Last month, a man from Florida purchased several domains associated with the nationwide anti-lockdown protests during the coronavirus pandemic, which he planned to use to raise money for the protesters. But he told BuzzFeed News that after he forgot to make his email address private on the domain registry, he was flooded with death threats.
In April, Brad Lee Butcher, an entrepreneur from Sebastian, Florida, bought reopenNC.com, reopenNC.org, reopenNY.com, reopenFL.com, and reopenMI.com, and several others, all of which he redirected to a petition he had posted on reopenNC.com calling for the reopening of businesses in North Carolina.
As of Thursday, all of the sites Butcher bought have been taken down.
Butcher said that he purchased the domains because he had family in North Carolina who were part of the Reopen NC protests, and he thought the website could raise money for them to make signs and T-shirts.
“I have been in advertising and marketing for a while and my natural train of thought is to follow trends,” Butcher said. “I figured maybe I could help them all get shirts or signs, or whatever would help them out.”
The anti-lockdown protests spreading across the US over the last month were organized on Facebook in groups like “Indiana Citizens Against Excessive Quarantine,” “Operation Gridlock Tennessee,” and “Reopen NC.” Butcher said his mother was active in the Reopen NC Facebook group, the leader of which announced last month she had tested positive for COVID-19.
The quick spread of these lockdown groups in April made some digital security experts suspicious that the protests could be part of an astroturfing campaign, but many of these groups are the work of conservative activists in the United States.
Butcher is not the only entrepreneur who bought domain names to capitalize on the anti-lockdown protests — nor the only one from Florida. More than 200 domain names, like reopenmaine.com, reopenky.com, liberatewyoming.com, are owned by Michael Murphy, a former day trader from Jacksonville, who runs an antiques and buildings supplies salvage business with his wife. In April, Murphy told BuzzFeed News he had purchased them to “hoodwink” conservatives and make a little cash reselling them. Murphy’s attempt to snap up the domain names backfired, however, after a Reddit thread accusing him of astroturfing went viral.
Butcher’s plan to buy a few reopen domains also went awry after he forgot to hide his personal information on the site’s registration information. From that, people were able to look up his name, email, and phone number.
Soon after his sites went up, he said he got a call from someone he didn’t know telling him that his private information was being shared all over Twitter. “Profiting from people dying was what the main theme was,” he said. “They made me the merchant of death.”
He said the websites didn’t also raise as much money as he had thought. “We were able to have two to three people making the shirts in North Carolina for about two to three weeks,” he said.
Following his domain buying spree, Butcher said he was pivoting to a new business: He’s started a new website, Merchant Death, which sells shirts that say things like “Fuck China” and “Fuck COVID-19.”
According to the site’s description, “This is not a call for violence. This is not a racist shirt. China is not a race. It does not say Fuck the Chinese anywhere in the world. This shirt says, fuck the leaders of China and communism. This includes most of our US media and all wanting to undermine our constitution and instill socialism in the US.”
“The merchant of death thing is actually funny,” he said. “I’ll be selling even more interesting shirts there.”