- Protests against lockdown orders have recently popped up in several states, leading large groups to gather in violation of shelter-in-place guidelines.
- Many of these demonstrations are being organized in Facebook groups, some of which are made up of tens of thousands of people, such as “Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine.”
- Facebook told Business Insider it’s removing content that advocates protests in violation of social-distancing guidelines, and has done so for events planned in California, New York, and New Jersey.
- Despite Facebook’s effort to remove content advocating for violations to stay-at-home orders, groups and events are continuing to pop up and giving protesters a place to organize with social distancing.
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Protesters have taken to Facebook groups in recent weeks to organize rallies against shelter-in-place orders in dozens of states, some inviting people to attend events that violate social-distancing guidelines. These directives have put Facebook in the tricky position of establishing the fine line between what can stay and what gets taken down – and it’s led to groups that break Facebook’s own rules falling through the cracks.
Facebook’s enforcement of policies regarding anti-quarantine content has been unclear. Facebook initially said it removed information about protests in California, New Jersey, and Nebraska “on the instruction of governments in those three states,” according to CNN’s Oliver Darcy. Facebook later issued a statement to clarify that it had reached out to state officials “to understand the scope of their orders, not about removing specific protests on Facebook.”
Regarding its policies on these anti-quarantine groups and events, a Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider: “Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook. For this same reason, events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook.”
Facebook said it was focusing on groups and events that advocate in-person gatherings that defy social distancing orders. A number of these groups skirted such guidelines by promoting “gridlock” events – where participants stay in their cars to crowd the streets – and by mentioning in their event descriptions that protesters have to stay six feet apart.
Nonetheless, content advocating for social distance-violating protests remains on the platform. Business Insider discovered planned rallies – one in Missouri and one in Nashville – that make no explicit mention of adhering to social distancing guidelines. Both of these protests are connected to and promoted by Facebook groups that have more than 20,000 members combined.
These events, as well as others Business Insider sent to Facebook, remain up on the platform. Facebook did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment on these events by the time of publication.
Facebook’s decisions on these protests is complicated by the fact that each state has enacted its own stay-at-home mandates in an effort to stop to spread of coronavirus. At least 42 states have set stay-at-home orders. Nebraska – one of the states Facebook said it had taken down content for – has not instituted a statewide lockdown order.
Polls have shown that most Americans don’t support these anti-quarantine protests. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 60% of the public opposes these protesters, and 71% of Americans are concerned about restrictions being lifted too early.
More than 800,000 cases of COVID-19, the coronavirus disease, have been reported in the U.S. More than 45,000 Americans have died.
These anti-quarantine movements have been largely backed by right-wing activists and conservatives. Fox commentators Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson have both lauded protest organizers. President Donald Trump has defended lockdown opponents as “good people” suffering from “cabin fever,” and tweeted out calls to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia.
Despite only affecting protests in three states, Facebook’s partial enforcement against these largely right-wing anti-quarantine movements has led the platform to withstand criticism from conservatives. The president’s son Donald Trump. Jr, accused Facebook of “colluding with state governments to quash peoples free speech.”
Why is @Facebook colluding with state governments to quash peoples free speech?
Regardless of what you think about the lockdowns or the protests against them, this is a chilling & disturbing government directed shutdown of peoples 1st Amendment rights. Very dangerous! https://t.co/rnG09TSVhI
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) April 20, 2020
Some of these Facebook groups were launched by a team of pro-gun activists, the Washington Post first reported. In their descriptions, these groups accuse state governors of “controlling our lives, destroying our businesses, passing laws behind the cover of darkness, and forcing us to hand over our freedoms and our livelihood!”
Facebook has generally erred on the side of caution in taking actions on content that addresses or surfaces political debate. Facebook said in January it wouldn’t ban political ads on the platform, and wouldn’t fact-check them or limit how they target users.