The Great Indiegogo Shadowban? Crowdfunding Site Allegedly Censoring Comic Book Creators, and Here’s the Reason Why.

If you love comics, you are likely familiar with their names: Mike Baron, Ethan Van Sciver, Chuck Dixon, and Shane Davis, to name just a few. All of them are legends, and all are being shadow-banned on the once-independent comics crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Comics creators like these, many of whom are politically unprogressive, have led Indiegogo in recent years to earn multiple millions off the back of fans supporting creators. Yet, for all their success, Indiegogo is embarrassed by them.

To figure out what is going on with the censorship at Indiegogo,  I spoke with several prominent comics creators that crowdfund with them, including a full sit-down interview with Mike Baron and his manager Chris Braly for CultureScape to get an idea of how pervasive this shadow banning is and how it works.

Private American Proposed Cover by Richard Bonk

Private American:

Mike Baron is an Eisner award-winning comic book writer responsible for Nexus, BADGER, Florida Man, and prolific runs in the 1990s on the Punisher and the Flash. Last year he published the pro-cop comic Thin Blue Line, with crowdfunding from Indiegogo and Kickstarter for an impressive 150,000 dollars. So, when he and Braly wanted to raise funds for their latest project, Private American, a pro-US border patrol comic, they again turned to Indiegogo to put together the resources and bring the attention necessary to make the comic another smashing success.

When Chris first launched the project in September, everything seemed to be going fine. The first significant stretch goal was $20,000 for a variant cover by the famed artist Dan Lawless, and on the first day, they raised over half of that. Fans seemed excited, and it looked like this project would be a hit.

Less than a month later, however, progress significantly waned. Chris receives an email from Lawless getting complaints from fans that cannot find Private American no matter what they search for on Indiegogo. It didn’t seem to be total or outright censorship, users could go to the Indiegogo page if they already have the specific URL, but for fundraising purposes, it essentially was.

Chris then reached out to Indiegogo for support, got a few cursory “we will investigate” emails in reply, and no further communication from the company.

Email Chris Braly received from Indiegogo.

Later Braly would mention the ban on Twitter and soon started to receive messages from other creators having similar experiences, as is covered in this great article from Bounding Into Comics. Perth Comics, another independent comics creator, shared on Twitter his observation that many of the shadowbanned accounts contained a specific bit of meta tag code on the Indiegogo pages. However, that theory may appear to be a dead end for our investigation as the code is no longer on any pages, yet the shadow bans continue.

After speaking with creators, I have found a common thread. That the shadow bans do not discriminate on size or popularity, as relatively unknown accounts with only a few thousand dollars in support got as suppressed as large accounts like the massively popular Ethan Van Sciver. What they have in common are the projects perceived as Comicsgate or outside mainstream comics. As noted by the team manning Jason Bascom’s latest crowdfunding project Frog G, as Braly experienced, Indiegogo never responded past an initial courtesy email claiming they would be looking into the problem. It’s now been several months for the many affected. Yet, with that much potential money lying on the table, you’d think Indiegogo would respond or do something about it by now.

But so far, Indiegogo has stayed as silent as the grave.

Screenshot of Tweet from a Bounding Into Comics article

How shadow bans work:

So how does a shadow ban affect comics, and why should we care? For those unfamiliar, shadow bans, such as the ones you typically see on sites like Twitter or Facebook, operate in a murky grey middle ground of censorship by letting users keep their accounts and post as much content as they like, but via down-boosting by algorithms, to stop letting other users see the content they post.

It’s a convenient trick that allows companies to silence “problematic” users without having to deal with the consequences from the public for outright censorship. Think of it as keeping users alone in digital silos; you can scream as loud as you want, but no one will hear you.

Indiegogo’s shadow ban is thorough. When a project gets shadow banned on Indiegogo, it disappears from users and becomes nigh impossible to fundraise. Users that favorited Private American or signed up for notifications so they could come back and invest when the project became live after receiving a reminder communication. Censored campaigns do not appear on the front page of Indiegogo, at the bottom of other projects, or on the explore page, which is the “what are the hottest campaigns today” part of the website.

Shane Davis’s Inglorious Rex Vol. 2 never showed up on Indiegogo’s Explore Page despite huge success

To give an idea of how pernicious this is, during October, the second most successful comics project was Shane Davis’s Inglorious Rex Comic Book Vol. 2, which didn’t appear on the explore page at any point in time. Losing this attention matters a lot on Indiegogo. About one-third of the funds for projects on the site come through Super-Backers, individuals with cash to spend while trawling for projects on Indiegogo that pique their interest. Of whom, if they cannot see, they cannot support.

Going back to Baron’s project, when you compare his time under the shadow ban now versus about the same period last year for Thin Blue Line, he’s only received roughly a third -$33,000 – of what was raised in the same amount of time. Coincidentally, while this was happening, the project also received bans on social media like Twitter and Reddit. All of which means building ground support for Private American is now a herculean – perhaps impossible- task for Baron and co.

A Bad Time to Invest in China?

Indiegogo didn’t use to be like this. Slava Rubin, one of the three co-founders of Indiegogo, explained her inspiration to create the site was about democratizing finance or, as she put it, “all about allowing anybody to raise money for any idea.”

From 2007 to 2018, Indiegogo did just that and was known as the crowdfunding site that would take on more conservative and political projects that sites like Kickstarter would eschew. When Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager needed to raise funds for their documentary, No Safe Spaces, they found they weren’t wanted at Kickstarter. However, Indiegogo welcomed them with open arms. No Safe Spaces became a riveting success, raising over half a million dollars in support.

For Indiegogo, free speech was always as much about good business as it was about principle. The site gets 5 percent of the funds raised for any project, so if Ethan Van Sciver manages to raise a million dollars for the next collection of CyberFrog, Indiegogo receives a cut worth $50,000. In theory, with only 150 employees and most of the site being automatized, Indiegogo would need to put in little effort to meet payroll.

However, Indiegogo has been dogged and harassed by the news media for allowing “hate speech” on the site since its beginning. So in 2018, Indiegogo caved and banned an Arkhaven comics project by DC comics legend Chuck Dixon and his controversial partner, Vox Day, who was recently featured in a prominent interview at Bleeding Cool.

Over the next few years, ban waves become common, with politically outspoken conservatives like Jon Del Arroz – getting banned for spurious reasons. During the pandemic, Indiegogo would slide into being more openly political, adding statements supporting diversity and inclusion measures; and publicly boasting about their Environmental, Social, and Governance score. This political swing would finally culminate in April of this year when Indiegogo named the former Groupon executive Becky Centre as the new CEO.

Why does this change in politics matter? Because the changes happening at Indiegogo externally reflected their investment strategies as well. Indiegogo is a private company that exists through continual investments from venture capital firms like Insight Partners but not just. In 2018, under then-CEO David Mandelbrot, the company shifted focus to China. Indiegogo, until that point, made 48% of its projects internationally, so it made sense to invest heavily in the Chinese market at the time.

However, it didn’t pan out that way.

While I don’t have the exact stats (Indiegogo is a private company) for how much profits declined since Indiegogo made this decision, then-CEO Andy Yang publicly acknowledged the company had been unprofitable until 2019 and only managed during Covid to stay what he referred to as “at least a kind of a neutral state.”

As readers are aware, the global economy is currently in a tailspin as the artificial demand created by Covid is let off and the costs of binge spending by governments come due. Yet as bad as it is for the western economies, it is ten times worse in China. China still hasn’t left the Covid era and is trying to save an ailing economy with a culture war, which includes coming down hard on any western tech company trying to operate in the country. Among these targets, you guessed it, crowdfunding companies, going from 532 such permitted companies to only 59 in 2020.

Based on this information, the admittance by Yang that the company was financially struggling, the announcement to shift to China, and the declining fortunes of Silicon Valley and VC funds in general, it is safe to say that Indiegogo is in a much worse state of health than they have led the public to believe. For a relatively small company like Indiegogo, the options to salvage the company are thin when colossal companies like Amazon or Facebook have to push out massive layoffs.

This is why I and others more knowledgeable about the workings of Indiegogo now believe the shadow bans are part of a desperate move by Indiegogo to persuade a buyout from a much bigger potential future company. Some individuals associating with the crowdfunding industry treat this as an open secret.

Where Do Creators Go From Here?

The last big question is: will this plan work? Unlikely.

As the crew running Frog G told me, they must “improvise, adapt and overcome to deal with this censorship. We’ll also consider a different service to host. IGG is good because of the number of people who use it to find comics, but if we can’t be seen/searched/discovered, then maybe it’s time to find an alternative.”

That is the danger here for Indiegogo.

One of the lessons learned from Eric D. July’s massively successful fundraiser for the RippaVerse that took place this summer, for which he raised over $3 million, is that Indiegogo needs creators more than creators need Indiegogo. July managed to raise those funds, not with Indiegogo or Kickstarter, but on his own website. Consider those huge names I started this article with; in Indiegogo’s haste to attract new buyers, they may alienate the creators and audience that make the website purposeful.

As for Mike Baron and Chris Braly? They are considering their options as they meet with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, but they don’t feel too rosy about the future. While they are confident that no matter what happens, they will be able to get the book published, and that it will be exceptional — Chuck Dixon told me that he thinks this is easily Baron’s best work yet, which, if you have read Nexus you know is quite the statement – they still cannot help feeling a little betrayed.

If Indiegogo stops the censorship now and apologizes, will creators come back?

As Chris vexed to me in our interview, working with Indiegogo now, “it’s sort of a battered spouse syndrome, do we keep on working with them, even if they’re going to hide us from people” adding, “it’s of like finding out your girlfriend’s cheating on you. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, why would you do that? I’ve been so good to you.”

Peter Pischke is an independent journalist, disabled otaku & film critic. When not writing, you can usually find him on Twitter or his podcast, CultureScape.

Peter Pischke

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