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Why PayPal is at the center of a right-wing social media storm

Is PayPal preventing people from leaving?


Chris Stokel-Walker


PayPal has found itself caught up in a social media storm among free speech absolutists and right-wingers—all of who allege that the payments platform is preventing them from shutting down their accounts.

Users who support the likes of the Free Speech Union, a U.K. organization designed to promote the ability to speak your mind, have been rattled by PayPal banning the account from accessing money it collected from followers.

The Free Speech Union had thousands of dollars in its PayPal account when it was shut down in late September. The organization used the payment platform to solicit donations in its fight for free speech absolutism.

Since then, PayPal has been buffeted by attacks from the far right. It compounded its troubles by incorrectly publishing information that claimed it would fine customers for spreading misinformation, something that a spokesperson subsequently said was “never intended to be inserted in our policy.”

Whether that was related to the platform’s earlier skirmish with the Free Speech Union is unclear. But it stoked the exact fears those on the right were worried about.

Regardless of the intention, the decision was criticized by Elon Musk, whose company merged with Confinity to form PayPal in 2000.

It has made those on the right antsy, inspiring them to abandon PayPal en masse to express their displeasure at the company.

There’s just one problem: they’re unable to close their accounts.

A number of users have claimed to struggle to shut their PayPal accounts when they try to do so, suggesting that it may be because PayPal wants to keep them on the site for fear of losing their business. At least half a dozen of those who said they believed they were barred from closing out their accounts turned down interview requests, seemingly because of a mistrust of the media.

A PayPal spokesperson said that the issue users were facing was not a deliberate attempt to hold up their cash, but a standardized procedure. “As it says on our website, before you close your account, make sure to withdraw any money you have in your PayPal account,” the spokesperson said.

“You can transfer the money electronically to your bank account or ask us to send you a check,” they added, pointing out that the grand conspiracy that prevents people from shutting down their PayPal accounts may be a simple logistical issue. “If you have an email address on your account that you haven’t confirmed, remove it from your account before you close it,” the spokesperson said. “You can’t close your account if there are limitations, unresolved issues, or a balance.”

It’s unclear, from those posting about issues closing accounts, whether they cleared out their balances beforehand. 

The spokesperson did not answer questions asking how many users had left the platform in recent months, what proportion of users that would represent, and whether they had seen a greater churn in users since finding themselves in the firing line of far-right Twitter.

In the right-wing bubble, people believe the abandonment of the platform has been so great that PayPal is taking drastic action. Paul Joseph Watson recently tweeted a claim that PayPal is offering users $15 to stay. The Daily Dot has not been able to independently verify whether that is the case.

“There has been a growing trend of people wishing to claim victimhood due to their perception that they are unfairly losing power in society,” said Steven Buckley, lecturer in media and communication at City University, London. “This is of course incorrect and there has simply been a balancing of power and voice given to those who had previously been marginalized. We see this with the MAGA crowd, anti-trans activists and so-called ‘free speech warriors’.”

“Because the shifting dynamics in society coupled with oftentimes opaque business practices are complex, people can find it easier to cry conspiracy theories in order to explain the situation they are in,” said Buckley.

Buckley points out that PayPal should be more transparent about why users have to provide more information before shutting their accounts, and why those accounts they’ve proactively banned have been booted.

The Free Speech Union’s creator, Toby Young, has not been told why his account was shuttered. Meanwhile, a prominent anti-trans account, Gays Against Groomers, said they were recently booted from PayPal without justification as well. 

“But just because their guidelines are vague, doesn’t mean there is some grand conspiracy that seeks to punish or silence the views of people like Toby Young,” Buckley added.

But it all comes amid rising anger at PayPal. The Daily Dot reported on businesses that allege PayPal has withheld millions of dollars of their funds without justification—a story that came to light after reporting on how the creators of one penetration testing device had $1.3 million of its cash held up by the payments company.

While some have posted about a surge of interest in Google search queries about how to close their PayPal account in recent days, over the longer run global search interest in how to shut down one’s account stayed relatively flat. And despite some hysterical coverage from sites popular with conspiracy theorists and the far-right, it doesn’t seem like PayPal is about to collapse like a house of cards. 

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