Banks and payment services regularly block accounts of organizations they consider to be spreaders of fake news about corona and vaccinations. At least eight influential internet channels have been put on hold in recent months, or have already been closed off from their bank account or payment service. This is evident from a tour of NRC.
The financial ban affects, among others, action group Virus Truth, publisher De Blauwe Tijger and evangelist Jaap Dieleman. Banning such customers is seen by banks as part of the fight against extremism.
Rabobank, among others, confirms through a spokesperson that it no longer accepts customers who spread “conspiracy theories and other proven disinformation”. Not because conspiracy theorists would break the law, but because the bank sees their actions as “harmful”. Money flows from these types of organizations are additionally screened by banks, based on the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Prevention Act.
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According to experts, the policy of the banks may be going too far. Some organizations are unable to open new accounts. Triodos Bank, for example, refuses Virus Truth as a customer, because the action group “has called for confrontations that are at odds with our values,” the bank wrote to the group in an email in the possession of NRC.
‘Victim of censorship’
The affected platforms claim to be victims of censorship: they are financially duped because of their statements about corona and vaccinations. Without a bank account, they can no longer receive donations, which is often their only source of income. Other financial transactions also become impossible, which could mean the end of the organization.
“Pure discrimination against dissenters,” Jaap Dieleman calls it. The evangelist from Zeewolde distributed the ‘end-time magazine’ among millions of households in February. Eye opener, in which he preaches hell and damnation about the corona vaccine. Payment service Mollie, which processes his donations, then canceled the collaboration. “The messages that are distributed through your foundation do not fit with Mollie’s business operations. This is how you publish messages about not being vaccinated against the coronavirus,” the payment service says in the accompanying e-mail.
Pure discrimination against dissenters
Jaap Dieleman evangelist
Café Weltschmerz, a popular YouTube channel that presents the corona policy as a conspiracy, was also banned by Mollie in mid-April. Almost simultaneously, the comparable channel Blckbx was put on hold. A Mollie employee told Blckbx that the move may be the result of criticism of government policy that the channel has voiced. When Blckbx put the telephone conversation with the employee online, an apology followed. Mollie would have made an “administrative error” and still accepts Blckbx as a customer, according to a spokesperson.
Department of Counter Terrorism Finance
Rabobank seems to be going the furthest of the banks. The bank has a Counter Terrorism Finance department that also investigates corona conspiracy theorists. This is apparent from an internal message for bank employees with the title ‘How does Rabo arm itself against dangerous conspiracy theories and extremism?’
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“Some of the extremists can already be prosecuted. This is usually the smallest group consisting of die hard radicals,” notes the bank. Reference is made to attacks with fireworks bombs on test streets. “But there is a larger club that spreads the ideas and thus makes radical actions possible. …What do we do with that?”, the bank wonders. The answer is in the same document: “Rabobank does not facilitate initiatives that actively spread conspiracy theories and other proven disinformation.” These are customers who do not cross the line from a legal point of view: “We mainly focus on the activists, because the radicals can already be tackled via the Wwft (law against money laundering and terrorism, ed.)”.
This law and especially a settlement that the ING Bank reached for hundreds of millions with the judiciary because of the passage of criminal transfers, have ensured that banks have started to shy away from risky customers. That includes conspiracy theorists.
The banks often spring into action after organizations have been publicly discredited. For example, De Blauwe Tijger ran into problems with ING Bank, promptly after the publishing house was labeled by anti-terrorism coordinator NCTV as “a conduit for anti-government propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories”. The collective ‘Doctors for Truth’ was set aside by the Bunq bank after the group distributed a controversial letter among GPs in March. The letter made it seem that GPs themselves are liable for side effects of the corona vaccine. Since the cancellation of the account, the collective has been asking for donations via a foreign account and Bitcoins.
A Bunq spokesperson does not want to respond substantively, but says that he only wants to comply with “the law”.
Afraid of negative publicity
Can banks just cancel an account because of conspiracy thinking? No, says Yvonne Willemsen, head of security affairs at the Dutch Banking Association. “You can keep out new customers, but if you want to close an existing account, you have to arrive with a good file, especially at the court.” According to Willemsen, banks are wary of negative publicity. “If the media or the NCTV warn about corona extremists, banks will look at it very seriously. They include such a signal in their risk assessment of a customer.”
ING was recently called back by the judge. The bank wanted to dump Virus Truth as a customer, citing a dubious transfer to Spain as the reason. The judge ruled that there was no criminal act. According to the judge, ING gave the impression that it did not want to be associated with Virus Truth. “But that does not mean that it can make Virus Truth impossible for its activities,” said the court, which ruled that the blocking of the account had to be lifted for the time being.
Banks more often go too far when canceling bank accounts of customers with a controversial profile, says Gijs Bronzwaer, PhD student in criminal law at Radboud University in Nijmegen. “They sometimes use anti-money laundering and terrorist financing legislation as an excuse to part with certain customers when the law is not intended to do so.” According to Bronzwaer, financial institutions can draw up acceptance criteria on the basis of which customers are excluded. “For example, Triodos refused sex workers’ association Proud in 2015 because that organization would be incompatible with the bank’s mission.”
However, according to Bronzwaer, canceling a bank account is more difficult. “There must be a valid reason for the termination of the relationship. The mere fact that someone is interpreting conspiracy theories does not seem to me to be sufficient grounds for closing an account. The bank will then have to demonstrate that its reputation is really at stake at the hands of the customer. Especially if such a customer cannot go to other banks.”