Protests are a staple of American democracy, but some journalism experts are worried about a recent story out of New Orleans, where a handful of paid actors attended a city council meeting about a controversial power plant.
The Lens, a non-profit investigative newsroom, recently discovered that a company called Crowds on Demand hired actors to pretend to be supporters of a power plant, on behalf of an energy company’s public relations firm.
The Los Angeles-based company has been doing this kind of work since 2012, and they are far from the only company out there offering crowds for hire. But teachers at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies say they see a case of actors being paid to participate in a government meeting in New Orleans as a troublesome sign – one that should worry journalists and the public.
“It worries me as a journalist and it worries me just as a citizen,” said Poynter’s Kelly McBride. “Our democracy is built on the marketplace of ideas, because it suggests that the truth will emerge as voices get louder and louder. But if people are paid, and they don’t really hold these opinions, it makes it hard to figure out what the truth is.”
Worse, McBride said, events like this will also turn people into cynics. It fuels conspiracy theories, such as ones that the student advocates who survived the Parkland school shooting and the parents of children shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012 are simply "crisis actors."
“It will make you and me stop listening to anybody who wants to be heard because we will assume that they all are being paid,” she said.
Two years ago, Davy Rothburt, founder and publisher of the magazine called Found, went undercover with Crowds on Demand - a company created by a student at UCLA. Owner Adam Swart said in a YouTube video that the company started out aiming to get attention for clients wanting to look and feel like celebrities.
Rothburt wrote about his experience and told NPR’s All Things Considered he never thought people suspected he was being paid for the opinion he was sharing.
“I think most people aren't that clued into the possibility of hired crowd members,” he said. “So the protest events we did, you know - I never saw the flicker of doubt in anybody's mind that we were who we appear to be, real protesters.”
McBride said reporters should be diligent in confirming the identity of people they interview in these kinds of situations. The best way is to check out who the protestors say they are.
“Anytime a journalist interviews somebody and gets their opinion, they should get their person’s full name, where that person lives and then go and find some evidence that it’s a real person,” McBride said. “The way that the journalist in this case figured it out is that he looked up their public personas and saw that they were actors.”