No, a Shadowy Figure Is Not Buying Tents for Columbia Student Protesters

A number of elected officials, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams, law enforcement officers, right-wing media outlets, and far-right extremists have boosted a baseless conspiracy theory that Jewish Hungarian billionaire George Soros or some nefarious shadowy organization is helping to fund the pro-Palestinian student protests at universities across the US.

They are promoting the well-worn antisemitic trope that a puppet master is behind the protests, based on the fact that many of the students at universities like NYU and Columbia erected tents of the same color, make, and model at the same time on their encampments.

But the real explanation for their proliferation is simple: They are cheap, and easy to find. As online publication Hell Gate NYC pointed out, the tents seen being used at the NYU campus encampment are being sold for as little as $15 at the retailer Five Below, while the green model seen at the Columbia encampment is available online from Walmart for as little as $28.

The tents being used by the students are among the top results on Google Search, and students searching Amazon for “tent” would have been prompted to buy the green Camel Crown tent for $35, listed as a best-selling item by the online retailer. It is also available with one-day shipping. Another popular tent seen at the protests has been discounted in recent days, and now costs less than $20.

On Facebook, WIRED uncovered dozens of accounts posting an identical message accompanied by the same picture of the Columbia encampment. The posts had all been published since Wednesday morning, and new posts with the same messaging were still being shared on Thursday morning. “Something odd about those campus tent encampments,” the posts read. “Almost all the tents are identical—same design, same size, same fresh-out-of-the-box appearance. I know that College students are not that rich or coordinated.”

The conspiracy constitutes one of the latest moves in an angry backlash against the peaceful protests, which began earlier this month. The backlash has included calls for strong-arm tactics to dissolve the protests, which have inaccurately been labeled “pogroms” by some.

In many cases, pro-Israel voices have sought to portray the protests as something other than students expressing their First Amendment right to free speech, claiming someone or some group was controlling them. The conspiracy began to take hold on Tuesday, when New York City Police Department’s deputy commissioner of operations, Kaz Daughtry, told Fox 5 NY: “If you look at the tents, where did they all get them from? The same place, the same person? Somebody is behind this, and we’re gonna find out who it is.”

The conspiracy grew legs later that same day when Adams echoed Daughtry’s comments: “Why is everybody’s tent the same? Was there a fire sale on those tents? There’s some organizing going on, there’s a well-concerted organizing effort, and what’s the goal of that organizing? That’s what we need to be asking ourselves.”

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