Posted on December 27, 2018

Patreon Bars Anti-Feminist for Racist Speech, Inciting Revolt

Nellie Bowles, New York Times, December 24, 2018

Sam Harris, the polemical atheist neuroscientist known for his popular podcast “Waking Up,” was making tens of thousands of dollars a month from fans who donated to him through Patreon, a crowdfunding site.

That stopped this month. On Dec. 6, Patreon kicked the anti-feminist polemic Carl Benjamin, who works under the name Sargon of Akkad, off its site for using racist language on YouTube. That same week, it removed the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos a day after he opened an account.

The moves prompted a revolt. Mr. Harris, citing worries about censorship, announced that he would leave Patreon. He was joined in protest by about half a dozen other prominent members of the site, including the conservative-leaning psychologist Jordan Peterson and the libertarian podcaster Dave Rubin, who also earn money from Patreon.

“These recent expulsions seem more readily explained by political bias,” Mr. Harris wrote to his followers.

The furor is a microcosm of the conflicts that are playing out across the internet as technology platforms try to limit the spread of hateful speech.


But as tech platforms try to get a handle on the issue, they are stoking the ire of their content creators, many of whom brand themselves as free speech warriors. Some accuse the companies of censorship. Others say the tech sites are biased and that hate speech is an ambiguous term. Now the digital dissent is becoming increasingly widespread, upending even smaller websites.


“The concept of hate speech is irreducibly subjective and vague,” said Nadine Strossen, author of “Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship.”


While the site is relatively small, with a little over 100,000 creators and two million people donating monthly to those creators, it has become the de facto paycheck for a cohort of prominent self-styled internet philosophers who eschew or have been ousted from traditional bastions like universities or magazines.

Among Patreon’s hodgepodge of creators is the left-leaning podcast group Chapo Trap House, which makes more than $110,000 a month from the site, according to Graphtreon, which tracks Patreon activity. Mr. Peterson, a best-selling author, earns around $66,000 a month from the site. Sex-related content creators are also getting monthly subscribers on Patreon, and a Pokemon Go community is the top earner, making up to $500,000 a month, according to Graphetreon.

Patreon takes a highly personal approach to policing speech. While Google and Facebook use algorithms as a first line of defense for questionable content, Patreon has human moderators. {snip}

“There are no automated takedowns,” Mr. Conte said. {snip}

Jaqueline Hart, Patreon’s head of trust and safety, said her team watches for and will investigate complaints about any content posted on Patreon and on other sites like YouTube and Facebook that violates what it defines as hate speech. That includes “serious attacks, or even negative generalizations, of people based on their race [and] sexual orientation,” she has said.

If someone has breached Patreon’s policy, the company contacts the offender with a specific plan, which usually involves asking for the content to be removed and for a public apology.


This month, the site’s moderators received a complaint about Mr. Benjamin, who had risen to fame railing against diversity and feminism during the GamerGate movement in 2014. Mr. Benjamin used the N-word and anti-gay language during an interview posted to YouTube on Feb. 7, Patreon found.

On Dec. 6, the company told Mr. Benjamin that it would freeze his account and that he could appeal. Mr. Benjamin objected and said the video in question should not fall under Patreon’s rules because it was on YouTube.

For Mr. Benjamin, the timing was surprising. “My brand has been politically incorrect for years,” he said in a video he later posted to his YouTube channel called “The Patreon Witch Trials.”

Mr. Benjamin, who did not respond to requests for comment, has 870,000 subscribers on YouTube and had more than 3,000 subscribers on Patreon, from which he had been making around $12,000 a month. Many of his videos show just a static cartoon or a series of images, with his voice speaking against movements for gender equality.

More recently, Mr. Benjamin has moved from the fringe toward the heart of the new right. In October, he posted an hourlong interview with Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist.


“I think the most likely outcome, if this continues, is that all contentious speech or behavior will put the speaker or actor at risk of serious financial and social sanctions, and strip them of all defense,” Mr. Peterson wrote in an email.


Mr. Rubin and Mr. Peterson said they plan to start their own version of Patreon, which will be less censorious. Mr. Peterson said his Patreon subscriptions had dropped to around 7,500, from about 10,000 over the summer, according to Graphtreon.

It’s unclear how effective Mr. Peterson’s and Mr. Rubin’s efforts will be. Alternatives to mainstream sites, such as the white supremacy-oriented Hatreon, have largely been failures.


In his exit note from Patreon, Mr. Harris, who gathered his fan base as a pugnacious atheist and fierce critic of Islam, wrote that he wanted his business interests to be freed from the site. He singled out Ms. Hart’s team.

“I consider it no longer tenable to expose any part of my podcast funding to the whims of Patreon’s ‘Trust and Safety’ committee,” Mr. Harris wrote. {snip}