A Jacksonville man says he’s been wrongly accused of “astroturfing” nationwide protests against government efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus — an assumption that’s led to threats against him, his wife, and their Railyard District salvage business, Eco Relics.
Astroturfing is the practice of disguising an organized campaign as a spontaneous grassroots movement.
In recent weeks, anti-quarantine protests have been held around the country, including in Jacksonville, in a movement that has drawn comparisons to the rise of the Tea Party. The “reopen” and “liberate” protesters are calling for the end to the stay-at-home orders that have temporarily shut down non-essential businesses and led to millions of layoffs and furloughs.
The “liberate” movement, praised by President Donald Trump, comes despite federal health officials’ estimating in early April that more than 300,000 Americans could die from COVID-19 if social distancing measures are abandoned, and as there remains widespread, bipartisan support for such preventative measures — 81% of voters say they would support a national stay-at-home order, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
Eco Relics owner Michael Murphy strongly disagrees with the protestors, so he decided to do something about it. But his idea, which in retrospect he says was “crazy,” has led to unwanted, and potentially dangerous, international attention.
On Sunday, a Reddit thread helped expose Murphy as the owner of hundreds of “reopen” and “liberate” domain names — everything from liberateAK.com to reopenWYO.com. At the same time, a “trio of far-right, pro-gun provocateurs,” the Dorr brothers, have been tied to some of the largest Facebook groups and websites calling for anti-quarantine protests around the country.
Many internet users speculated that Murphy was connected to the coordinated campaign.
We've already linked them through a number of technical investigation methods, creating a solid digital footprint.
What's more interesting, is that every time we try a new method, we discover just how many more websites and FB groups they operate.https://t.co/hcp1djbFMw
— Jordan Wildon (@JordanWildon) April 21, 2020
Michael Murphy and his wife Annie own Eco Relics, which sells salvage, reclaimed and discount materials and antiques out of a warehouse west of Downtown Jacksonville.
Shortly after the Reddit thread went viral, Michael Murphy was doxxed — his name, his wife’s name, the name and location of their business, their email addresses, their phone numbers, and their home address were all published online.
“People decided to dox (something that is explicitly against the rules of Reddit). They then decided to attempt to hack him, spam him, message his phone, and call him incessantly. Then they hacked his Facebook account to boot,” reads an edit to the original Reddit post. “Seriously? People did that with no solid proof that it was him?”
Murphy said the doxxers were right — he was behind the websites. But he didn’t buy them because he supports the protests. In fact, it’s the opposite.
‘I Had No Idea What Kind Of Hornet’s Nest I’d Stirred Up’
His decision to purchase the domains goes back several weeks, shortly after he purchased two iDRY and Sterilize Plus Chambers to dry lumber wood at Eco Relics. He later found out the chambers are capable of sterilizing personal protective equipment (PPE) like respiratory N95 face masks.
Due to a national PPE shortage, health care workers have been forced to reuse it. Disposable respirators like the N95 are not meant to be reused because they can become contaminated. The CDC says their sterilization and reuse may need to be considered during the pandemic to conserve supplies.
“As an entrepreneur and owner of a small business, I admit I don’t have all the answers. However, I do know that our technology can reach the recommended heat and time that experts are saying is needed to kill coronavirus on the masks that our health care workers need to save lives,” said Jim Parker, president of iDRY Systems, which, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, has shifted resources toward building the iDRY and Sterilize machines.
Seeing the potential to sterilize tens of thousands of N95 masks every day, Murphy started reaching out to local hospitals, elected officials, even the city of Jacksonville, offering up his chambers for anyone willing to lease them.
On top of charging them to lease the units, he told them they’d need special racks to properly sterilize N95 masks in the chambers, at a cost $26,000 per unit. In his email to the city of Jacksonville, Murphy noted that he did not own racks nor would he have any use for them, so anyone leasing the chambers to sterilize PPE would have to buy them.
In an email to WJCT News, Nikki Kimbleton, a spokeswoman for the city of Jacksonville, said the Emergency Operations Center had determined that there was no need to take Murphy up on his offer, which the city deemed cost prohibitive. She also noted the city had received dozens of similar offers from vendors.
No one ended up taking up Murphy on his offer, leaving him frustrated.
A few weeks later, on Thursday, April 16, he was scrolling through Facebook and came across a post from his friend Nathan, complaining about another Florida man who allegedly owned the domain reopenNC.com.
DW News reporter Jordan Wildon has traced that domain — as well as reopenNY.com and reopenFL.com, both of which are currently inactive — to a Sebastian, Florida, man.
After reading Nathan's post, and still feeling the sting from the sterilization chamber letdown, Murphy said he got an idea: buy all the “reopen” domain names that are still available.
“I just ran into my study and bought all the ‘reopen’ [domains], and I used all the full state names,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘Well, that's really stupid. Now I've got to go buy all the two-letter derivations.’ Then I thought, ‘Well that's kind of stupid. I have to buy all the derivations that used to be abbreviations from the post office that people recognize.’”
Then he went through the same process with the word ‘liberate.’
By the time he was done, Murphy says he had purchased 203 domain names, racking up about $4,000 in credit card charges along the way, much to the dismay of his wife, whom he’d left out of the loop.
“I knew, probably, he was just going to instigate somebody or something,” she said. “I knew we really couldn’t afford to do it either.”
This isn’t the first time her husband has done something risky and impulsive.
“I’ve definitely learned that over the course of our marriage,” Annie said.
Like the time he tried to start a reality TV show.
“He actually got a crew here and they filmed the teaser. Nothing happened with it, but it almost happened,” Annie said. Later, when he would come into Eco Relics in the morning, Annie or one of their employees would tease Michael, saying, “Guess who called?”
“We all are aware of Michael’s dog with a bone thing,” Annie said. “And I think that goes with not having worked for anybody his whole life except for himself.”
Murphy said he had no idea how much buying all of the domains was going to cost when he got started, but he saw it as an opportunity to do some good — and maybe make a profit at the same time.
Murphy began brainstorming with his friend who posted the inspirational Facebook post over text.
“Genius move,” Nathan texted. “Now use them to do good! Sell to a progressive group like moveon.org. Let them make websites that redirect to the CDC.”
“Perfect,” replied Murphy. “I know they are going to be used for evil if you don’t sell them to someone besides gun-toting idiots. I even have reopenunitedstates.com.”
Annie Murphy said she hoped someone like HBO’s Last Week Tonight host John Oliver would buy the domains.
“There has to be someone who's willing to take them and actually build a web page for each one to redirect them to a good place with good information,” she said.
Michael Murphy said he was busy trying to keep his struggling Eco Relics business afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic, so he asked Nathan to find a buyer for him.
So far, Nathan hasn’t had any luck either, “which is truly pretty staggering,” Murphy said. “I’d just like to get my money back with these things because, honestly, it was a huge expense for me.”
On Saturday, April 18, the situation began to spiral out of control. Around 2 p.m., Murphy’s phone started ringing. At first it was just a trickle, but that quickly became a torrent.
“I was accused of all different kinds of things: having a Nazi son in Brazil and that my father is a Republican lobbyist. My father has been dead for 20 years,” Murphy said.
Then emails started rolling in.
“Michael Murphy, or Ann if you’re reading this. Your political project has been discovered. You have been judged and found wanting. We are Legion. PS. How do you like living at…” read one email dated April 18, which included Annie and Michael’s home address.
“What a rotten piece of s[***] you are. Justice will catch up eventually,” read another.
Someone even hacked the Eco Relics Facebook page.
The situation has left the Murphys scared for their safety and their livelihood.
“It’s very scary. I mean, I live in a glass house, literally. I live in a swamp and my living room has five pieces of glass that are about 10-by-12 feet, so it’s just kind of scary because I’m very exposed,” Murphy said.
“Someone could potentially walk into Eco Relics and start shooting people or something,” said Annie Murphy. “I worry about my employees.”
She also said she got three texts on Sunday morning from people saying friends of theirs were planning to boycott Eco Relics.
“We’re barely surviving in this kind of climate, so it’s a little bit disconcerting,” she said.
“I had no idea what kind of hornet’s nest I’d stirred up,” said Murphy. “I should have thought it out, but I didn’t. And as my attorney said, ‘You know, Michael, you’ve got to quit acting like a 9 year old.’”
Despite everything that’s happened, Murphy remains hopeful that someone will take the domains off of his hands and use them to stop what he says is disinformation that has led to the “reopen” protests.
“The last thing you need to do is reopen the country prematurely,” he said.
As of Wednesday, COVID-19 has killed more than 41,000 Americans, close to 900 Floridians, and at least 17 Jacksonville residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the Florida Department of Health.