Facing a $135,000 (U.S.) fine from the state of Oregon for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, Aaron Klein didn't pay much attention at first to an online collection drive that another Portland business owner had started to support him.
That was until he found out that, just a few hours after it launched, the fundraising effort had collected roughly $70,000.
"Obviously it gained traction very, very quickly," said Mr. Klein, who runs a cake shop with his wife Melissa near Portland. The Kleins have been at the centre of one of the state's most high-profile showdowns over gay rights, after they refused to serve a lesbian couple on the grounds that gay marriage violates their religious beliefs.
"It was amazing to watch the outreach from people just saying, 'Hey, we don't agree with what's going on with you guys,' and putting money into this thing to help us out."
Mr. Klein's case and dozens of others like it illustrate a new and highly effective method of political speech in the United States: crowdfunding.
Initially founded as a means for individuals to finance small passion projects – everything from dress-making to independent video games – crowdfunding has taken on a different, far more controversial side. As communities across the U.S. grapple with a number of deeply polarizing issues, crowdfunding has emerged as a proxy platform for the culture wars. Rather than take to the streets or petition their elected representatives, a growing number of people are opting instead to express politically charged opinions via digital donations.
The rapid adoption of crowdfunding comes at a time when many of the most contentious issues in American society have spawned a narrative of perceived political persecution. From supporters of police officers accused of killing an unarmed man in Baltimore to backers of the Klein family's bakery in Portland, many (mostly right-wing, conservative) activists argue that they are being unfairly punished for expressing their beliefs.
As such, some are turning to crowdfunding which, as a form of political expression, differs greatly from most traditional methods. For one thing, it can be relatively anonymous. In the case of myriad campaigns set up to support cops accused of killing unarmed civilians, the majority of donations come from individuals who choose to keep their identities secret.
Crowdfunding is also a borderless medium, allowing a florist in Washington State, for example, to receive more than $150,000 in donations from all over the country in support of the business decision not to serve gay customers.
But perhaps most importantly, crowdfunding is inherently social. Donors can leave comments on the campaign's Web page, and they can share links to that campaign on all forms of social media. As such, the goal of many politically driven crowdfunding campaigns is, above all else, exposure.
"Crowdfunding is not necessarily about money, but about branding," says Sherwood Neiss, who is a principal of Crowdfund Capital Advisors, a consultancy firm that specializes in crowdfunding. "Whenever someone supports these campaigns, they're giving them more marketing presence. That's what [the campaign organizers] are trying to accomplish."
Crowdfunding's major debut as a platform for ideological activism came late last year, after Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The killing, for which Mr. Wilson has never been charged, caused cataclysmic protests throughout the country. But in the digital sphere, something else was happening.
In the aftermath of the shooting, an anonymous Internet user, believed to be a teenaged girl, decided to set up a crowdfunding page to solicit donations for Mr. Wilson. It was one of several Ferguson-related campaigns that popped up around the same time, including one for the family of Mr. Brown.
But nothing generated as much money as the campaign in support of Mr. Wilson. Expecting to raise a few hundred dollars, the person who started the fund instead found themselves sitting on nearly a quarter-million dollars.
As the campaign exploded, so did the attention that surrounded it. Thousands of people signed myriad petitions demanding the campaign be shut down, while others came to its defence. Eventually, the person who started the campaign (and who, to this day, has remained anonymous) became overwhelmed and decided to hand it off to a St. Louis-based police charity called Shield of Hope. But since most crowdfunding sites have rules against changing control of a campaign once it has begun, Shield of Hope had to begin its own effort from scratch; that campaign also raised close to $200,000. Shield of Hope did not respond to a request for comment.
Today, almost all major campaigns related to Ferguson have been shut down – either because they violated the crowdfunding sites' terms of service or because the campaign creators are trying to figure out the tax and legal implications of hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.
At the same time, the crowdfunding sites are struggling to understand the usage of a platform initially intended to help people pay for CD pressings and pet surgeries.
Much like the companies that run sites such as YouTube, the creators of crowdfunding sites are doubly reluctant to shut down all politically motivated content. For one thing, sites such as Indiegogo and GoFundMe – two of the most popular platforms for such campaigns – take a cut of the money raised from virtually all campaigns. But more importantly, the sites are loath to monitor every single campaign posted on their platforms, looking for anything that may offend.
Instead, some of the biggest crowdfunding sites have tried to rewrite their terms of service to allow them to ban just about anything that proves troublesome.
GoFundMe's terms and conditions, updated late last year in the midst of the outcry over the Michael Brown shooting, provides a clear example of how tricky that can be. Hoping to rid itself of a number of headaches at once, the site issued a list of topics that were now off-limits. Perhaps the most significant was a prohibition on "campaigns in defence of formal charges of heinous crimes." With no specific definition of "heinous," the site was free to ban a host of controversial campaigns. The no-go list also included a ban on campaigns related to abortion, support for "rebel groups" and anything related to "sorcery."
Those changes now allow the site to nip many potentially controversial campaigns in the bud before they start to snowball. For example, the site recently shut down an effort to raise money for the Baltimore police officers accused of killing Freddie Gray.
"GoFundMe cannot be used to benefit those who are charged with serious violations of the law," said Kelsea Little, the site's media director.
Some polarizing campaigns, however, still thrive. Contentious as it is, ideological crowdfunding is quickly becoming a mainstay of political speech.