(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
If you read my reporting or have been listening to “Sway” for a while, you already know that I’m all about holding tech companies to account. Facebook, Twitter, Google — these are the new gatekeepers, publishers, and curators of our lives. And they have serious responsibilities to uphold. But there’s another platform with life altering consequences for its users. It doesn’t usually get bundled in with those tech giants — GoFundMe. It’s a crowdfunding site where Steve Bannon can raise money right alongside your local little league team. And if you look closely at what GoFundMe is being used for today, especially during the pandemic, it’s really become more like a safety net, filling the gaps where government has failed. And I know it’s not what the platform was intended for, but this new and crucial role for GoFundMe only adds to my sense that it’s worth examining just like all those other companies. So here with me to answer questions about how they make decisions on controversial campaigns like Bannon’s, content moderation, and more is GoFundMe C.E.O. Tim Cadogan. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Hi, Tim. Welcome to “Sway.”
Hi Kara. Good to be with you.
So Tim and I go way back. He ran a company called OpenX. And I just was joking with him that he made OpenX interesting, which it isn’t. Which is — explain what OpenX was.
OpenX is sort of part of the infrastructure of the web. So most of the web runs on advertising, and OpenX was one of the only companies to do something called real time bidding which basically created a market for advertising at higher speeds.
Riveting. No, it is critically important, but it’s literally like talking about the inside of an engine.
Yeah, it’s more like the underlying engineering of the economy of the web.
A little different from GoFundMe.
Yeah, you have a much more interesting job now for sure.
Yeah. 10 years is enough.
Yeah, I would say so. I would say so too. But here I am still anyway.
Well, you’re covering — you’re covering all of it. So you’re everywhere now. You’re everywhere.
That’s true. I’m like mold, Tim.
I wouldn’t say that.
So I have some serious questions for you about content moderation, which is not something you think of when you think of GoFundMe, but it’s been very important. First let’s talk about the biggest story right now — the Gorilla Glue girl. I think that’s what she’s being called, or calling herself. By the way, her name is Tessica Brown. She went viral for getting glue stuck in her hair, and she launched a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for her expenses. But her account was frozen for some time. She was unable to access the money due to the investigation. Tell me what that was all about because it got so much attention.
So it’s actually a great example of a big theme, which for us is trust. We really need people to be able to believe that when you see a campaign on GoFundMe, you can trust that it is what it says, and that you can trust that the funds are going where it says that they are. And so whenever a campaign changes the use of funds, we have to take a look at that. And so in this example, Tessica Brown originally wanted the funds to get help removing the glue from her hair. Someone very kindly helped her with that. And so she didn’t need the money for that. So she wanted to send the money to a charity. We just needed to check out that that was the case. So it’s nothing more than that. And it’s not implying that the person involved is doing anything bad. We just need to make sure that everything is kosher.
How much did she raise?
I think $23,000.
Right, she raised a lot. So it didn’t end up being a scam in her case, but there are fraudulent campaigns that you have to deal with just like all over the internet, like Facebook has to deal with misinformation and disinformation, Twitter etc. In fact, there’s an entire website called GoFraudMe. How do you — talk about this idea of fraudulent campaigns. And what are the signals? What are the key signals?
So we’re looking for keywords. We’re looking for links. So if you’re saying one thing with a campaign, and you’re linking off to other content that says something else — and of course the keywords in the story that you’re using to describe your campaign. The other thing we’re looking at is we don’t just look at the campaigns themselves. We also look at the donors and the donations. And we’re running essentially a payments risk similar to a financial institution where we’re looking at those donations— we’re looking at where they’re coming from. Is there a relationship? Does it make sense if it’s a large donation? Do we believe it? Once we’ve done all of that, that takes care of nearly everything. But we have got something in place called the GoFundMe guarantee. Now this says that, hey, if our system doesn’t work, and you give your money to something that does end up not being right, we’re going to get your money back.
All right, well, one example of a fraudulent campaign that you might not have been able to detect is Steve Bannon’s GoFundMe for the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Bannon and his associates raised over $25 million on GoFundMe. And it became an issue not only because of the unsavory taste for raising money for an anti-immigration campaign, but because according to the Justice Department, he was diverting those funds to himself and others. I know that you weren’t at GoFundMe at the time. But give me a post-mortem on this. And is this how you got the job?
No, no. It didn’t attract me to the job. Let’s put it that way. So here’s what happened. A gentleman called Brian Kolfage set up a fundraiser to send money to the government to build the wall. People started giving money to that. It turns out you cannot just give money to the government for a specific purpose. So he had to change the use of funds. We just talked about that with Tessica Brown’s campaign. And at that point a decent amount of money had been raised. So what GoFundMe did at that point is it said, there’s a change in use of funds. We are going to reach out to everyone who has donated to that campaign, and offer them either a refund, or that they can give money to continue — let their donation stand, given that there’s now going to a charity that’s been created to sort of advocate for these issues. And if we don’t hear back from — I think it was in 90 days — we’re going to refund them anyway. Now for the people who said yes, I do want to let my donation stand. I want to let it float to this new purpose. I understand it’s different — that went to this new charity which Steve Bannon was part of. And then as we know, they are alleged to have misappropriated the funds. At that point it’s kind of out of our purview. But that’s sort of how the company went about trying to do the best it could to inform the users and to give them control over their funds.
At what point does GoFundMe pause and think, do we want to be affiliated with a certain kind of politics? Because you’re getting — this is something the Facebooks don’t want to be dragged in — a lot of tech companies don’t want to be dragged into — making political decisions. And in this case, of course there was a fraud problem that was after the fact. How do you think about that?
Yeah, so we have a responsibility to society. And our customers are increasingly keen on companies, not just providing them with a high quality product and service, but standing up for something. In our case, the way that we do this is by crafting a set of terms of service that set some boundaries. We do want to be an open platform to allow all kinds of different people to raise money for everything under the sun. But we think there should be some limits to that. So specifically we prohibit the promotion of misinformation, or the promotion of hate or discrimination, or using a campaign to bully someone or discriminate, or to promote violence or terrorism. And we take those campaigns down.
Talk to me a little more deeply about how you police this because there’s another more recent political campaign on GoFundMe two days after January 6th that surfaced — there were more than a dozen GoFundMe campaigns of people raising money to travel the Capitol. How and when did you get that information in real time?
So let’s pull back a little bit. So remember those principles that I outlined, right? We don’t want to allow campaigns that support misinformation, promote violence, harassment, and so on. So heading into the election we had a good sense that things were going to get challenging. And so we had really focused on what would happen in the case of misinformation. And unfortunately that happened, and we took down several hundred campaigns, I think. With political events, it’s not against our standard policy to raise funds to go to a rally — a political event — to express your opinion. Obviously once January the 6th happened, we immediately looked at those and said, that’s not a campaign that we want to enable on the platform. And I regret that they were there. And what we did going forward is we said, look, now there’s talk of events like that in other state capitals potentially. And we said, well, going forward we are not going to let campaigns to raise funds for events that have a high likelihood of turning into violence — sort of have the same potential pattern of behavior. So we made that policy change immediately.
So how do you determine if an event may become violent?
If it has similar attributes in terms of set up and approach to the January 6th events.
But there’s no formula for it.
There’s not a hard formula.
There’s not a hard formula.
There are certainly red flags with regard to the kinds of groups that people involved may be either part of or affiliated with. I think it’s partly related to paying attention to the folks we work with in law enforcement, and using our judgment based on those and also the language and narrative used by people who may be trying to create a fundraiser — the language on that, but also the language on their social media. Now I think that’s gotten a good bit harder honestly, because many of these folks have now been taken off public social media. But I think the point is we do think we have a responsibility here.
What about barring complete groups? Is that a possibility?
The Proud Boys — enough of you —
Yeah, like white supremacist groups for example cannot run campaigns.
Have you contemplated de-platforming anything to do with MAGA alt-right extremism? Or Donald Trump himself — what if he got on there and wanted to raise money for his fight the Supreme Court?
I don’t think we’ve contemplated such a broad ban. We do want to remain open. And we have a lot of people on all sides raising funds for all kinds of different things. And many of them have got nothing to do with politics. I mean personal issues — people raising for local small businesses — that’s what we’re here for. So we’re not trying to be a political warrior here or anything like that. We’re not trying to get stuck into this stuff. It’s just when it’s egregious and we need to try and get ahead of it, that’s where we’re trying to manage the boundary conditions.
Right, so I understand how difficult this has become for companies like yours. And I appreciate that you’re saying you have responsibility because I talked to so many people who say it’s not my responsibility, like the C.E.O. of Parler, etc. when, in fact, it is his responsibility. You have a concern for violence in the platform. And then there’s still one edge case after another which is just what all these social platforms are dealing with. It’s usable for violent criminals to pay for bail or legal fees like in the case of the campaign on behalf of Kyle Rittenhouse, the man who was alleged to have fatally shot people during the Jacob Blake protests.
Well, in that case that’s not on us. Just to be clear, we pretty quickly removed that one.
But his supporters raised millions elsewhere. How do you — how do you figure that out, right, as you remove that and then there’s another that pops up?
Yeah, I mean we think of it a little bit like building a body of legal precedent because we’ve been at this for a decade, and we’ve seen a lot of scenarios but not all of them. And this past year has been very intense as we all know for many different reasons. But we have precedent to build on in terms of how we make some of those judgments and the kinds of things that we look for. But at the same time as we’ve just talked about, it evolves, right? It continues to evolve. And we try to adjust to the circumstances and to take into consideration these new factors that keep emerging.
So it’s essentially what fresh hell has for me today to decide upon.
I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but I mean—
It’s a — you sort of have a choice, right? Your choice as a company is either to say, this is too hard, and I just don’t want to get into it. So I’m just going to draw the line based on frankly someone else drawing the line for me. But that’s still ethical decision making. And all the choices — you know what, maybe we need to actually be a bit more proactive. And yes, that’s going to be harder. But it’s the right thing to do because that’s what our customers want. That’s why our employees want. It’s what our stakeholders want. That’s what society wants. And you try and make good judgments.
How do you decide who your stakeholder is — who the right — you named a lot of different people there. But what’s the group that gets most precedent in that? You — just you yourself? Or your executives —
No, I’m last. It’s all of the people who use GoFundMe or may use GoFundMe. And so that includes the people who are fundraising. That includes the people who are the beneficiaries of the fundraising. And that’s not necessarily the same thing. But then we think of the broader society that’s involved— the people who come and look at campaigns and don’t donate — which is many times more.
There’s a whole conversation about anti conservative political bias in tech happening right now, which is unsubstantiated. But it’s a conversation nonetheless. And when making a decision about what stays up and what gets down, are you worried about the fear of being labeled as a liberal tech company? Which is always laughable to me because tech people are not liberal by any measure I have ever used — not you in particular, but in general.
I’m not too worried about that. I mean we’re here for everybody, right? It’s only if you cross one of these lines — most of which are very clear — that you’re going to have a problem. But otherwise it’s not a problem to have a campaign that a lot of people disagree with. That’s not a problem. If those disagreements are just that they really hate the cause, I mean, that’s not a reason to take it down. But if there is something more going on, then we need to know that. We need to get into these kind of areas that we just talked about. So I think that’s probably what’s going on in this case.
When you compare the approaches of content moderation that you approach versus Facebook or Twitter, does the fact that you move money and not just ideas increase or decrease your responsibility?
That’s a great question. I’m not sure that it changes the fact that we’re responsible. I think ideas are very powerful things too. Money is a very powerful thing. They’re both very powerful things. In part, what we’re trying to make sure is that our fundraising platform isn’t used to promote ideas that stray beyond those boundaries because sometimes the fundraiser is used as a symbol.
Now I listened to your interview with Dan Snow — this is “History Hit.” Do you remember that?
OK, yes. Oh yeah.
Yeah, because I did history as undergrad — postgrad as well. We share a lot in the propaganda and Nazi Germany and all — that’s what I studied.
Oh, yeah. This is like a textbook what’s going on. It’s kind of —
I mean, the combination of power, strong communication system, emotional message that divides people and an utter a lack of shame — those four things — those are the ingredients. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, hit subscribe. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Microsoft president Brad Smith. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Tim Cadogan after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]
So you joined GoFundMe in March of 2020 right as the pandemic was starting here in the US. You know, you’ve seen a big surge in business from the pandemic, correct? You charge a fee for these donations.
Let me just explain how we make money because I think it’s important. So when you raise $100, you get all of that less the transaction processing fee — the 2.9%. You get 97% of the dollars to the person in need — very targeted, very fast, safe, super efficient. Then what we do to make money is we ask the people who donate whether they’d like to give us a tip. So you decide whether you want to give us a tip, and that goes on top of your donation. So if you gave $100 to a campaign, and you decide to give us 5%, we get the $5. We take off the 2.9%. The recipient gets $97.
So tipping and a fee — but you’ve done very well during this time presumably if there’s been a surge in giving. How does that square for you, making money — like a lot of these tech companies have done really well in the pandemic for lots of reasons, whether it’s Zoom or Amazon or —
Yeah, I mean anything digital has seen a lot more usage.
So how much better has your business gotten in this pandemic are you in that Amazon like position even if it’s for getting people money?
I think we’re a long way off anything like Amazon.
No, I understand that. But you’ve done really well during the pandemic.
It’s been a lot busier. It’s been a lot busier. But we’ve also had to bring on a good amount more people to try and keep up with the service, to build out the technology, to keep up with the demand, and to give people that great experience.
How has the pandemic changed the way people are fundraising and donating on the platform?
Yeah, so I mean it’s humbling, honestly. I mean, we are the largest fundraising platform in the world. So we have this incredible, unique vantage point into what people’s needs are. And if you want to talk about the sort of evolution — what we saw early on — and I’m talking here March, a year ago — we saw PPE was a very big theme early on. And then as stay at home kicked in, you started to see a lot of small businesses setting up campaigns. So people who said, I love my local bar, restaurant, whatever it is. And I want to help them. And I want to help the employees. So they would start those campaigns, which is an example of that kind of community engagement that you see. So that was a very big theme. And then you started to see more things for remote learning. And then most recently, moving up to the fall, we started to see more and more campaigns for rent, for food, for basic necessities, which led us to create a new category to make it even easier for people to get that help. And we saw that accelerating. And what really struck home was that in January we saw more activity pertaining to Covid than we did in May.
Really? So it’s not subsided at all?
No, it has not subsided at all. And I think if you look at the impacts of following the burst of travel around Thanksgiving, Christmas — you see the terrible increase in cases and fatalities.
You published and Op Ed urging Congress to pass relief for Americans. In it you wrote, quote, “Our platform was never meant to be the source of support for basic needs, and it can never be a replacement for robust federal Covid-19 relief that is generous and targeted to help millions of Americans who are struggling.” And yet you are. So what compelled you to write that?
Seeing this every day is awful. It’s deeply, deeply tragic. And we knew that the Congress was deciding on the next phase of relief. And so we thought, well, look. We have this unique vantage point. Let’s share the data and put that into the public discourse so that hopefully can help. It’s that simple. And hopefully it makes a dent.
The stimulus bill Congress has passed to date — $2.2 trillion and $900 billion — respectively only about 15% of that was given to individuals directly as checks. I hate to say a measly $25 billion was allocated to rent assistance in the December package. But that’s measly. Now you have insight into where Americans need help right now. Is your data matching up with where this money is allocated in these stimulus bills?
Look, I’m not a politician. I’m not a policy analyst.
You can read numbers. You know math.
I can read numbers, and I can read the mix of campaigns that we see. And you don’t have to spend very long reading. Go on the GoFundMe and spend 20, 30 minutes reading through the campaigns. You can see it. It is the fundamentals— need money for rent, need money for food, need money for basic utilities. And in some cases — and this is obviously particularly relevant with what we’re seeing in Texas — need money for warm clothes and blankets — the basics. And the way we look at it is, this is a war against a virus. If this were a war against another country at this scale, there would be no question what we would do. We would mobilize our society to defeat it.
So what else do you think the government should be doing besides stimulus checks — looking at what you’re seeing on your platform?
I think the question of rent and how to manage the potential of being evicted in the near term. And also making sure that in some way that the landlords are also taken care of because it’s both sides, right? It’s not a simple thing. But how do we keep people in their homes, ensure that they have food, and ideally have some funds to participate in the economy as well because that will redound to the benefit of everybody so that we can get through this period. I think we’re all hoping that it’s— I don’t know — another six to eight months — maybe less, maybe more, so that we can get through that as best we can.
And what about health care funds?
Well, as you know, medical debt is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in America. That’s a huge issue for a lot of people. And so yes, you do see a lot of folks using GoFundMe to help them get the medical expenses covered. We are happy to help them with that. But we don’t view GoFundMe as a substitute for more comprehensive access to health care for everybody. And so that’s why we help people navigate to healthcare.gov because as you know, there’s a new open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act.
Why does GoFundMe need to be America’s social safety net?
There is no perfect society, you know. And to give you an idea, we operate in the UK as well. And medical fundraisers are a really big category there too because what the government covers — or the NHS covers — there’s still a lot of additional expenses on top of that. So there is no clean and easy answer. Really the debate at the end of it is, what are the basic levels of support that you want to offer people in your society? And that’s a debate within all advanced democracies.
Certainly, but you know, you just said you don’t want to be the safety net. You don’t want this to be — I mean, America’s usually in the top of the list of most generous nations in donating to charities or on platforms like GoFundMe. But they have little trust in the government to levy and use taxes. This is people depending on the kindness of strangers — I mean, writ large.
Yes it is. This is a way for people to express their love and support of others by helping them financially. I think that that’s always going to have a place. I certainly can’t imagine a society that doesn’t have needs. I hope that the needs become more positive like hey, I’d like to take my kid’s soccer team on a tour of California. So I’m looking to raise money, or—
Right, yeah — those are the old days, Tim.
Right, well there’s no reason — we can get back to that. And that’s honestly what we would prefer to be there for is to help people with the —
Soccer team money raising, right? Or —
You name it, right? It can be honeymoons. It can be baby showers. It can be a study abroad trip. It can be mission trips. It can be the local animal hospital. It can be like the search and rescue team, like I used to be apart of. All of those things — we’re there for those.
All right, thank you so much.
This has been really interesting, Tim.
Take care of yourself. All right, bye.
All right, bye. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, Daphne Chen, and Vishakha Darbha. Edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman, with original music by Isaac Jones and mixing by Eric Gomez, and fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to subscribe to a podcast. So subscribe to this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get “Sway” delivered to you, download any podcast app then search for “Sway” and hit subscribe. You’ll get each new episode for free — no GoFundMe donation required. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.