Website created in 2017 and self-labeled “fake” was shared over 30,000 times on Facebook as legitimate news during protests
A satirical website that claims to offer protesters-for-hire has ignited conspiracy theories among far-right Facebook groups suggesting the current protest actions in the United States are staged. The website, Protestjobs.com, has been shared over 30,000 times in Facebook posts since the start of the year, with the vast majority of these shares occurring after May 31.
Satirical news reports being mistaken for legitimate news is not a new phenomenon, with websites like The Onion (which grew out of its eponymous paper copy) and Clickhole occasionally being picked up by mainstream influencers or organizations as actual news. Comprehending the distinction is not always easy, as disclaimers on these satirical sources are not always straightforward or transparent.
The relationship between satire and disinformation is a funny one. Described above, some disinformants use existing satire and parody and hope their audience takes it as fact. While in other cases, we see the inverse: disinformants getting caught in the act, then claiming that it was all a joke. Their disinformation was a parody. The result is a convoluted information environment.
The Protestjobs.com website and its Twitter account (@protestjobs) has historically been used to troll people claiming that protesters are paid during a number of protests in the United States and around the world. The website has been openly studied as satire, and it has now ironically itself become “proof” that paid-for actors are used to agitate and amplify the protests.
Based on a tip from BuzzFeed, a DFRLab analysis shows that the parody website was mistaken for truth and used by pro-Trump, far-right, and conspiracist groups on Facebook to delegitimize the ongoing protests against police brutality, not only in the United States, but in Australia and Canada as well.
False flags and satire
The Protestjobs.com website was registered more than three years ago on February 2, 2017. Since its inception, little has changed; the website offers users the option to hire “millions of protesters” using one of several packages, ranging from the affordable “EZ-riot” (with an optional “car/dumpster fire” upgrade) to a tailor-made package that includes celebrity appearances and a tweet by National Parks.
The content on the page is clearly satirical, albeit presented in a very professional manner. Testimonials for the service featured three satisfied “customers,” sporting stock photo images and names. Among the names used was “William Thornton III,” possibly named after the designer of the U.S. Capitol Building.
When satire fuels disinformation
Satire skirts a fine line in the context of disinformation, which is defined as false information intended to deceive the audience. As a literary genre, it relies on sarcasm, irony, and exaggeration to portray individual and societal shortcomings in a way that ridicules the subject. The sting of this ridicule is most often softened with a splash of humor.
In September 2019, satirical publication The Onion sparked a police investigation after claimed a school shooting in Ohio stopped thankfully short of reigniting the gun debate because it failed to kill enough students. In another example from 2012, Chinese state media quoted The Onion verbatim after it announced North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un as “the sexiest man alive.”
First Draft News differentiates satire and parody from other forms of disinformation and misinformation by its intent to do no harm. Even though satire intentionally aims to fool readers, it does so in order to hold a mirror up against the flaws being ridiculed.
While Protestjobs.com initially achieved its aim of fooling people into believing protesters are paid as a form of satire, it has now moved beyond that and is being used mostly by far-right groups as proof that the protests are staged.
The DFRLab used CrowdTangle to analyze the mentions of “Protestjobs.com,” “protestjobs,” or “protest jobs” since the website was created.
The website was first mentioned in a post made by the administrator of an Australian Facebook group nearly three years ago, on August 21, 2017. On the same day, a link to the website was posted to the Trump America First Party Facebook group, but neither post garnered much attention.
Subsequently, the website was rarely mentioned until February 20 of this year, when several far-right Canadian Facebook groups began sharing links to the site. At the time, protesters had shut down several rail routes in the country in response to the construction of a gas pipeline encroaching on traditional lands. The Facebook posts cited Protestjobs.com’s existence as proof that these protests were inorganic. In total, these posts managed a little more than 3,000 interactions.
The latest and largest surge started on May 30, 2020, when a post was made to the “The Michigan Republican Precinct Delegates” Facebook group called for the arrest of several individuals behind websites that were organizing protests. The post included links to several websites, including Protestjobs.com and another unrelated comedy website.
Over the next four days, the post was spread across mostly far-right Facebook pages and groups, racking up more than 27,200 interactions (likes, replies, and shares) by the time of publication. The majority of these posts labeled the protests as a false flag operation, called on law enforcement to arrest the participants, and questioned who was paying for the protests.
One post, made to the “Candace Owens Fan Club” Facebook group on May 31, 2020, claimed that the website’s existence exposed a “false flag” event staged by the radical left, saying it was only the next iteration of a false flag after the global response to the coronavirus. The post was shared 1,100 times, and comments rehashed several old or debunked pieced of evidence to corroborate the paid-protestor narrative.
The reaction to the website indicates that the author seemingly overestimated the comprehension of its visitors, many of whom mistook the website for a legitimate business and as a possible organizer of the protests. Although the site is openly promotes itself as satire, as detailed below, many users interacting with posts based on it appear to be under the impression that it is genuine.
Between April 23 and June 1, presumably in response to the social media attention the website was receiving, the website was updated with a new section, labeled “idiots” in the website’s source code, that stated outright that the site is “fake.” (The DFRLab does not condone name calling as a general practice.) Metadata links used to change the appearance of Facebook links were also changed to reflect this. This does not appear to have been a successful deterrent, however, as the website is still being punted as proof.
Despite the fact that the website owner has made overt changes to the site to indicate it is a parody, it is still being used by members of far-right Facebook groups to delegitimize the protest.
The DFRLab managed to identify the owner of the website via open-source information but is reluctant to further expose their identity based on the nature of the website being satire and no apparent financial motivation to keeping it online. This is partly informed by the owner’s own efforts to flag the site as satire, including through a Twitter post, but also due to open-source evidence that they also operate another, unrelated satirical page that mimics technology news blogs.
The DFRLab’s investigation linked the Protestjobs.com website owner to the other satire site using details found in the source code of the webpage. These provided the hosting details of several other websites, located on the same hosting infrastructure, which in turn exposed the website owner’s employer.
This information was then verified against the information in the Twitter accounts for both the site owner and the @protestjobs Twitter accounts, which presented several similarities that confirmed a link, including both accounts using similar phone numbers to register their accounts and shared posting conventions.
Although the website owner’s intention in launching the site appears to have been satirical, and although he later added a disclaimer on the homepage indicating that the website was intended for satire, it continues to circulate in pro-Trump and conspiracy Facebook groups as evidence in support of the baseless conspiracy theory that the ongoing protests have been staged. It remains an open question, however, as to whether those Facebook groups that continue to pass the site along as legitimate are doing so with the knowledge that it is satire or whether their administrators continue to do so believing it to be real.
Jean le Roux is a Research Associate, Sub-Saharan Africa, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
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