The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a hoax website about paid protesters came crumbling down live on TV

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The website for an organization calling itself Demand Protest made its mission pretty clear: “When your strategy demands paid protest, we organize and bring it to life.” Billing itself as a group that generated the “appearance of outrage” on behalf of left-wing causes, the existence of Demand Protest became an attractive story for many right-wing media outlets. The group, it appeared, was proof that dissent against Trump was manufactured by shady leftist organizations, and could be lucrative: one ad placed in Demand Protest’s name promised a full-time job that paid a $2,500 retainer, plus $50/hr., and benefits.

It was the perfect story to share, if you’re inclined to believe that anti-Trump protesters must be getting paid to be there. Something to that effect has long been in the canon of largely unsubstantiated rumors circulating on the Trump Internet. A well-known fake news writer even fabricated an “interview” with a protester who said he was paid $3,500 to protest at a Trump rally — a story that was shared on Twitter by Trump’s then-campaign manager. And like that made-up story, it also appears that Demand Protest is a made-up group, one that fooled quite a few news sources before being dramatically debunked on-air by Tucker Carlson.

She staged a viral story. You fell for her hoax. She thinks that’s beautiful.

Here’s an incomplete look at how we got here: a few days ago, the Gateway Pundit wrote a piece titled “BREAKING: Far Left Group Is Paying Activists a Monthly Salary to Stop TRUMP,” and cited 4Chan in mentioning a possible link between Demand Protest and George Soros. InfoWars was a bit more skeptical, hedging their story on Demand Protest as a “report” and writing that “it’s unclear if the website is actually legitimate.” The Washington Times also credulously reported on the Backpage ads. Breitbart, meanwhile, used the ads as evidence in an article that suggested that fears of pro-Trump inauguration violence was “fake news.”

“The facts tell a different story,” the Breitbart article says. “The left is gearing up for war, and hiring mercenaries.”

Other sites, like The Federalist Papers, helped to feed the story into the hyperpartisan Facebook ecosystem. It made it to the Drudge Report.

All this happened with no evidence to support claims that Demand Protest actually did anything it advertised on its website — the existence of a backpage ad, which pretty much anyone can create and place, was it.

The company has a San Francisco phone number, but Demand Protest LLC — the name, the website says, that is associated with a copyright — doesn’t exist in California’s public records. Calls to the group lead to a voice mail labyrinth with no way to speak to a real person. The Washington Post left a message on Tuesday afternoon, but it was not returned.

Meanwhile, the claims on Demand Protests’s website, which was only registered last month, are extraordinary and evidence-free. The anonymous testimonials from some of Demand Protest’s supposed clients came from an unnamed U.S. presidential campaign (“It was astonishing to watch operatives go above and beyond, sometimes to their own detriment, to drive our story with the public” says a quote attributed to “Campaign Chair” of the unnamed campaign) and an unnamed public health nonprofit. It claimed to have more than 1,800 well-paid operatives working for them. In the Backpage ads, the group says it’s the “largest private grassroots support organization in the United States,” which seems … implausible.

The Verge and Boing Boing, among others, were skeptical as the story circulated through the conservative press. And on a Fox News segment Tuesday night, someone claiming to represent the group more or less admitted that the whole thing was a hoax.

Tucker Carlson’s bizarre on-camera interview with a Demand Protest representative who gave his name as “Dom Tullipso” felt like a piece of performance art, something even Carlson himself said out loud in the middle of the interview.

“So, this is a sham, your company isn’t real, your website is fake, the claims you have made are lies, this is a hoax,” Carlson began, before saying that his team couldn’t find a record of a person by the name “Dom Tullipso.” The supposed-Tullipso responded by correcting Carlson’s pronunciation of Tullipso. (It seems the “L’s” are silent.”)

“Tullipso” also claimed, over the course of the interview, that a wave of hate mail from all the media coverage prompted the group to change its mind about a half-hour before the interview, so the group was now pro-Trump. He expressed passionate support for retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and claimed the group was working with a “client” who wanted it to help facilitate the release of the Roswell papers.

“It’s pretty darn easy these days to say whatever you want on national TV and have it passed off as truth,” he said. At the end of the interview, “Tullispso” told Carlson, “God bless you for fact checking, even if you did it while we were on the air.”

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