drift to the Left over time) would seem to be playing out at some of the most important companies in Silicon Valley. And given that Twitter, Patreon and various other online companies started from a fairly Left-wing position, it’s unlikely their direction will be reversed.

Doubtless the political slant has been reinforced by the Hoovering up of all those political activists out of office since the Democrats lost the White House. These people need to find something to do to justify their salaries and it seems their idea of ‘doing’ is shifting the rules regarding acceptable speech. In one particular political direction.

This might all seem a bit inside baseball. But, in fact, it is one of the most important speech wars of our time. A journalist or artist who successfully uses a platform like Patreon will swiftly exceed the salaries available in the struggling older media. In time, this could well challenge the grip as well as the attractiveness of what was regarded as the consensus on a whole range of issues. And that’s why the flight from the site matters. Patreon provided a base for those who wanted to challenge a whole set of dogmas. Let’s hope they can be challenged from elsewhere.