Protests against state stay-at-home orders have attracted a wide range of fringe activists and ardent Trump supporters. They have also attracted a family of political activists whom some Republican lawmakers have called “scam artists.”
A family-run network of pro-gun groups is behind five of the largest Facebook groups dedicated to protesting the shelter-in-place restrictions, according to an NBC News analysis of Facebook groups and website registration information.
The groups were set up by four brothers — Chris, Ben, Aaron and Matthew Dorr — and have amassed more than 200,000 members collectively, including in states where they don’t reside, according to an NBC News analysis based on public records searches and Facebook group registrations.
The Dorr brothers are known in conservative circles for running pro-gun and anti-abortion rights Facebook groups that bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually by antagonizing establishment conservative leaders and activists.
Their usual method is to attack established conservative groups from the right, including the National Rifle Association, and then make money by selling memberships in their groups or selling mailing lists of those who sign up, according to some conservative politicians and activists who have labeled the efforts as scams.
The Washington Post first reported on the Dorrs’ role in the events.
The pages are just part of the more than 100 state-specific Facebook groups that have been created in the last two weeks to protest the stay-at-home orders, according to an unpublished analysis by First Draft, an organization that researches disinformation. The pages have organized at least 49 different events. Most of the groups are similarly named, and they have attracted more than 900,000 members in total.
The Dorrs’ pages, however, follow a particularly uniform naming system, according to information openly available on Facebook. A Dorr brother created or is an administrator for the groups Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine, Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine, New Yorkers Against Excessive Quarantine, Minnesotans Against Excessive Quarantine and Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine.
Chris, Ben, Aaron and Matthew Dorr did not reply to requests for comment.
Ben Dorr told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the claims that his efforts are scams are “fake news” and that he plans to continue his work.
The Facebook groups started by the Dorrs each promote state-specific websites, which were registered with the same private registrar, and use similar language in their descriptions.
“It’s time to OPEN UP PENNSYLVANIA and STOP Gov Wolf’s Excessive Quarantine!” Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine’s “About” section reads, referring to Gov. Tom Wolf. “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!”
Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantines, a private Facebook group with about 97,000 members, is hosting a rally called “Operation Gridlock” in Madison next week. At least 300 people have indicated that they will go to the event, which lists Ben Dorr as its creator.
The websites, such as ReOpenPA.com and ReOpenMN.com, were initially shared by the same network of pro-gun and anti-vaccination sites, regardless of region, according to an analysis using the Facebook analytics tool CrowdTangle, which lets people track the spread of content on the platform.
For example, ReOpenPA.com and ReOpenMN.com were initially shared by the Dorr-affiliated Facebook groups Ohio Gun Owners, Pennsylvania Firearms Association, New York Firearms Association, a pro-Trump group called Ohio First and an anti-vaccine group called VaXism.
The Dorrs’ network of pages uses a strategy of data harvesting common in activist circles.
Their groups drive users to petitions on Dorr-registered websites, which collect users’ email and home addresses. The groups repeatedly warn users not to use off-site petition platforms like Change.org.
The websites ask users to enter their information to push for change.
“Want to stop the madness? Want to stop Walz? The direct connect tech in the link below was very costly but we’re providing because it was SO EFFECTIVE,” a post on Minnesotans Against Excessive Quarantine wrote, referring to Gov. Tim Walz. “Please, if you do nothing else. SEND. THAT. EMAIL.”
The site then collects the user’s name and home and email addresses.
Aaron and Ben Dorr — residents of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively — are administrators of New Yorkers Against Excessive Quarantine, which has more than 23,000 members organizing against stay-at-home orders in New York.
Renee DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said the Dorrs’ setups “ensure that they’re in control of the audience and not so much a large infrastructure for feedback to the state.”
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This sort of Facebook activity is common, DiResta said, and it allows for a small group with money and media manipulation skills to simulate the appearance of a much larger movement. It also allows the group to harvest email addresses for future political campaigns, which can be bought and sold.
NBC News found no evidence that the Dorrs had made money off the data collected through the groups.
But DiResta said the tactics are often used to capitalize on legitimate political activism.
“In this particular case, there’s real momentum from grassroots people who are angry,” she said. “Recognizing that people are going to be searching for that, it provides an opportunity for someone who wants to piggyback on that outrage for, in this case, it seems like, outreach for future campaigns.”
The Dorr brothers are known among mainstream conservative activists for inflammatory campaigns that harvest data.
The brothers are the founders or directors of or advisers to a string of nonprofit organizations across 12 states that have raised millions of dollars and made enemies of local Republicans and Second Amendment activists. The best-funded Dorr operations are Minnesota Gun Rights, Ohio Gun Owners and Iowa Gun Owners, according to tax filings. They founded a national organization in 2019, American Firearms Coalition, which attacks the NRA as being too soft on gun rights issues.
A 2019 investigation by Fox affiliate KMSP-TV of Minneapolis-St. Paul found that Minnesota Gun Rights continued to raise money through memberships, boasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual donations, although the IRS had revoked the group’s tax-exempt status in 2016 for failing to file Form 990s. The IRS reinstated its tax-exempt status in 2019. According to tax documents, the group raised $273,000 in 2018, the most recent year for which it filed.
In February, Minnesota’s Senate Republican Caucus launched a website warning voters against the Dorr-backed “scams.”
“Over the last few years, several scammers have popped up in conservative politics in Minnesota,” the website reads. “On their face, it looks like they are doing the Lord’s work — advocating for Second Amendment rights, pro-life views, election integrity and even supporting President Trump. But a little investigation reveals they are actually just building their own brand and raising money by cashing in on unsuspecting Minnesotans sympathetic to their message.”
According to the state Republicans, the Dorrs create pro-gun, anti-abortion rights and pro-Trump Facebook groups as part of a fundraising scheme but offer nothing in return.
Another Dorr-operated Facebook page and organization, Minnesota Right to Life, was called out by Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion rights organization, which said it made false allegations against conservative legislators and raised money for an unpassable bill that it claimed would immediately end abortion.
“The Dorr brothers are established scam artists,” according to an article on Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life’s website. “Nothing they say can be believed, and giving them your money will not advance the pro-life cause in any way.”