The myth that protesters, no matter the cause, are secretly being paid by some powerful entity has circulated for years, but it has spread with renewed vigor as anti–police brutality demonstrations have ignited across the United States. Citing debunked images and a satirical website, users on social media have suggested that people showing up in the streets are being financed by a third party.
There’s no shortage of online posts or videos promoting the claim that protesters are being paid — but over the weekend, some social media users turned their attention to a very real website, ProtestJobs.com.
“Exposed!!!!!!! Protesters for hire,” wrote one person on Facebook who shared the website three months ago. “Are we awake now because this takes the motherfuking cake,” wrote another who shared it last week.
In reality, the cake is a lie.
According to new research conducted by the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), an organization that tracks online disinformation, people have shared the site on Facebook Groups and pages, claiming the site, which is satire, constituted proof of staged demonstrations.
The site carries an explicit disclaimer —"Real: 100,000+ Americans are dead. Fake: This website" — and offers such tongue-in-cheek services like “Free National Parks tweet comparing the size of your protest to the inauguration” and “Car/Dumpster fire upgrade option available.”
BuzzFeed News spoke to the site's creator, who requested anonymity because he has “seen what happens to people” who become targets of online harassment. He’s a US citizen who created the website in 2017 as a joke for his friends. He forgot about it until last weekend, he said.
“I put it together and I thought it was funny,” he said. “I shared it with a couple of friends and we got a good laugh out of it.”
Then he put it out of his mind until a fact-checker recently contacted him.
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” the website's creator said.
DFRLab found that the site was shared over 30,000 times on Facebook, which translated to nearly a million visitors, as of May 28. Although there was some activity on Twitter, Google Analytics information shared with BuzzFeed News by the site’s owner showed that over 95% of the traffic flowed through Facebook.
“I never looked at it. I never touched it. I never had any alerts set up,” the creator said. “To have it go from zero [views] to a million is quite shocking.”
He said he made the website as a response to unsubstantiated claims circulating in 2017 of paid protesters, and he never expected the site would be used to denounce protests.
Jean le Roux, the research associate who conducted the analysis, told BuzzFeed News that the site was an ideal illustration of how even well-intentioned satire could be taken out of context.
“It's a very fine line between disinformation and an actual, established literary device,” he said.
Sometimes, politicians or blogs claim they were joking after spreading disinformation, le Roux said, but that’s not what happened in this case.
“Satire, in a weird, ironic twist, is being used as proof that these protesters are being paid,” he said, “despite the fact that it's actually satire about people thinking that protesters are being paid.”
Le Roux’s analysis showed small but clear spikes in traffic correlating with protests. One spike was in February, during protests against the development of a pipeline on Indigenous land in Canada. Another, bigger spike correlates with the US protests that began last weekend.
“This whole site was being used to delegitimize protests all over the place,” le Roux said. “Most of the people who were sharing it were convinced that it was real.”
After realizing its popularity, the website's owner added a disclaimer, which hasn't seemed to deter people from sharing it, although traffic ultimately dwindled. He said he worried that taking it down would fuel conspiracies about why it disappeared.
The site's spread is another example of how Facebook Groups are vectors for hoaxes and conspiracy theories, a problem which researchers have been sounding the alarm on for years. DFRLab found that the largest spread came from groups targeting President Donald Trump's supporters, although pages gave it a boost as well. Facebook Groups were also instrumental in spreading "The Plandemic," a viral video filled with falsehoods about the coronavirus pandemic.
Although claims of paid protesters may seem outlandish, they’ve been repeated over and over again for years and have seeped out of the online world. In one video uploaded online, a woman is seen spouting conspiracy theories while she destroys a memorial to black lives lost to police brutality.
“You are brainwashed,” she said. “This was staged by antifa and George Soros.”
Repeated exposure can increase belief in false information, studies have shown, especially when coupled with bias. On Facebook Groups, old images and zombie hoaxes have circulated with zeal over the last week. One series of images from at least four years ago showed an "Antifa playbook." Another promised $200 for protesting. “Get paid to be a professional anarchist,” it said.