The Right Wing Has Falsely Accused Activists of Being 'Paid Protesters' for 50 Years

The despicable attacks against the Parkland shooting survivors are part of a long tradition of right-wing conspiracy theories.

Parkland shooting survivors Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg
Photo Credit: CBS News / Screenshot

Right-wing conspiracy theorists are raging against a bunch of teenagers. Even Donald Trump Jr. liked one such tweet on Twitter, and a since-fired aide of Florida State Rep. Shawn Harrison has claimed that the student activists decrying lax gun regulations that allowed a massacre to take place at their high school are actually “actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.” The impact of these outrageous accusations can’t be dismissed; one video claiming 17-year-old David Hogg is a paid actor was the number-one top trending link on YouTube Wednesday and was viewed hundreds of thousands of times before YouTube removed it. As right-winger conspiracy theorists continue to spread their lies, it’s worth noting that the right has used this tactic repeatedly at other divisive moments in history.

As historian Kevin Kruse pointed out on Twitter, in 1967 the NAACP actually had to respond to outrageous accusations that the Little Rock Nine were paid protesters funded by the civil rights advocacy group.

In a response, historian Heather Richardson said the trend goes back much further. “Actually, this trope goes all the way back to Reconstruction,” she wrote on Twitter. “African Americans demanding equal accommodations under the 1875 Civil Rights Act were... you guessed it... paid by agitators trying to cause trouble for law-abiding folks.”

In recent history, some on the right have resorted to this accusation time and time again. This line of attack popped up in 2005 after Cindy Sheehan made headlines for vocally protesting the Iraq war, in which her son, a soldier, had been killed. Conservatives dismissed Sheehan, called her a liar and planted the seed that she was being paid for her activism. The conservative weekly newspaper Human Events called Sheehan a “professional griever” who was “in perpetual mourning for her fallen son.”

We last saw the refrain of "paid protesters" during 2017's healthcare town hall blowups. Breitbart News regularly published articles accusing George Soros of funding the protesters who challenged GOP lawmakers on their efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Family Research Council CEO Tony Perkins claimed, without evidence, that Soros was “shipping” protesters in from out of state. 

It’s a line that fits nicely into the right-wing narrative framing progressive players as "outside agitators" to delegitimize their concerns, and has become a regular conservative talking point in the Trump era. Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the NRA, claimed last year that protesters demonstrating around the time of Trump’s inauguration were paid $1,500 per day. Now we can barely go a week without some new nutty theory about a Soros-funded protest. All have been debunked, and spokespeople for Soros’ Open Society Foundations continue to explain that the organization freely and legally invests in progressive activism, but does not pay individuals on the ground for the express purpose of protesting.

The notion that progressives are being paid to protest has inspired many good jokes on the left. But these accusations must be taken seriously and understood in a political-historical context. Conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones rose to national fame thanks to his outrageous falsehood that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. Since then, he has taken full advantage of his amplified platform to spread more hateful lies. Now other would-be Joneses are trying to mimic his time-tested strategy, and in a climate of widespread antagonism toward credible news agencies that is frequently stoked by Donald Trump, they will undoubtedly garner some believers. 

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Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on Forbes.com, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.