Facebook groups supporting or organizing anti-government protests continued to appear on the platform in mid-April 2020, despite the platform reportedly shuttering at least two such events.
We found several groups using the “Operation Gridlock” name created either on the same day or within 24 hours before or after the series of demonstrations of the same name that were spotted on April 14 2020 to attack social distancing orders or guidelines. The events were not only amplified by right-wing media, but in the case of the “gridlock” protest in Lansing, Michigan also supported by the far right Proud Boys and organized by another group reportedly funded by the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The groups cover several areas: states such as Maine; Missouri; North Carolina; an Oklahoma “public” group without any listed posts or members; as well as groups in Pennsylvania and Tennessee. The date of creation listed for a Kentucky group actually preceded the demonstrations by one day.
There were also separate groups listed for various cities: Los Angeles (organized by a page, “American Revolution 2.0,” which was created on April 10 2020); New Orleans; and two groups created by the same user covering Jacksonville and Tampa in Florida.
Both a group and an event listed for Kentucky are no longer active on Facebook. In New Jersey, at least one local right-wing blog complained that the platform shut down an event slated for April 28. It has apparently been rescheduled on Facebook for April 17, 2020 without mentioning a location, and hosted by the anti-vaccination group “New Jersey for Medical Freedom.” In one recent post, a member of the group offered to share protective masks adorned with messages like “vaccines kill” and “fuck this mask”:
Both the “medical freedom” group and “Reopen NJ,” a group taking credit for hosting a May 1 2020 event in Trenton, are still listed as active on Facebook. According to the user information for the latter group, it was also created on April 15 2020.
Twitter and Periscope banned several accounts connected to the conspiracy theory blog Infowars after one of its staff members used their platform to promote a separate planned event in the state capitol of Austin. Infowars has a page up about the event:
The American people are tired of being told to stay home and shut up.
As local governments test the limits of consumers and small business owners, state and federal leaders like Governor Greg Abbott and President Donald Trump have signaled their willingness to get Americans back to work and the economy up and running.
This weekend, Texans of all stripes will assemble outside the capitol building in Austin, Texas, to protest the authoritarian lockdown orders being imposed by petty tyrants at the local level.
We did not find any “gridlock”-related events listed for Austin on Facebook, but event pages were created for several other cities around the United States, which we have listed by date. In some instances, the page lists only one user as “going”:
We also found users on both Twitter and Facebook spreading a separate tag, “May Day Mutiny”calling for a separate protest on May 1 2020 — though we only found one public event page listed. The date is also celebrated among labor activists as International Workers’ Day, but it is unlikely that these right-wing users are marking the occasion in a similar fashion; at least one Facebook post speculated that the event might be part of “a ‘message’ to Patriots” from United States President Donald Trump.
“All the Coronavirus Fear is perpetrated from the lib/Globalists,” the user falsely claimed about the worldwide pandemic. “It’s not about the virus – it’s about destroying the country, Trump’s Presidency and ALL ABOUT DEMOCRAT CONTROL!”
In July 2020 the Associated Press reported that some group pages initially devoted to “reopen” efforts had increasingly allowed content attempting to smear other causes like the Black Lives Matter movement:
For example, some groups in New Jersey, Texas and Ohio have labeled systemic racism a hoax. A member of the California Facebook group posted a widely debunked flyer that says “White men, women and children, you are the enemy,” which was falsely attributed to Black Lives Matter. Another falsely claimed that a Black man was brandishing a gun outside the St. Louis mansion where a white couple confronted protesters with firearms. Dozens of users in several of the groups have pushed an unsubstantiated theory that liberal billionaire George Soros is paying crowds to attend racial justice protests.
Facebook members in two groups — Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine and Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine — also regularly refer to protesters as “animals,” “thugs,” or “paid” looters.
In the Ohio group, one user wrote on May 31: “The focus is shifted from the voice of free people rising up against tyranny … to lawless thugs from a well known racist group causing violence and upheaval of lives.”
According to the AP, conversations in around 40 groups originally devoted to fighting COVID-19 containment measures had “largely shifted” to attacking demonstrations that unfolded around the US following another spate of extrajudicial killings by police. Because many of these groups are members-only or have content otherwise kept out of the platform’s public settings, they are harder to catch for moderators or fact-checkers.
“Unless Facebook is actively looking for disinformation in those spaces, they will go unnoticed for a long time and they will grow,” Harvard University media researcher Joan Donovan told the AP. “Over time, people will drag other people into them and they will continue to organize.”
Similarly, supporters of “reopening” campaigns have also begun pushing the idea of recalls against Democratic Party governors in California, Michigan, and North Carolina. In the latter state, the ReOpen NC group reportedly contacted state lawmakers asking for Gov. Roy Cooper’s impeachment.
Updated July 6 10:39 a.m. PST: Updated with additional information from the Associated Press.
Updated July 9 12:09 p.m. PST: Updated with additional information on political campaigning from “reopen” groups.