From Facebook Group Conspiracies to Astroturfing: Do Paid Protestors Exist?
For years, rumors have circulated around the internet about the existence, and use, of paid protestors. In the wake of anti-police brutality demonstrations, detractors have claimed that the protestors involved in the global Black Lives Matter movement are hired hands and, in June 2020, these claims spread like wildfire on social media due in part to the website ProtestJobs.com. While folks on Facebook went wild with this "discovery," it’s abundantly clear that ProtestJobs.com is a satirical site.
A quick glance at the services the site offers — for $99 you can mock-request an "EZ-Riot," which, among other things, includes "5-25 masked rioters guaranteed to cause havoc and confusion" — establishes that satire in seconds. Not to mention, it boasts a very explicit disclaimer — "Real: 100,000+ Americans are dead. Fake: This website." Jean le Roux, a research associate and fact checker, told BuzzFeed News that "It's a very fine line between disinformation and an actual, established literary device." That is, in a world where fact is often decried as fake news, a satirical website is now being held up by protest opponents as "proof" of the illegitimacy of said protests. It’s all just very, very dystopian — perhaps even more so than George Orwell imagined.
The Dangers of Social Media Echo Chambers
In 2018, BuzzFeed News published an article titled "How Facebook Groups Are Being Exploited To Spread Misinformation, Plan Harassment, And Radicalize People" — and the title says it all. In the lead up to the 2020 Presidential Election, Facebook and other social media sites that don’t regulate the spread of misinformation came under heavy attack.
In essence, these sorts of sites not only make it difficult for users to differentiate between fake news and facts, but Facebook Groups, much like old-school internet forums, help conspiracies spread like wildfire and, in some cases, radicalize believers. We all remember the "Plandemic" conspiracy theorists — people who called the COVID-19 pandemic a hoax and spread misinformation about the incredibly serious (and incredibly real) public health threat.
According to BuzzFeed’s investigation, "[W]hile Facebook groups may offer a positive experience for millions of people around the world, they have also become a global honeypot of spam, fake news, conspiracies, health misinformation, harassment, hacking, trolling, scams and other threats to users." In putting an emphasis on Groups, Facebook is essentially reinforcing the like-minded bubble mentality, keeping users locked in social media echo chambers, which, at their very worst, are "fueled by a torrent of fake news and extremism" (via Monday Note).
To make matters more puzzling, Crowds on Demand, an American publicity firm, has made waves by hiring actors to "staff" events. While the firm was founded around the idea of giving folks the "celebrity experience" — say, if you want a paparazzi-style crowd at the airport to make you look more important — the site now claims to go beyond just PR stunts, suggesting customers use the firm to bolster numbers at "protests, rallies…[and] political events."
This, of course, feeds into the questionable practice of "astroturfing," in which sponsors or organizations mask their intent by making it seem as though their message has originated from grassroots efforts. "[The commercialization of the process of hiring crowds] just contributes to the air of unreality that exists in this day and age with essentially not being able to believe your own eyes or ears," California-based political consultant Garry South told the Los Angeles Times in 2018. "I don’t think it’s particularly healthy. But it probably inevitably was going to come to this."
“No one can pay for someone’s lived experience.” — Ana Maria Archila
Unfortunately, this kind of misinformation isn’t cordoned off in a dark corner of the internet. In 2018, Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court was one of the most contentious in history, compelling many of his detractors to protest. President Donald Trump tweeted about the protestors, digging his heels into the conspiracy theory that the protestors had been paid by wealthy liberal donors, including George Soros.
"The paid D.C. protestors are now ready to REALLY protest because they haven’t gotten their checks," Trump tweeted. "[I]n other words, they weren’t paid! Screamers in Congress, and outside, were far too obvious — less professional than anticipated by those paying (or not paying) the bills!" But, as reported by Politico, Ana Maria Archila, a self-identified sexual assault survivor who confronted a Republican senator, wrote in a statement that "No one can pay for someone's lived experiences… The pain, the trauma, and the rage that I expressed when I spoke with Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator were my own, and I held it for more than 30 years to protect the people I love from it."
In other words, the President’s unfounded claims were yet another example of misinformation, and, given his immense platform, his attempt to discredit Americans who were concerned about Kavanaugh’s past and lack of accountability was all the more dangerous. Normalizing conspiracy theories and spreading misinformation on a national stage only emboldens others to do so and clouds the truth from Americans who just want the who, what, where, when and why of current events.
All of this to say, while firms like Crowds on Demand do exist to swell crowd sizes, jumping to conclusions every time there is a protest or rally isn’t helpful. While the rise of social media has made it easy to spread information and jump on trends, we should all do our part to be as diligent as possible — to face the fact check before tumbling down the rabbit hole.