Update: Immediately after this story's publication, Facebook removed the "American Revolution 2.0" page. Many other similar pages and groups remain.
In the face of lockdowns, business closures, and shelter-in-place orders designed to slow the spread of Covid-19 and save lives, some Americans are protesting for their right to spread a deadly virus in order to keep the economy moving.
These protests—in Michigan and Idaho this week, with more planned in the coming weeks—are being led by a mix of rightwing non-profits and far-right groups as well as conspiracy theorists, so it's not surprising that many protests are being organized on Facebook. These movements also got tacit endorsement from President Trump Friday, who tweeted that states under lockdown are "under siege" and should "LIBERATE" themselves. Now, misinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus are thriving in the groups and pages where protests are being organized and promoted on the social network.
In the 5,580 member strong private Facebook group "Reopen Illinois: American Revolution 2.0," numerous posts contain misinformation and conspiracies.
One recent post features an image with the text: "The whole virus is a joke. Government control, h1n1 was worse." Another echoes the conspiracy theory that death tolls are being inflated in order to scare the public, stating, "Miraculously since Covid-19 no one dies of cancer, heart attacks, drug overdose, suicice, car accidents etc. anymore," adding the monocle and chin-scratching emojis. Another post declares, "they are lying to us to keep us locked up."
The "Reopen Illinois: American Revolution 2.0" private group is affiliated with a public page called "American Revolution 2.0," which has more than 4,000 followers and has created Facebook events for protests in numerous U.S. states. In a recent post, an admin for "Reopen Illinois" stated that they merged with "American Revolution 2.0" because the organizers of that page maintain communication channels outside of Facebook to protect against censorship.
Conspiracy theories and misinformation run rampant on the "American Revolution 2.0" Facebook page as well. One post currently online suggests that wearing equipment such as a mask and gloves can effectively protect someone from coronavirus even if an infected person coughs directly in their face. Another post encourages readers to "add people to our marches" by sharing certain posts, one example being a tweet by right-wing commentator Candace Owens that suggests coronavirus death tolls are being inflated.
"American Revolution 2.0" maintains a YouTube channel, ostensibly as a backup due to censorship from Facebook. In the latest video posted to that channel, which was also shared on the page, a man (who seemingly goes by Josh Ellis on Facebook) greets the viewer with, "Welcome to Covid-1984," and references vaccines and "the cabal," a pillar of the QAnon conspiracy.
"We need to stop talking about vaccines, we need to stop talking about the cabal, we need to start talking about only our constitutional rights that are violated," he says."You won't get to talk about the vaccines, you won't get to talk about the cabal, you won't get to talk about anything because they're taking your right to speech away."
When reached for comment, Facebook spokespeople said they were looking into the specific examples of misinformation provided by Motherboard.
In a blog post on Thursday, Facebook announced that it was beefing up its fact-checking abilities and would start to show people who have interacted with removed content a notice in their News Feed "in the coming weeks." The social network also added a "Get the Facts" section to its Covid-19 information page.
"I just want to specify that we REMOVE misinformation content that could cause harm to people, as we have in the past," the spokesperson said. "For other false news, like conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus we are REDUCING its distribution so less people see it and INFORMING people with more context about why it’s false."
When viewing the posts described in this article, Motherboard had no problem accessing them and saw no context or information about the content being false or misleading. As for the company's stance on protest events generally, aside from concerns over misinformation, a spokesperson said that Facebook will allow protest events as long as government allows them. "Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook," the spokesperson wrote in an email. "For this same reason, events that defy government's guidance on social distance aren't allowed on Facebook. "
Update: This article was updated with additional comment from Facebook.