Kickstarted

Kickstarter Suspends Campaign to Send an American to the Front Lines of Syria’s Rebellion [UPDATED]

Front row seats to a budding civil war.
screen shot 2012 08 21 at 3 47 14 pm Kickstarter Suspends Campaign to Send an American to the Front Lines of Syrias Rebellion [UPDATED]

(Photo: Kickstarter)

Correction: Mr. VanDyke reached out to Betabeat to say that he is pursuing this project solely as an activist filmmaker to make a documentary in support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and that this is in no way a combat mission, as we erroneously stated in the strike-through text below and earlier headline. Mr. VanDyke took up arms in Libya against Qaddafi’s regime, but says that is independent from this film project, which aims to tell a moving and in-depth story of the revolution and generate awareness of the conflict in Syria. Betabeat regrets the error. 

Earlier today, Kickstarter suspended a campaign called “This your chance to become part of the Arab Spring.” The project’s creator is Matthew VanDyke, a former journalist and Georgetown graduate. Mr. VanDyke was raising money to film a documentary about his journey to fight on the front lines of the populist uprising in Syria, a bloody rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad that has lasted 18 months and is quickly escalating into a civil war. Yesterday, President Obama threatened American military intervention if Assad didn’t step down, prompted by fears of the dictator’s arsenal of “unconventional weapons” let loose in the Middle East.

Mr. VanDyke presented his project on Kickstarter as the chance to support freedom fighters by backing a documentary. Previous citizen journalism projects related to the Arab Spring, such as this project in Tunisia or this one in Egypt, were successfully funded with no intervention from Kickstarter. However, those were works of journalism, focused on periods of transition in the wake of a rebellion. Mr. VanDyke, on the other hand, told CNN in a recent interview that “He’s not a journalist, he’s a filmmaker and an activist.” As his Kickstarter page boasts, before organizing this trip to Syria, he took up arms in Libya against Qaddafi, where he was captured by Qaddafi’s forces, imprisoned, and psychologically tortured, before escaping back to the front lines.

The project, which was launched on July 25th, was online for almost a month before the suspension and already raised $15,134 from 60 backers, but no money has changed hands since it hasn’t met its goal and doesn’t reach its end date until tomorrow. On his blog, Mr. VanDyke insisted the set back wouldn’t stop his mission:

As I told the press in interviews over the past few weeks (the reporters will all confirm this if asked), I have private financing outside of Kickstarter available for this film. The film is not affected by the success or failure or suspension of the Kickstarter campaign.The film is being made, it will be fully funded, and everything is on schedule.

In the CNN interview, Mr. VanDyke, who has spent time in the region, insisted, “I don’t like war tourists. I don’t like people who go for a rush.” Rather, he seemed to frame his project as a moral mission. Self-perception aside, CNN’s reporter points out that the Assad regime can point to Mr. VanDyke as justification that the presence of foreign forces means the uprising is not a populist revolution.

This isn’t the first time Kickstart has suspended a campaign. A “social video eyewear” project was also suspended after raising $63,791 (in excess of its goal) and eventually moved the project over to rival crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo. A representative from Kickstarter declined to respond to questions from Betabeat regarding today’s suspension, however the company did point us toward their guidelines for suspension:

A project may be suspended if it:

• Violates or acts inconsistently with the letter or spirit of the Kickstarter Guidelines or Terms of Use. This includes raising funds for charity, not fitting one of Kickstarter’s categories, spamming, or offering something from the list of prohibited items.
• Materially changes the stated use of funds
• Makes unverifiable claims
• Exhibits actions that are more closely associated with fraudulent or high-risk activity

In addition to falling under the “high-risk activity” category, Kickstarter also prohibits using its platform to raise money for causes. In the campaign’s webpage, Mr. VanDyke says he plans to release the documentary online for free “similar to the method used to distribute the film Kony 2012,” a problematic reference to say the least. In fact, the whole endeavor sounds like it was lifted straight from Kickstriker, a nightmarish project dreamt up by Clay Shirky’s students at NYU, who imagined “a world of crowdfunded warfare,” in which donors could pay $1 million for the head of Joseph Kony, minus the teeth.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com