When Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz showed up at a high school auditorium in his district for a town hall meeting in early 2017, he was confronted by an angry crowd of 1,000 people — plus even more who were protesting outside the building. According to a Deseret News account, audience members demanded to know how Chaffetz was going to use his position as head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hold President Donald Trump accountable, booing and chanting "Do your job!" at Chaffetz.
Afterward, Chaffetz claimed that he'd been set up. The rough reception he got at the event was "more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate" than an indication of how his constituents felt, he said, though he didn't provide any evidence or identify who that he believed had hired the protesters.
Chaffetz's office didn't respond to a call from HowStuffWorks, but some of the attendees jokingly responded to his allegations by sending him invoices for their time. One of the attendees, Shauna Ehninger, a resident of Sandy, Utah, explained in an email that she was "just an unpaid ordinary citizen who cares what's going on in the world." Ehninger said that while people had shared information about the town meeting on social media, that's the only sign of coordination that she noticed, and that everyone she and her husband spoke to while standing in line was, like them, a constituent of the district.
But Chaffetz is just one of numerous politicians who've complained recently that they've been targeted by hired opposition. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, also has charged that "some" protesters at Congressional town halls are being paid. The most notable complainer is President Donald Trump. After thousands of protesters in New York, Washington and other cities marched in April to demand that Trump release his tax returns, he tweeted that "someone should look into who paid" for the rallies. Trump also has denounced the "professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters" who've opposed him. Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, also has complained that "protesting has become a profession," and that Trump is being targeted by "a very paid" movement.
It's Not Probable ...
As media fact-checkers such as PolitiFact have noted, these accusations about paid protesters haven't been supported by evidence. But that hasn't stopped some people from thinking that they're true. In January, after women's marches attracted hundreds of thousands of participants in cities across the globe a Public Policy Polling survey found that 38 percent of Trump voters said they believed that the protesters had been paid by George Soros, a billionaire liberal activist. (A spokesperson for Soros' Open Society Foundations told The Hill, a political newspaper, that Soros hasn't funded any anti-Trump protests.)
Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Fordham University and director of the school's Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy, says that he hasn't seen any indications that the waves of protesters today are being paid to demonstrate against Trump and GOP Congress members, and thinks that the sheer size of the turnout makes it unlikely. "I think that in many cases, the cost would be so exorbitant that it would be prohibitive," he says.
Indeed, Washington Post political reporter Philip Bump calculated that at $25 per protester, it would have cost $57.4 million to subsidize all the protest rallies against Trump between his election in November 2016 and early February. And as Bump noted, coordinating payments to millions of participants would have been difficult to keep secret.
But Is It Possible?
That's not to say that paid protest has never existed. It's a longstanding tradition in countries such as Indonesia, where protesters typically get cash and a packed lunch, according to this this article in The Diplomat. And in Pakistan, students told BBC News in 2014 that they were paid to attend anti-government protests, and then prevented from leaving.
But in the U.S., most of the reported instances seem to be far smaller. The Washington Post reported in 2007, for example, that a union was hiring nonmembers — many of them recruited from homeless shelters — at $8 per hour to picket construction sites. And an Orthodox Jewish organization hired Mexican laborers to don Jewish prayer garments and hold up signs protesting homosexuality at the 2015 Gay Pride Parade in New York City, according to the New York Times.
In fact, when paid activism scales up, it's often at the behest of business interests, not popular ones. UCLA assistant professor of sociology Edward T. Walker has studied grassroots advocacy networks organized by corporate lobbying firms, which in recent years have grown into a billion-dollar industry. In this 2015 New York Times article, Walker detailed how ride-provider Uber used its mobile app to get customers to protest against proposed restrictions in New York City, and even offered free rides to a rally at City Hall.
But as political science professor Panagopoulos notes, social media and mobile apps now make it easy for large numbers of like-minded ordinary citizens to organize and participate in protests, without anyone having to dangle a few dollars in front of them. "These days, it's easy to get the word out," he said.
One example of such instant, unpaid activism is the anti-Trump Indivisible movement, which started with a Google Doc on grassroots organizing created in December 2016 by a couple of former Congressional staffers. Since then, according to spokesperson Helen Kalla, Indivisible has morphed into a network of nearly 6,000 independently organized groups in every Congressional district in the U.S. — none of which receive any funding from the parent organization.
Unsubstantiated accusations of paid protesters, Kalla says via email, are "just another attempt by the Trump Administration and its allies in Congress to discredit the legitimate concerns of hundreds of thousands of constituents who want to make their voices heard."
Panagopoulos sees a similar motive in the charges. "It's a way of minimizing the impact and in particular the visual impact that that these large gatherings have, especially when they're expressing anger and dissatisfaction," he says.