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Hansen: The protest that wasn't — or, who are those people in ketchup and mustard costumes on 72nd and Dodge?

Hansen: The protest that wasn't — or, who are those people in ketchup and mustard costumes on 72nd and Dodge?

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In an effort funded by a Slovakian billionaire, hired people in costumes tried to get Warren Buffett’s attention this summer to call for changes to management at Kraft Heinz.

In August, a group of Omahans donned hard hats and staked out spots near Berkshire Hathaway’s midtown headquarters.

They shook signs. They handed out leaflets. The group’s leader gave an interview to a local TV station.

If you happened to see it, or another recent rally featuring men and women dressed up as ketchup and mustard bottles, you probably assumed it was just another strange protest in Omaha.

Stranger than you realize.

These were protests funded by a Slovakian billionaire who hired a California company named Crowds on Demand who then organized and paid Omahans to shake signs and chant slogans meant to shame a Czech billionaire and target hometown billionaire Warren Buffett.

That protest organizer who interviewed with a local TV station? He was a Crowds on Demand employee from Texas.

And if that isn’t strange enough, consider the two issues these Omahans were paid to protest.

The young men and women in ketchup and mustard costumes were advocating for changes to the management of Kraft Heinz Co.

The men and women in hard hats were protesting the treatment of Czech miners — not a topic of debate ‘round many Omaha dinner tables.

“This thing sounds a little bizarre,” says John Hibbing, a UNL political science professor.

Yup. It is also exactly the sort of thing that can damage American democracy, say the Nebraska political science professor and the New Orleans reporter who broke the story of Crowds on Demand’s involvement in that city.

“It just fuels cynicism,” Hibbing says of the Omaha faux protests. The longtime professor has extensively studied and written about psychology, the brain and American politics.

“People are looking around, wondering, ‘What can I believe in?’ And it seems like something was happening here, and then it really wasn’t something. It can only increase cynicism, which is already high.”

It’s damaging, they say, because these rare examples of “Astroturfing” — paying people to participate in what seems like a grass-roots protest — undermine actual grass-roots protests. These rare examples of Astroturfing also allow politicians to smear legitimate protesters as paid when they simply don’t like what the protesters are saying.

Case in point: Even as I worked on this column, President Donald Trump tweeted, without offering evidence, that protesters opposing U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh were being paid by billionaire left-wing donor George Soros.

When Omahans happened across the miner and ketchup-and-mustard protests this summer, they most likely weren’t thinking about Czech billionaires or Slovakian billionaires or George Soros.

They were probably simply wondering: What the heck is going on?

The human ketchup and mustard bottles stood at 72nd and Dodge on and off for several weeks, eliciting car honks and a fair amount of confusion.

These protests were paid for by Krupa Global Investments, and in fact some protesters held signs bearing the company name.

Pavol Krupa, the Slovakian founder of that firm, owns a minority stake in Kraft Heinz and has a history as an activist investor who seeks to rattle companies then sell his stock at a profit. Berkshire Hathaway is, of course, Kraft Heinz’s biggest shareholder.

The investment firm hired Crowds on Demand. In turn, Crowds on Demand paid roughly 50 people to protest for leadership and management changes at Kraft Heinz.

“Our goal was to get the attention of Warren Buffett considering that he has the ability to resolve pressing social problems and increase shareholder value with a mere phone call,” Crowds on Demand CEO Adam Swart told me. “Making the case to the Oracle of Omaha is well worth the effort.”

Debbie Bosanek, Warren Buffett’s assistant, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

The Czech miner protest in front of the Berkshire headquarters was also paid for by Pavol Krupa, but the goal here is far more confusing.

I will spare you the details — you’re welcome — but suffice it to say that a Czech billionaire named Zdenek Bakala may or may not have mistreated miners after buying a formerly government-owned mining company.

This is actually a potent political controversy in the Czech Republic, but why Krupa would protest the Czech billionaire’s actions in Omaha is another matter entirely. Berkshire is connected, though tangentially, to the Czech controversy because of an ownership stake in a housing company.

But there may be another reason Krupa is protesting Bakala, the Czech billionaire: A lawsuit alleges he’s trying to extort money from Bakala.

Swart declined to speak about the miner protest because of that lawsuit. But he confirmed that Crowds on Demand hired Omahans to wear those hard hats and rattle signs on behalf of Czech miners.

He wouldn’t say how much they paid, or how they hired Omahans.

“Protests force decision-makers to pay attention to the cause so it shouldn’t matter whether a protest is paid or not,” Swart said.

Members of the New Orleans City Council beg to differ.

Last year, 50 people in matching orange shirts showed up at a hearing and demanded that the council approve a new $210 million power plant.

Reporter Michael Isaac Stein soon learned the truth: These 50 people were being paid between $50 and $200 apiece by Crowds on Demand, who had been hired by a local public relations firm. That PR firm had been hired by the energy company wanting to build the power plant.

The City Council had already approved the power plant when Stein’s exposé came out in The Lens, a nonprofit investigative media outlet. But council members were so incensed by the revelation that they launched an independent investigation to determine the extent of the energy company’s involvement.

“How much (of the power plant approval) was due to these demonstrators? Impossible to say,” Stein told me. “But I can tell you that organized support can be super effective in a local environment. A hundred people walking on City Council can dramatically change what a local government does.”

So yes, the miner and ketchup-and-mustard protests may seem cartoonish. They are most certainly legal. And, as the Crowds on Demand CEO Swart argues, maybe this is just a form of political guerrilla marketing — another way for a client to make their case on an issue they care passionately about.

None of those arguments make Hibbing, the political psychology expert, feel particularly good about the two Omaha faux protests.

“I think (people) are right to be worried about this,” he says. “This is on the extreme end of the spectrum, but we are all kind of getting used to this, to being manipulated.

“It’s just another indication that people need to be on their guard.”

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns the Omaha World-Herald.

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Representing the United States is Heinz, which put 700 Canadian workers out of work in 2014 when it closed a plant in Canada’s tomato capital, a small southern Ontario town called Leamington. Representing Canada is French’s, the mustard-maker, which began producing ketchup in Canada after the Heinz closure.

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