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How Monopoly Man Won The Internet

As former Equifax CEO Richard Smith prepares to testify before the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, activist Amanda Werner looks on through a monocle.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
As former Equifax CEO Richard Smith prepares to testify before the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, activist Amanda Werner looks on through a monocle.

Monopoly Man became the Internet crush of the day on Wednesday, after upstaging former Equifax CEO Richard Smith at a Senate hearing on the company's massive data breach.

The board game character, whose name is Rich Uncle Pennybags, was brought to life by Amanda Werner, an arbitration campaign manager for Public Citizen and Americans for Financial Reform, groups that advocate for consumer rights and protections.

Almost immediately, the monocle, mustache, top hat, pillowcase-sized bag of (#fake) Benjamins became a social media sensation.

The most unlikely viewers tuned in to the Senate Banking Committee hearing to watch Werner troll Smith, who was facing a roomful of angry senators after a hack that may have exposed the personal information of more than 145 million people.

People loved it.

"It was a very calculated move," said Werner, who prefers the pronouns "they" and "them," adding that it was hilarious to watch the scene become a meme in real time.

Werner mugged and preened for the camera and somehow, in a week dominated by sad and distressing news, gave people what they didn't know they wanted: a delightful reprieve.

Here is how Werner staged the viral protest — without getting kicked thrown out of the Capitol.

An alarm and an intern

Werner has attended a slew of Senate hearings and has even provided pro-consumer rights testimony in some cases. That is how the activist knew that getting on TV is all about location — and staying within the camera's frame.

The problem is that seats in the audience tend to fill up quickly, Werner explained.

"Luckily we have a very dedicated intern here," Werner said. "He showed up at 7 a.m. and held a spot in line for me so that we could get that prime seat." The one directly behind Smith, who was the target of the grilling.

Apparently, the intern was the first person in line.

During the hearing, Werner followed #MonopolyMan's rise to stardom in real time on a phone. Over Twitter, Werner was able to figure out the best angles as their head floated in and out of the camera's view. At one point Werner peered over Smith's shoulder using the monocle to inspect the back of the millionaire's head; at another point they knowingly stroked the perfectly shaped mustache glued to their face.

Honed tone

Werner set out to garner as much publicity as possible for the type of advocacy work Public Citizen does on behalf of consumers.

"We wanted to do something to get people's attention," Werner said of the hours-long photobomb, adding that people's eyes tend to glaze over when anyone utters the words "forced arbitration."

Knowing that is the catalyst for coming up with creative protest ideas, Werner explained.

They added that given the somber tone of news coverage around the deadly shooting in Las Vegas this week, the goal was to inject a little humor into public discourse.

"I think this week has been a particularly rough week on the American psyche so I think people needed a little bit of levity," Werner said.

It certainly inspired tens of thousands of happy face crying emojis on Twitter and on Facebook.

The decision to go the funny route is in stark contrast the health care protests on Sept. 25 during a hearing on the most recent Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Demonstrators began chanting, delaying the start of the hearing. Fifteen people were arrested and charged with disruption of Congress, according to U.S. Capitol Police. Dozens, staging die-ins in the hallway, were arrested and charged with crowding, obstructing or incommoding.

"There are a lot of different methods of protest and they all work for different instances," Werner said. "You have to decide which is the best for your particular situation."

Ultimately, Werner argued, a good protest leads to action. The notoriety is great to call attention to the cause, they said. But Werner added, "I hope that the effort [Wednesday] will make people not only laugh at the Monopoly Man and retweet these funny pictures but also to call their senators and tell them to vote no on SJ Res 47."

The bill would overturn a new rule intended to ban financial service providers, including banks and credit card companies, from using mandatory arbitration clauses to resolve their disputes and avoid class action lawsuits.

Fashion statement, not statement statement

There are certain lines that members of the audience at committee hearings cannot cross. They do not appear to be listed on the Capitol Police website, but here are a few guidelines that Werner has collected.

Wearing a costume? That is allowed.

Werner was a little concerned that the Capitol Police would not allow the top hat, but they didn't give it a second look.

In fact, Werner recalls hearing a story about another demonstrator who dressed as Abraham Lincoln, complete with the beard and requisite foot-long stove pipe hat, and legend has it he was allowed to wear it throughout the proceedings.

Holding up a sign? That is against the rules and can get people thrown out.

Werner knew that going in, but that didn't stop them from briefly holding up a yellow "Get out of jail free" card that appeared on screen a few times. "I didn't hold it up long," Werner confessed.

"I was a little afraid that as I was wiping my forehead with the $100 bill or doing other things that were calling a lot of attention to myself, that I might get warned," they said.

But the only warning Werner received was for holding a giant bag of money on their lap, which they immediately set on the floor.

Another word-of-mouth tip Werner has received: Writing messages on one's clothing is permitted.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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