AUSTIN, Texas (USA TODAY) – The street protests denouncing Donald Trump's election to the presidency had barely broken up before allegations of "paid" or "professional protestors" surfaced on social media, but at least one of the recent claims was based on a false assertion.
As hundreds of protestors took to the streets in New York, Chicago and Austin, Trump himself got into the action, claiming in a Thursday night tweet that, "professional protestors, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!” Hashtags such as #fakeprotest and #paidprotest quickly spread among Trump supporters, along with pictures and theories of allegedly staged anti-Trump rallies.
Hours later, on Friday morning, he scaled back his rhetoric, tweeting, “Love the fact that the small groups of protestors last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!”
In Austin, claims that the protests there, where crowds of students marched from the University of Texas at Austin campus through downtown, were staged by paid protestors stemmed from a Twitter post by Austin resident Eric Tucker (@erictucker), who on Wednesday posted several photos of tour buses parked reportedly near the protests. “Anti-Trump protests in Austin today are not as organic as they seem," he wrote in the accompanying post. "Here are the buses they came in. #fakeprotests.”
His post was retweeted more than 16,000 in two days. But when people started questioning his allegations, Tucker admitted he never saw anyone boarding or exiting the buses. Further investigation by Tucker and a local news station showed the buses were actually used to ferry participants in a nearby data-sharing conference.
On Friday morning, Tucker tweeted a correction: “I strongly value the truth. There’s a pretty good case those buses were for a conference.”
Tucker also wrote a blog entry explaining the mistake and marveled at how fast the faulty Tweet went viral – sparking more than 14,000 likes and earning him more than 800 new followers – while his corrected Tweet garnered only eight retweets and 11 likes.
“What’s going on?” he wrote. “The systems that carry information to us all are filtered by what’s sensational — not by what’s true … People are surprisingly uninterested in truth but very interested in what helps them to make their own case.”
Mayte Lara, 18, a UT–Austin student who marched in Wednesday's protest, called allegations of paid protestors "ridiculous." She said she heard about the protests when a friend was using Facebook Live from the rally. "These people were protesting because they feel their rights are going to be taken away with this new president," she said.
Claims of fake activism is not new to this campaign season. The Trump campaign was accused last year of paying actors $50 each to wear “TRUMP” T-shirts and hold up signs at his initial presidential announcement at Trump Tower in New York. The campaign allegedly used a New York-based casting company to recruit the actors, according to a report in the Hollywood Reporter.
The Trump campaign denied the allegations, but the Reporter posted the casting call email. "We understand this is not a traditional 'background job,' but we believe acting comes in all forms and this is inclusive of that school of thought," it read.
Democrats were hit with similar allegations last month when an undercover video by conservative activist James O’Keefe purportedly showed a plot by Democratic operatives to plant paid personnel at Trump rallies to incite violence. Robert Creamer, a longtime political activist contracted by the Democratic National Committee, stepped down in the wake of the video’s release.
Companies such as Crowds on Demand and Crowds for Rent, supply participants to fill auditoriums for corporate events or political rallies. In political circles, there’s even a term for it: “astroturfing,” or hiring people to fill a rally to give the impression of grassroots support.
Though somewhat common in political spheres, there is no evidence that paid participants filled this week’s protests, said Costas Panagopoulos, director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy at Fordham University. Trump alleging protestors were paid professionals without evidence sets a dangerous precedent, he said.
“It’s extremely harmful,” Panagopoulos said. “These types of unsubstantiated statements risk inciting others to violence.”
Ian Slingsby, 23, a junior at UT–Austin, said he knew the allegations of paid protestors were wrong because he was there Wednesday morning when the protests slowly galvanized – from a few dozen students talking about the election near the UT Tower to a mass of students marching toward downtown. The crowds were filled with students he’d seen in classes and around campus.
Slingsby said, for the most part, the students were not protesting the election itself, but were simply voicing their dismay and angst over the president-elect.
“People are afraid of what’s going to happen to them and their families,” he said. “And that fear just rose up and started marching.”