Did crowdfunding jump the shark with the Rob Ford ‘Crackstarter’ campaign

Rob Ford Crackstarter campaign photo

Rob Ford Crackstarter campaign photo.

One would think that as a writer covering the crowdfunding industry I would find any development that generates a huge amount of buzz for this nascent industry as a positive occurrence.

Normally I would view it as a positive development. But I cannot when the development in question is the Rob Ford Crackstarter video.

In case you are unaware of Crackstarter, here’s a primer.

Rob Ford is the mayor of Toronto, Ontario, which is Canada’s largest city and the fourth largest in North America when suburbs are factored out.

A few weeks ago, the website Gawker reported they had viewed a video which clearly shows Mayor Ford smoking crack cocaine. This video was also seen by two reporters from the Toronto Star. The men who filmed the video are known drug dealers who demanded $200,000 for the video’s release to the public.

Intrigued, Gawker Editor John Cook started an Indiegogo campaign to raise the $200,000 asking price. The total was reached with just a few hours to spare. But like any good story, the video’s owners have gone underground, perhaps under a rock (not that kind of rock) and have not communicated with Mr. Cook for some time, leaving the access to the video and the entire escapade in doubt as of this writing.

Mayor Ford is no stranger to controversy. During the 2010 mayoral campaign, the Toronto Star reported Ford has been arrested for DUI and marijuana possession in Florida back in 1999. After initially denying everything Ford eventually admitted the charges were true. There have been several other alcohol-related incidents, including his being asked to leave a social event this spring due to his inebriation and an allegation by a former mayoral candidate that Ford touched her inappropriately and made lewd comments while posing for a picture with her a mere two weeks later.

The latter two incidents were in the wake of a conflict of interest trial where Mayor Ford admitted to using council resources and letterhead to recruit donations for his football foundation. After initially being found guilty, he won on appeal but further court action could be upcoming.

Ford has also attracted the wrath of unions and other left wing groups for his cuts to the civil service and desire to declare transit an essential service which would eliminate their ability to strike.

Did I mention that Ford has only been Mayor for three years?

Ford has attracted many enemies due to his politics alone. Throw in his confrontational style and what appears to be a history of adult beverage-fueled escapades and we have a lightning rod for criticism and a reporter’s dream. Think Chris Farley meets Charlie Sheen with a side of Anthony Weiner.

Such a character naturally draws opposition, and in the digital age there are more and more ways in which to do so. Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, along with an unending list of gossip websites continually starved for information, can be tools for debate and alternate opinions, but they can also be used by people with a grudge and those who, under the cover of anonymity, can attack a public figure with no fear of retribution.

Get a crowd together and anything can happen, especially when they have the ability to stay hidden. Enter John Cook and his Indiegogo campaign, where 8,388 supporters, with names such as “Anonymous”, “9rb38”, and “Brockashocka Champion,” donated an average of $23.99 each to help make the video public. To encourage support, Cook is offering prizes like autographed Canadian flags, a limited edition hand drawn digital sketch of Ford smoking crack, and, for $10,000, the actual phone used to film the video.

Does the world really need this? If the allegations are true, Ford should be tossed from office and every attempt made to get him help. Is that what is motivating “Stop the Cocaine Train”, “Robbie Crackhead”, and the more than 100 people listed as anonymous? For some it is plain politics, nothing more.

Many more, I suspect, are enjoying watching a public figure’s fall from acclaim, past them and into the gutter, not unlike Lindsay Lohan or Amanda Bynes. Experiencing it with other like-minded individuals is similar to going to Yankee Stadium and watching the Yankees kick the Boston Red Sox.

“People also participate in movements (for better or for worse) because of the sense of identity they offer,” says Dr. Stephen Benard, an Associate Professor in Sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington. “It also offers the sense of anonymity and deindividuation we know offers harm to others.”

It would be nice to think crowdfunding would be above such tawdry efforts but with any concept that gains mass acceptance, it will be used in many ways for many purposes. And yes, one man’s trash is another’s treasure, so what some find revolting others will deem perfectly acceptable. Still for many, Crackstarter is their first introduction to the concept of crowdfunding, so does the industry run the risk of being tarnished by this instance and others that will inevitably follow?

“This could set a precedent for what could be termed social media extortion or online bullying,” says Frank Racette, author of the book The 47 Day Crowdfunder. “Many people are perverse by default. We want to see things we should not see, we want to see people fail or hurt themselves ( think of Jackass the Movie), we want to think that we are either better than other people ( reality TV shows ) or want to validate our own demons.”

Can the industry police itself? The debate over legislating taste is as old as time and can never be settled. Each person has to do that individually within themselves. The further we get away from our core, the tougher it gets to do. Many sites, including Indiegogo, have rules banning the use of drug-related items as prizes and ban efforts which seek to defame, bully, harass or abuse an individual. (All terms from Indiegogo’s General Rules of Use).

Beyond the rules they have set, Indiegogo does not further legislate the campaigns that appear on their site.

“Indiegogo is…empowering people anywhere in the world to fund what matters to them,” said Indiegogo PR Associate Carrie Forman. “At its core, Indiegogo is the equal opportunity platform dedicated to democratizing the way people raise funds for any project – creative, entrepreneurial or cause-related. It is Indiegogo’s distinct belief that it shouldn’t be up to the platform to decide who deserves to raise funds and who doesn’t.”

How close is Crackstarter to crossing the line? Does Rob Ford deserve this? Is it for us to say? Or is it better to let Rob Ford and the institutions that govern the Office of the Mayor deal with his moral conduct while we worry about our own?

Some will say the crowd will eventually police itself. Will it always? Did it in the case of Reddit and some of the witch hunts that happened following the Boston bombings?

In some cases acts that most of society agrees are morally unacceptable such as child abuse are easy to police.

But others are only a half-baked idea that just passes the sniff test and a couple of dozen crackpots away from reality. What can prevent this? Should anything prevent this?

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