Sanctioning independent news: brought to you by big tech

Graphic by Carleen Loney @shloneys

Dissenting journalists are being severed from their financial lifelines.

In late August, The Grayzone, an investigative journalism site, began a fundraising effort to provide full time positions for three of its contributing journalists. After raising over $90,000 using the popular fundraising site GoFundMe, they received a notice from the platform stating that their donations were being held pending a “review,” prompted by some external concerns.”

There is a disturbing trend emerging in the independent media space as tech platforms and government agencies continue to crush dissent and free speech on the internet. One method they have successfully harnessed is preventing independent voices and news sites from collecting donations from their supporters. Crowdfunding and payment processing platforms offer vague explanations for this and are almost never held accountable.

Among other dissenting voices (on the right and the left), anti-war and anti-imperialist journalists are being targeted with financial sanctioning. Investigative site MintPress News had a similar experience with GoFundMe in March 2022, and along with Consortium News, it was suspended from PayPal in the months that followed. Wyatt Reid, one of the three journalists The Grayzone sought to hire full-time, was also banned from PayPal and its subsidiary Venmo last year, likely due to his on-the-ground reporting in the eastern provinces of Ukraine.

By challenging conventional narratives about war and exposing what Western leaders would rather keep hidden, the above-mentioned outlets surely evoke the ire of governments and their security services—the likely parties expressing “concerns” to tech platforms. While The Grayzone’s supporters were inevitably able to receive refunds and the campaign was able to continue on another platform, questions remain about GoFundMe’s actions and the broader implications of the incident. 

Outlets like The Grayzone, MintPress and Consortium News are primarily supported by their audiences, allowing them to provide their sites to the public free of cost, advertisements and editorial constraints. In the times we’re living in, this model appears both as a strength and a vulnerability: streams of grassroots funding can be switched off in a keystroke. Though the frequency of this kind of financial sanctioning has recently increased, it isn’t a new tactic. After releasing a tranche of US diplomatic cables in late 2010, WikiLeaks was subjected to a banking blockade by Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, Bank of America and Western Union, preventing the transfer of donations to the controversial publisher.

Sanctioning journalism through online financial service providers has already become a weapon against freedom of speech on the internet. It is a concerted effort to take the legs out from underneath independent news organizations that challenge official narratives and orthodoxies.

We are subjected to a barrage of propaganda and disinformation daily from mainstream media outlets and Western governments. Especially with the recent eruption of violence in Israel and Palestine, the essential role of independent journalism—telling the truth about what is (and what has been) happening—has become abundantly clear.

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