In his 13-year journey from what he calls the "pink-ish" side of radical politics toward the "black flag of anarchy," Taino Borrell had never heard the term "paid protester" before January. But hours after Donald Trump's inauguration, as the 38-year-old marched alongside 10,000 other activists on Arizona's statehouse, a woman, apparently emboldened by the victory of her candidate, spat that term right in the anti-fascist's face.
That's weird, he remembers thinking at the time. If that's the case, I wanna get paid.
Trump's election obviously hasn't done anything to heal the bitterness and rage that has split the country. That means that millions of people have taken to the streets in a show of resistance, and that also means that millions of other people think that those protests are astroturfed rather than organic, engineered by shady groups that speak only for a slim minority of Americans.
The "paid protester" narrative is more than a fringe conspiracy theory—the president himself has been ramping up a storyline he peddled on the campaign trail, in which "professional anarchists" and "thugs" are working to stop his agenda.
And as Republicans faced angry reactions and jeering at town hall meetings across the country this month, Trump unsurprisingly dismissed the frustration of constituents as the work of planted agitators. A few other GOP politicians have echoed him, including Utah representative Jason Chaffetz, who accused many of his town hall protesters of being paid to yell at him. When a crowd gathered outside of Florida senator Marco Rubio's office in Miami shortly after the inauguration, his press secretary issued a statement about "leftwing extremists" that sounded like it had been lifted straight from the Trump playbook. Days later, in a similar move, Colorado senator Cory Gardner claimed that the phone calls flooding his office were the work of "paid protesters from other parts of the country." (The offices for Chaffetz, Rubio, and Gardner didn't answer my questions about why they assumed the protesters were paid.)
It should be easy to dismiss their statements as gamesmanship, a routine effort to delegitimize one's political opponents. But the idea is influencing actual policy now: Last week, the Arizona senate voted to approve a bill that would jail organizers of demonstrations that turn violent, using the same laws that combat organized crime. Some Republican officials elected even mimicked the language of the conspiracy theory spread by Trump, citing "almost professional-agent provocateurs" who are "encouraged" by mysterious benefactors as their reason for voting in favor of SB 1142. (The bill still has to pass the Arizona house and get signed by the governor; it would also presumably face a stiff legal challenge.)
For what it's worth, there haven't really been any large-scale protests in the Arizona area–– or really anything to at least explain why Republican state senators were fearful enough to draft SB 1142. The biggest event might possibly have been when about 1,000 people showed up to celebrate a mosque. Katie Hobbs, Arizona's Democratic senate minority leader, suggests the catalyst for the bill seems to have been a protest that turned violent in Berkeley––more than 700 miles away from the statehouse in Phoenix––last month when right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos tried to give a speech. She suspects that the rhetoric from Republicans has been ramped up in the weeks since, and that the bill might be a result of fear that extremist sentiment could trickle east. Now a myth perpetuated by conspiracy sites is informing a bill that stands to put activists in the same category as members of the Mafia.
"I think the Republicans are trying to use [the riot] as a vehicle to paint all protesters in a bad light and put a chilling effect on First Amendment rights," Hobbs told me. "There's really not a reason in Arizona to consider this."
Borrell, the Arizona antifacist, says that it's almost pointless to protest against it—like most controversial measures, the vote for it was split along party lines, with Republicans, who control both houses of the legislature, supporting it. Obviously, the GOP is unlikely to be swayed by demonstrations. But he tells me in all his years of agitation, he's never seen either a president or a populace so eager to discredit what he and his fellow discontents do.
To be clear, large-scale protests are almost always organized by groups, which are very often backed by well-off individuals. This is true regardless of the politics involved. For instance, in 2010, an organization founded by David Koch trained members of the the then burgeoning Tea Party movement on policy details related to the healthcare debate; two years later, it went on to stage an anti-Occupy demonstration. (Occupy Wall Street itself was initially organized by publishers of the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters.)
Ben Wikler is the Washington director of MoveOn.org. The site is frequently mentioned in conspiracy theories about paid protesters and is often accused of being run by billionaire liberal investor George Soros, a bogeyman for the right. Wikler explains that his organization is basically just a giant email list run by about 45 people who send out petitions, suggest ways that progressives can help further their agenda, and solicit for donations—the average of which is $26.
He says that even the recent march on Washington, which famously started as a Facebook post, was only able to happen when people who knew what they were doing got onboard. But the fact that MoveOn donated tens of thousands of dollars toward setting up the march isn't to say that the people there were any less real or less frustrated than Tea Partiers or Occupiers were.
"There's a difference between paying for loudspeakers and Jumbotrons and paying people to show up at an event," Wikler says.
Still, the right insists there's something nefarious going on, with many websites claiming that Soros paid rioters in Ferguson, Missouri. The conservative Washington Times, reported in 2015 that a Soros-founded grant program called the Open Society Foundation had given $33 million "to support already-established groups that emboldened the grass-roots, on-the-ground activists in Ferguson"—phrasing that Thomas Watson, a senior editorial advisor at the OSF, says creates the misleading impression that those funds were given in immediate response to Michael Brown's death.* He told me that amount was the result of decades worth of funding and was dispersed to previously existing organizations that did much more than protest. A 2015 report obtained by Breitbart also showed that Soros's Open Society Institute gave $650,000 to "invest in technical assistance and support for the groups at the core of the burgeoning #BlackLivesMatter movement" after police killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
But when people say "paid protester," they usually mean that someone is literally giving demonstrators money to fake enthusiasm for a cause, and it's hard to find examples of that sort of scheme. On New Year's Day 2016, someone posted on Craigslist that they were seeking creatives and media professionals––who they called "troublemakers"—to humiliate "one of the LEADING CANDIDATES for the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES." Another ad, posted in Chicago on March 6, sought canvassers for a progressive nonprofit called Grassroots Campaign, which a fake news site called All News Pipeline took as evidence of a mass conspiracy. Later that month, Trump had to cancel a rally planned in the city due to massive protests.
Soon after, MoveOn.org sent out an email to its followers explaining what had happened in Chicago and asking for a $3 donation. Conservative websites took this as a sign that Soros was organizing an even bigger protest, possibly at the Republican National Convention. (This never materialized, mostly because Cleveland officials designated a parade route that was far from the convention center in a move that drew legal action from the ACLU.)
The paid protester myth resurfaced again in time for the inauguration, when the conspiracy-obsessed website Infowars harped on the existence of DemandProtest.com, which was apparently offering insurance benefits to "operatives" willing to wear Anonymous masks and sow discord in DC. Although Infowars portrayed it as a proof of an Illuminati-level conspiracy, it was much more likely a hoax.
Now, Wikler says, the idea has taken hold that organizations like MoveOn are recruiting people on Craigslist and paying them $1,500 a piece to yell at congressional Republicans––something that Wikler says is not only ridiculous but impossible using the conspiracy theorists' math and the fact that 100,000 people showed up.
"There would be no way to contain a story like that," he says. "There would be vastly more evidence. Plus, that would be the stupidest way to spend $150 million on politics that you could imagine."
*This article has been updated to clarify that the Open Society Foundation calls a figure cited by the Washington Times as misleading and inaccurate.
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