Crowds on Demand: Rebels with a cause – if the price is right

The somewhat dubious organisation that will provide you with protesters to passionately promote your cause
  • @archiebland

When you think of a protest, you probably think of something like the February 2003 march against the war in Iraq, which drew at least 750,000 people onto the streets of London. Maybe you think of Swampy, the reluctant face of environmental activism, who found himself a public figure when in 1996 he stationed himself in a hole in the ground to stop a motorway extension. Or maybe it's the thousands said to be descending on the village of Balcombe next week to fight fracking – so many, in fact, that the villagers are said to be dreading it.

What you probably don't think of is Crowds on Demand, a somewhat dubious organisation that will provide you with protesters to passionately promote your cause – for the right price. According to Vice magazine, Crowds on Demand charges as much as $2,000 (£1,290) to supply 20 protesters for an hour in the US. But are there any causes so evil that they wouldn't promote them? "I don't want to speculate," says CEO Adam Swart. "I don't want to speak in hypotheticals." (On the plus side, he'll also provide an entourage and a couple of paparazzi so that people think you're famous.)

Such tricks – a variety of astroturfing, that very useful term for a fake grassroots campaign – are nothing new. A German firm was providing something similar as far back as 2007 ("many may genuinely believe in the protest they are joining", the spraff chirpily explained), and, more sinisterly, the Uzbek government has been accused of hiring women as "outraged citizens" in order to undermine genuine actions against the state. Politicians do it all the time, with loyal party employees instructed to greet a prospective MP like a rockstar.

At the moment, though, it remains a fringe trick. One shudders to think of the consequences if it becomes the norm. Will fierce defenders of the bedroom tax suddenly materialise in Westminster? Will local shops be besieged by pro-supermarket zealots demanding better access to homogenous groceries? You hope not, but it's not inconceivable. Let me know if you see Swampy holding a placard demanding that the Government gives motorists a break.