Last week, as Donald Trump prepared for his inauguration in Washington, DC and protestors readied demonstrations to counter it, a series of advertisements were posted on Back Page.
“Demand Protest is the largest private grassroots support organization in the United States,” the ads read. “We pay people already politically motivated to fight for the things they believe. You were going to take action anyways, why not do so with us!” The post claims to offer $2,500 per month “retainers” plus $50 hourly payments to protestors aligned with the organization. The logo for demandprotest.com is a raised black first, and the site includes photos of young, chanting protestors, some wearing Anonymous masks.
If there’s any doubt about the target of protests, the ad is titled, “Get paid fighting against Trump!” For those enticed by the ads, an anonymous “recruitment” form on demandprotest.com asks potential protestors for personal information, covering areas including, “Do you have any family in government?” and “Would you say that your relationships are simple or complicated?”
The ads have since taken off in fringe right-wing media reports, and it’s not entirely surprising. The paid protestor myth has been a staple of the fake news ecosystem for some time, and with this week’s inauguration, there’s reason to be extremely dubious of the new site.
According to publicly available who.is information, although demandprotest.com attracted virtually no attention until last week, the domain name was registered last month. Despite having no discernible presence until after the election, the website claims to include an endorsement from an “unnamed” 2016 presidential campaign chair, who allegedly called the group’s work “astonishing.” The page also lists a “copyright” of 2015 to 2017 for Demand Protest, LLC., and claims to have been extraordinarily busy in that time, racking up 48 “campaigns” with 1,817 paid “operatives.” Phone contact information leads to a dead-end voicemail box, and the group did not respond to an email.
The story gained traction yesterday, and was picked up by conspiracy website Infowars — where, even then, it was met with some skepticism. (“It’s unclear if the DemandProtest.com website is actually legitimate,” the site’s story says.) Still, other conservative-leaning websites with reputations for inaccuracy have joined in. “BREAKING: Far Left Group Is Paying Activists a Monthly Salary to Stop TRUMP,” the Gateway Pundit blog blared.
Already, the narrative behind the likely fake site is evolving while it’s transmitted around the web. Popular conservative Twitter accounts at some point “linked” the protest page to George Soros, who online fake-news purveyors often claim is the puppetmaster behind anti-Trump conspiracies.
On Facebook, the site has similarly been held up as a smoking gun. A conservative page with more than 21,000 likes — “I will NOT boycott companies for supporting Conservatives” — says, “You have to check this one out.”
The page would not be the first time someone has exploited conspiracies about paid protests to tap into the viral conservative rage machine. One infamous story from last November falsely claimed to show anti-Trump protestors bused in to Austin. Just last week, right-wing filmmaker James O’Keefe ran a “sting” operation where he attempted to pay anti-Trump protestors, only to be stung by a left-wing group instead.
But regardless of the reasons behind it, the page is a useful case study in what it takes to set the fringe news machine into motion: a semi-slick website and an unverifiable claim that gives life to suspicions of bad faith among the opposition. As the Demand Protest website says, “When you need the appearance of outrage, we are able to deliver it at scale while keeping your reputation intact.”