Over the last week, people in states throughout the U.S. protested coronavirus quarantining measures, like shelter-in-place orders and business closures.
A viral Reddit thread posted over the weekend suggested that someone purchased domain names for “reopen” coronavirus websites in an effort to make it seem like there was more support for the conservative movement than there actually was.
The Reddit thread suggested that a conservative was trying to astroturf people, the practice of hiding who is behind public messaging and faking grassroots support for a movement.
But Michael Murphy, the person who purchased the domain websites, says he did the opposite: He bought them names to keep them out of the hands of “fringe groups.”
“I’m not particularly political, but I felt like the insanity had gone too far,” Murphy told the Daily Dot. “I started scooping up these names to give them to a reputable organization.”
It all started when he saw websites like ReopenNJ.com, supporting the “liberation” and “reopening” of the country. Murphy, who said he’s typically apolitical and is not registered as a Democrat nor Republican, said the blatant misinformation flipped a switch in him.
With the help of his friend, Murphy said he began purchasing domains with combinations of the state name and words like “liberate” and “reopen.” He said he spent $4,000 purchasing these domain names with the intent of selling them to an organization or progressive group, like the Gates Foundation. (The claim seems to check out, with several combinations of the domain names showing up as paid for but with no information on the websites.)
He was hoping, he said, that when people searched for the “reopen” movements in their own states, they’d instead find reputable, scientific information. He intended to use the domain names “for good.”
But his efforts have somewhat backfired.
A redditor researched some of the domains behind the “reopen” campaign websites and found that the domains were all created around the same time. In addition, all personal contact information was hidden using a paid service known as “Domain by Proxy.” The redditor published the findings and hinted that one person was behind the vast majority of the websites in an attempt to convince people there was a large conservative movement.
“There’s an imperial amount of astroturfing going on, and it’s quite visible in how those groups popped up literally overnight,” the redditor wrote. “I really just have a strong dislike for disinformation, and want people to be empowered to know who is involved with what.”
However, there are some websites from different states that do seem fishy because they redirect to gun rights groups, use similar wording, and have the same layout. Some of those pages have been the work of a group of a conservative gun rights family, the Dorrs, who have been accused of astroturfing for building out these networks.
Despite Murphy’s efforts to distinguish misinformation and the “reopening” movement, several protests are still in the works following those from last week in Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan, and Kentucky.
Plus, social media has been set alight with pictures of people holding signs with phrases like “COVID-19 is a lie.”
“Politicians are on a power trip, controlling our lives, destroying our businesses, passing laws behind the cover of darkness and forcing us to hand over our freedoms and our livelihood,” the Facebook groups’ descriptions read.
Even President Donald Trump began tweeting similar messages.
Many have protested the conservative movements on social media. Some of their frustration spilled over toward Murphy when they realized he was behind some of the domains.
Since the Reddit thread went viral, he said he’s received endless threatening phone calls and emails. People think he’s a right-wing operative trying to convince people that the U.S. should be reopened amid the almost 800,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 40,000 deaths.
Despite the threats, he said he still hopes to give the domain names to someone who will use them to spread scientific information about the severity of the worldwide pandemic.
“I think public discourse has come down to such a low level and people are so ill-informed,” Murphy said. “It’s just unbelievable what’s happening in this country. It’s reached a level that I never thought was possible.”
Claire Goforth contributed to this report.