The last thing I want to do with this article is to give oxygen to conspiracy nuts and hoaxsters who claim mass shootings and terrorist attacks are the work of crisis actors and "fake flag" operations.
But in New Orleans, paid actors disrupted a city council vote that will affect every person in that community who pays an electric bill. The Lens, an IRE award-winning non-profit investigative newsroom, found that the supporters were paid actors hired from a Los Angeles-based firm called "Crowds on Demand."
"At least four of the people in orange shirts were professional actors. One actor said he recognized 10 to 15 others who work in the local film industry," Lens reporter Michael Isaac Stein writes. "They were paid $60 each time they wore the orange shirts to meetings in October and February. Some got $200 for a 'speaking role,' which required them to deliver a pre-written speech, according to interviews with the actors and screenshots of Facebook messages provided to The Lens."
One of the demonstrators, Keith Keough, said he was paid to clap, "every time someone said something against wind and solar power."
The Lens posted what it believes is a non-disclosure agreement that the actors were required to sign in order to get paid. The agreement included these demands:
Stein told Poynter that he noticed a large group of brightly colored T-shirt-wearing power plant supporters passing through security for an October 2017 meeting.
"They were 20 minutes early for the meeting, and I rushed inside to meet them on the other side of the security screening. I started asking them why they were there and one after another they just said to 'talk to Gary,"' he said. They were referring to Garrett Wilkerson, a New Orleans based actor who had been busy on Facebook recruiting fellow actors to show up and make some money.
"Even after they sat down, I tried to talk to them again. One guy said 'I just want the power plant because I want it.' It was definitely fishy," Stein said. "It was also strange to see such a large group of supporters show up at a city council meeting. When you cover city council meetings you don't expect to see overwhelming support, you generally get opponents to show up and speak against things."
In March, WWL-TV reported that paid supporter actors took up seats that blocked others from attending a community hearing. An actor told WWL he was paid $120 for that meeting.
Michael Brown, an attorney for the Sierra Club, did some detective work while filing a lawsuit against the city council for blocking people from one of the city hearings on the power plant. He wrote in an affidavit that he watched a video of the hearing, got the names of the speakers in the orange T-shirts and did an online background search of the speakers.
Of 10 speakers, three identified themselves online as actors and one of the three was from out of town.
"In my time as an environmental attorney, I have seen a lot of things, but I have never seen this," he told Poynter. "I first had an inkling that something was different when I showed up to that hearing in October at 5 p.m. on a weeknight and the room was already filling up. The place was packed. It was not like that before. It was a strange meeting."
Brown also said he noticed the T-shirt wearing supporters were not people he recognized from previous meetings.
"You tend to see the usual suspects at these things, from both sides. And the way the comments sounded, they sounded scripted. It is like listening to music that is just a little bit out of tune. There was something off."
He may have been hearing some of the messages Wilkerson posted; "talking points" for people who wanted to make more money by standing up and saying the scripted words he gave them.
Who hired whom? Blame the contractor.
Entergy, the company that is building the new power plant, denied knowledge of the paid actors in a statement.
"Entergy did not authorize or direct any person or entity to pay individuals to attend or speak at City Council meetings."
Days later, the company blamed a public relations firm that it had hired, The Hawthorn Group, for subcontracting with Crowds on Demand to pay actors to show up at the city council meetings. Entergy said it hired Hawthorn to turn out "grassroots supporters" to the October 2016 and February 2017 city council meetings.
Entergy had specific demands. It wanted Hawthorn to enlist 75 supporters for the October meeting and it wanted 10 of them to speak in support of the power station. Hawthorn was also to supply another 30 supporters including 10 speakers for the February meeting.
When Stein first asked about the allegations of hired actors, Hawthorn told Entergy to deny everything and to portray the hired demonstrator who went public as "delusional or lying."
Entergy said it didn't authorize the actors and claimed to know nothing about it. The power company says it expected Hawthorn would be recruiting legitimate backers of the project, not paying actors who were just saying what they were told to say. And Entergy said in its press release that it never gave Hawthorn permission to hire a subcontractor.
Entergy says Hawthorn will return what it was paid and Entergy says it will donate the money to charities. (There is no indication of whether the money will be given to any of the charities that are now suing to stop the power plant.)
Entergy also added a line that you likely have never read before in a press release. The company says it plans to make sure employees and contractors know that it is not OK in the future to hire actors to attend or speak at public meetings on the company's behalf.
The fake crowd business
Crowds on Demand was founded by Adam Swart, a former AOL Patch reporter. Swart has previously told reporters that he has thousands of actors that he can call on and generally is involved with public relations stunts and social justice movements.
But the firm has also been involved in politics. California campaign disclosure forms show a ballot initiative there paid Crowds on Demand around $50,000.
Crowds on Demand says it is not affiliated with any political party and will not work to help hate groups.
Journalist Davy Rothbart went undercover to learn about the "crowds for hire" business. In a 2016 profile in California Sunday, Rothbart wrote that Crowds on Demand hired him first to be a selfie-obsessed fan of life coaches and a later as a member of a fake TV news crew.
"To get hired, I applied online," Rothbart told Poynter. "Crowds on Demand supplied actors to swarm people like paparazzi, everyone knew what was up I think but it makes people feel good to give them the celebrity experience."
"We give you all the perks of being a celebrity without any of the negatives," Swart explained in a YouTube video. "We won't chase you or follow you home, it is an overall fun experience, and we will leave you whenever you want."
Rothbart's second assignment involved acting as a TV journalist to confront Masons about a controversial membership decision.
"I think it was a clever conceit because they could have just ignored protestors but when they thought they were being covered by the media it seemed more important," Rothbart said.
He interviewed Adam Swart about the demand for fake crowds:
Crowds on Demand, he says, serves several clients a week, sometimes a day — most in L.A., San Francisco, and New York but an increasing number in smaller cities like Nashville, Charlotte, and Minneapolis. When people inquire about a potential event, Adam guides them through the possibilities and the approximate costs: $600 for fake paparazzi at a birthday dinner; $3,000 for a flash mob dancing, chanting, and handing out fliers as a PR stunt; $10,000 for a weeklong political demonstration; $25,000 to $50,000 for a prolonged campaign of protests. According to Adam, protests have become the company’s growth sector, and just as with advertising, repeat impressions are key. “When the targets of our actions see that we’re going to be back, day after day, they get really scared,” he says. “We’re in it for the long haul, and the problem’s not going to go away on its own.”
"When I was around him his phone was ringing nonstop," Rothbart said. "I think what he was doing is effective, it works, because people do trust it when they see crowds."
In his profile, Rothbart adds a touch of historical context. "Hired crowds have a long history. The Roman emperor Nero required that 5,000 of his soldiers show up for his performances and respond with enthusiasm."
Other "rent-a-crowd" services have popped up around the globe. "You bring the party, we bring the people," a Texas firm called "Crowds for Rent" advertises. A British crowd rental company says its services are perfect to make a new store appear to be packed or to make a new band or performer seem popular. The company says a line outside the door of a new nightclub will make it appear to be a hot spot.
The Lens' Michael Stein said he worries that this incident may bog down important public debates in the future.
"Mostly, the people who show up and get involved in public issues are real grassroots movements. But it could be that in the future when you do not agree with what somebody is saying people will say 'who are those people? They are not real, they are not even from New Orleans, maybe they are just paid actors,'" he said. "This could be a reason to ignore the opposition, the voices you do not agree with."
Attorney Michael Brown said not only do actors complicate the work of journalism, but they undermine public confidence in the entire democratic process.
"This is a great concern to me. These hearings are about incredibly consequential issues," he said. "In this case, it is a power company that is asking citizens to pay for a $200 million project through monthly electric bills. The city council cut off debate after two or three hours and some people did not get to speak because some of the paid actors took up that time."
Brown shared Stein's concern that elected officials will not trust or listen to public comments if they think the comments are a set-up.
"It distorts the debate," he said. "In this case, the decision is based on local politics and the council really wanted to know what the public thinks."
New Orleans media reports the city council could take another look at the power plant issue because of this scandal and, even after years of debate, the vote could resurface. The Times-Picayune reported that "New Orleans City Council on Wednesday (May 16) directed Entergy New Orleans to preserve all documents related to a scandal involving actors being paid to testify in support of a power plant the council approved building in New Orleans East."
Friday, The Lens reported that the city council will soon require anybody who speaks at a city meeting to disclose if they are being paid to speak. "The council’s new rules, though, would require people to disclose if they received compensation — defined as not just money, but also meals, a day off of work, even a ride," the story says.
The lessons for journalists
Stein said he has "only been at reporting for a year and a half, so take that into consideration. But, my experience told me from the beginning, things didn't look right."
And he said that instinct is worth following. When people show up to a meeting wearing bright T-shirts and carrying signs but refuse to talk to a reporter who wants to hear their concerns, there is probably a reason. Gather names, get contact information and keep asking questions.
Rothbart, the reporter who landed the job inside Crowds on Demand said his experience makes him reconsider how journalists always feel a need to "cover both sides" of a story.
"If there is some event where people are for something and protestors show up the media's rightful instinct is to talk to both sides. And on the news, the opponents might command half the story," he said.
But what if the opponents are not really opponents at all, but people who are just hired to be opponents?
"The takeaway for me," Rothbart said, "is not to distrust the media but to distrust the crowds."
And, importantly, go to the meetings. As newsrooms shrink, in-person reporting gives way to social media videos of meetings standing in as our witness. This story unraveled because journalists spotted the unfolding story with their own eyes.
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