Over the past few days, several independent news outlets and journalists have had their PayPal accounts abruptly canceled and their funds frozen by the company for unspecified offenses. These outlets also happened to have dissented in various ways from official orthodoxy on the Ukraine war. Since the Russian invasion, a series of extreme, wartime-like information-control policies had already been taken up in the West. The latest news suggests the trend is getting dramatically worse.
Consortium News, founded by the late Associated Press investigative legend Robert Parry in 1995 as one of the web’s very first independent, reader-funded news outlets, reported over the weekend that PayPal had “permanently limited” its account, just as it was launching its Spring Fund Drive. According to editor-in-chief Joe Lauria — a former longtime United Nations correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and others — the company said it would hold onto the thousands of dollars accumulated in the outlet’s account for 180 days and reserved the right to seize the money entirely to pay for unnamed “damages.”
According to Lauria, Consortium News was neither warned that they were at risk of censure nor given a reason for it in either PayPal’s initial email or a follow-up call with a customer service representative. PayPal’s back office didn’t give a reason for the action, and there was no existing case against the outlet. Lauria reported he was informed of the move by the customer agent, who only mentioned that an “investigation and review” revealed “some potential risk associated with this account.” Given the outlet’s critical coverage of the Ukraine war, and given the far-reaching steps already taken in the “information war” over the conflict, Lauria writes that it’s “more than conceivable” the outlet is being punished for its Ukraine coverage.
A few days earlier, MintPress News, a left-wing web-based outlet based out of Minnesota, had been similarly informed by PayPal that it was banned from the company after a review allegedly turned up an unspecified “potential risk” with its account. The outlet’s founder and executive editor, Mnar Adley, told Jacobin that, as with Consortium News, the outlet received no prior warning from PayPal and was told their existing balance would be held by the company for half a year. This isn’t the first time MintPress has been financially targeted, Adley says; GoFundMe terminated two different fundraisers she had been running for years, suddenly saying they had violated the site’s terms of service.
In this case, PayPal’s net went beyond the organization itself and targeted one of its journalists, too, with senior staff writer Alan MacLeod having his personal account canceled at the same time. PayPal told him it had detected “activity in your account that’s inconsistent with our User Agreement,” something he calls “patently absurd” because the last time he had used PayPal was to buy a £5 Christmas gift in December. MacLeod and Adley both say they had fortunately withdrawn funds shortly before the cancellations, but the loss will still have lingering effects. MintPress was pulling in roughly $1,000 a month from readers’ membership payments through the service, Adley says, while MacLeod notes it could hurt his ability to be paid for future reporting.
Like Consortium News, MintPress has been critical of US policy toward the Ukraine invasion. In recent days, MacLeod has published pieces scrutinizing the newly formed and popular-in-the-West Kyiv Independent, exposed TikTok’s hiring of numerous NATO and other national security personnel for top posts, and, ironically, criticized online censorship efforts to do with the war.
“The sanctions-regime war is coming home to hit the bank accounts of watchdog journalists,” says Adley.
Seeds Long Planted
Regardless of what you might think about either publication’s output — like any publication, a reasonable reader will find pieces at both that they agree and disagree with — this is a frightening attack on press freedoms. Faceless tech bureaucrats have unilaterally cut two serious independent media outlets off from a vital source of funding with no prior warning, no ability to appeal, and no explanation besides a vague reference to “potential risk,” all at a time when critical debate about the most dangerous conflict in most Americans’ lifetimes is being stifled in a climate of fear and repression.
The seeds for this latest action were sown over a decade ago, when PayPal, under pressure from the US government, froze the account of WikiLeaks. At the time, the whistleblowing publisher had released a series of data troves revealing previously undisclosed Western war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, before releasing a searchable database of 250,000 State Department cables.
Commentators warned at the time that the move would set a dangerous precedent and would be used against other publishers in the future. Equally foreboding is PayPal’s partnership, announced last year, with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization with a history of hostility to the Left and pro-Palestinian advocacy, which it attacks under the guise of combating antisemitism. Eight months after announcing the two would work together on “uncovering and disrupting the financial pipelines that support extremist and hate movements,” ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt has announced the organization would put “more concentrated energy toward the threat of radical anti-Zionism” and declared, in what appears to be a hardening of its previous official line, that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” (It’s not.)
On other fronts, the ADL has recently relaxed its anti-extremist vigilance. Only two months ago, the group played down the threat of the far right in Ukraine, claiming it was a “very marginal group with no political influence and who don’t attack Jews,” a claim that is, to put it mildly, questionable. PayPal’s moves against independent left-wing news outlets, coupled with its ongoing partnership with the ADL, is ominous, and may well foreshadow more targeting of independent media outlets and reporters who dissent from the ADL’s right-wing stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
All of this comes days after as the press indulged in its annual hobnobbing with government officials at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Host Trevor Noah has been widely applauded for his speech, marveling that despite lightly roasting the president — an unremarkable, mandatory feature of the annual event — he was “going to be fine” and that “in America, you have the right to seek the truth and speak the truth, even if it makes people in power uncomfortable.” That right, apparently, doesn’t extend to the independent press.
Given how the history of tech censorship has gone, it would be surprising if the censure of Consortium News and MintPress News is where this ends, particularly with PayPal’s actions receiving no pushback, criticism, or even notice outside of independent media. But mainstream press outlets would be foolish to ignore the issue. Tech censorship may be overwhelmingly focused on independent outlets for now, but given recent precedents, it’s only a matter of time before a president — one less friendly toward the press — uses the union of tech companies and government power to train the crosshairs on them.