Facebook Will Ban Protests That Defy Government 'Guidance' on Distancing

Anti-lockdown protests are taking place across America, and Facebook has found itself in its latest mess.
April 20, 2020, 2:46pm
Facebook Will Ban Protests That Defy Government 'Guidance' on Distancing
Photo: Jason Koebler

As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, some Americans are protesting government-mandated business closures, shelter-in-place orders, and social distancing guidance designed to save lives.

Many protests are being organized on Facebook, and the social network is now contending with the many protest-oriented groups and pages where misinformation and conspiracy theories around Covid-19 thrive.

Protests have already taken place in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, Indiana, Colorado, Washington, Maryland, Utah, North Carolina, and the movement is being given life by conservative groups with ties to the Trump administration, Trump himself, as well as other rightwing and far-right groups.

A Facebook spokesperson told Motherboard over the weekend that the social network would allow protest events as long as they do not fall afoul of government guidance on social distancing, but will ban ones that do.

"Unless the 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. "

Many U.S. states have banned large gatherings as part of social distancing measures, and guidance on protests is an evolving patchwork, although the law of the land in terms of the constitution has of course not been suspended.

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer clarified that protests are allowed in the state last week, but police in Raleigh, North Carolina arrested a protester and tweeted that protesting is a non-essential activity, and not allowed. Organizers in Raleigh are nonetheless planning a protest this week, which Republican Congressman Dan Bishop plans to attend. They are seeking confirmation from Governor Roy Cooper that protesters won't be arrested.

In New Jersey, police filed criminal charges against a protest organizer for violating emergency stay-at-home orders. In California, police did not make arrests at a Huntington Beach protest that defied stay-at-home orders, and Governor Gavin Newsom has not commented on the protests but encouraged people to stay home.

According to a Facebook statement to the Washington Post, the company has removed protest events both in New Jersey and California.

Facebook typically follows the law in whatever jurisdiction it happens to be operating within, which has led to numerous problems with moderating a global platform, but this has always been subject to change based on the social network's whims and priorities. For example, when the company was found to have violated the law in Canada, it simply said that it did not agree, and nothing happened.

Now that Facebook appears to be deferring to government "guidance" during an unparalleled crisis with many fractured viewpoints, coronavirus is becoming yet another quagmire for the company.

Correction: This article previously misidentified Gavin Newsom as a congressman when he is in fact a governor. Motherboard regrets the error.