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Sourcing The Crowd: California Company Stages Phony Protests


Maybe you've been driving through town recently and seen a crowd of protesters or excited fans, maybe even paparazzi - at least that's what it looks like. There's a chance that each of those enthusiastic individuals is being paid to be there.

The writer Davy Rothbart knows this because he went undercover and got a job with Crowds on Demand, one of several companies that supplies fake crowds. Then Davy Rothbart wrote about it for the California Sunday Magazine. I asked him to describe one of his gigs.

DAVY ROTHBART: The Masonic Center in San Francisco was hosting a global gathering...

SHAPIRO: Of masons.

ROTHBART: ...For masons from all over the world. And the Georgia chapter has recently passed a rule prohibiting gay members. So we were hired to pose as a news crew, as these masons are streaming up to the event. I had a mic. We had camera crews and everything, and I would sort of engage with them to talk about the issues, you know. We'd say like, you know, are you aware of this Georgia edict that is banning homosexuality among that chapter's members?

SHAPIRO: But there seems like there must be less deceptive ways of accomplishing that.

ROTHBART: I mean, I will say this it seemed to me to be a productive way. And what happened was as we started talking to people, some of them weren't aware of the issue, so we were educating them about it. Some of them were aware but felt like there wasn't anything they could do, but we talked to them about things that they could do. And some of them just needed to be challenged to actually take a stand.

And what was the most interesting to me, Ari, was that all these people - me and others who had basically responded to a craigslist ad - adventurous videographers wanted - we had showed up to make 20 bucks an hour working as fake protesters. But our feelings about the issue were real, and we actually became real protestors over the course of like an hour.

SHAPIRO: This may be a relatively young company, but the practice of paying people to show up and be a part of a crowd is hardly new.

ROTHBART: Right, you know, in France in the 1800s, and England, you know...

SHAPIRO: They were called the clacquers (laughter).

ROTHBART: Right, right. They would hire people to say encore, encore, you know, or to laugh at certain moments in the play or to cry at certain moments. So we put a lot of meaning and value in a crowd. If there's two Japanese restaurants side-by-side and we're in some city we're not familiar with, you see one that's packed and the other's empty. You might kind of lean toward going to the packed one, you know? You're following the crowd.

SHAPIRO: Is there something a little gross, though, about when people start to undermine that power of the crowd by paying crowds to be there?

ROTHBART: Yes, (laughter) I think so. I mean, I think it's savvy, and I think it's smart. And I think it's effective, but I also think it's a little gross. I mean, it's - I think it's fair play. It's just like we are smart about when we watch reality TV. We know it's not real and interestingly this company, Crowds on Demand, they - unless you're a hate group or something like that, you know, they'll supply crowds. It doesn't have to be in line with their way of thinking.

SHAPIRO: You write about one case that sounds morally questionable to say the least, which is a college expulsion hearing.

ROTHBART: Yeah. And a kid had been - possibly going to be expelled by a college, and I'm not sure the reasons. And he had a chance at his expulsion hearing to bring people to testify on behalf of his character, you know, talk about what a great guy he was and how long they've known him.

Now, Crowds on Demand supplied 20 people to testify on this guy's behalf. This would've been perjury, you know, in the court of law. But at a expulsion hearing, people had testified on his behalf, and the kid actually was not expelled from the college thanks in part, I'm sure, to this crowd of 20 people saying what a great guy and how long they've known him. And so that is one that's pretty murky, ethical territory.

SHAPIRO: And when you talked to the CEO about this case, how did he defend it?

ROTHBART: You know, he just said that he had studied the facts of the case, and he felt like this was one where he felt on board with working with this student to make sure he wasn't expelled.

SHAPIRO: When you went out on these assignments, did they ever say if somebody asks whether you were hired or not, don't tell them the truth?

ROTHBART: Interestingly, I don't think it crosses anybody's mind. You know, it's just still kind of a secretive line of work, and I think most people aren't that clued into the possibility of hired crowd members. 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.

SHAPIRO: Davy Rothbart, thanks for coming in.

ROTHBART: Thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: Davy Rothbart is the creator and editor of Found Magazine and their forthcoming podcast is called Found. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.