Giving coronavirus protests the oxygen of amplification

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

As the coronavirus quarantine stretches into its second month, there are signs that some people are growing restless after being locked inside their homes with virtually no contact with the outside world, and some of them are pushing the boundaries of the lockdown restrictions in various ways. In some cases, groups of protesters have been gathering at town halls and other government buildings, or stopping traffic on the streets of cities across the US, holding up signs questioning the need for a continued quarantine with slogans like “Land of the Free!” and “Fake Crisis!” But are these genuine protests organized by random concerned citizens with strong opinions about the lengths to which the quarantine effort has gone, or is there more going on here? And if it’s the latter, then shouldn’t the press be thinking long and hard before playing into the hands of the organizers of those protests by giving them free publicity?

According to a number of media reports, anti-lockdown rallies have been seen in a number of states over the past week, including Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, California and Minnesota. Trump even appeared to encourage protesters to take to the streets in a series of tweets, advising residents to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Not surprisingly, Fox News has given these rallies a lot of air time, complete with maps that make it look as though a grassroots movement has taken over and is growing larger by the day — something the network also did during the days of the Tea Party in 2009. The network has even used the term that organizers came up with for the protests, in an attempt to portray them as democracy in action: namely, “Freedom Rallies.” And the footage used often gives the impression that there are large throngs of demonstrators, even though in at least one case, a video from a alternate vantage point told a different story.

Over the past several days, evidence has emerged that these may not be grassroots protests at all, but “astroturf” — in other words, a carefully planned simulation of grassroots action. According to a report in the Washington Post, some of the largest Facebook groups used to organize many of these protests are run by a family of far-right, pro-gun activists: Ben Dorr, political director of a gun-rights group in Minnesota and his brothers, Christopher and Aaron. The Facebook groups have become sources of the same kinds of misinformation about the coronavirus that have been seen at a number of the protests — that the virus is no worse than the flu, that the scientists working on a vaccine have ulterior motives, and so on. By Sunday, the groups had more than 200,000 members. According to the Post, other demonstrations have been promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is headed by a longtime adviser to Dick DeVos, husband of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

As Renee DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, told NBC News, the kind of Facebook activism the Dorr family appears to be engaging in is quite common in political fundraising circles, and “allows for a small group with money and media manipulation skills to simulate the appearance of a much larger movement.” Unfortunately, news outlets that run photos and video clips of the protests are playing into this desire to make the movement appear larger than it is. And the more articles and news reports do this, the more attention the protests get, and the more likely they are to appeal to others and to continue to grow. As Chris Murphy, a US senator from Connecticut, put it on Twitter: “Gun toting protesters make a good visual, but it doesn’t mean they’re news. But the endless coverage of these protests suggests they aren’t fringe, and viewers start to believe a controversy exists which really doesn’t. Therefore the media coverage creates a new reality.”

Obviously, if hundreds or even thousands of sign-wielding (and gun-wielding) protesters show up and block traffic in a major city, shouting about government regulations of any kind, that’s worth a news report. And there are undoubtedly people who attend these rallies who aren’t agents of a far-right organization, but people who are upset with being forced to remain in their homes, or losing their jobs. But any reporting on these events should mention the machinations of the various political organizations that have been fanning the flames, and should be careful to portray them as accurately as possible, rather than suggesting that they are large or have broad support.

Here’s more on the protests:

No Facebook for you: Facebook is blocking anti-quarantine protesters from using the site to organize in-person gatherings that violate states’ stay-at-home orders, a move that has brought an immediate backlash from conservatives including Donald Trump’s son, Donald Jr. The social network has removed protest messages in California, New Jersey and Nebraska from its site, a company spokesperson said Monday. The spokesperson said Facebook had been instructed by those state governments that the events are prohibited under lockdown and social distancing orders. “Why is @Facebook colluding with state governments to quash people’s free speech?” tweeted Trump Jr.

Tea Party Part Two: According to a report in the New York Times, members of a number of Tea Party groups are involved in pushing protests against state lockdown orders. Among those fighting are FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots, which played pivotal roles in the beginning of Tea Party protests starting more than a decade ago. Also involved are a law firm led partly by former Trump White House officials, a network of state-based conservative policy groups, and an ad hoc coalition of conservative leaders known as Save Our Country that has advised the White House on strategies for a tiered reopening of the economy.

The Justice League: The Justice Department will consider taking legal action against governors who continue to impose stringent rules for dealing with the coronavirus that infringe on constitutional rights even after the crisis subsides in their states, Attorney General William Barr said in an interview on Tuesday on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.” Barr said that stay-at-home orders and other directives are justified up to a point, but eventually the states have to move to more targeted measures and relax those restrictions, he suggested. “We have to give businesses more freedom to operate in a way that’s reasonably safe,” Barr said. “To the extent that governors don’t and impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce… we’ll have to address that.”

Other notable stories:

Protocol, a new technology news site owned by the same group that runs Politico, announced on Tuesday that it is laying off 13 staff members due to the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus. The site launched on February 5 with much fanfare, and a note from management said the coronavirus “has done nothing to shake our faith in Protocol’s mission or our long-term opportunity,” but added that the virus and its spinoff effects have “profoundly changed the economic realities of the present.” Owner Robert Allbritton said that the current crisis “has elements of the fear that we felt after 9/11, the financial worry that we experienced in 2008, and the unknown that surrounds a natural disaster like a hurricane or tornado all rolled into one.”

An internal document at Vice Media Group lays out a plan for substantial layoffs at the new-media company’s websites, as Vice considers a variety of options to deal with coronavirus pandemic. The planning document, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, calls for layoffs of over 300 people in digital operations, including major cuts at both Vice News and Refinery29, the women-focused digital publisher Vice acquired last year. A Vice Media Group spokeswoman said the planning document represented one of several scenarios being developed inside the company for potential consideration and hadn’t been endorsed by management.

Reporters Without Borders has come out with the latest version of its Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the situation for journalists each year in 180 countries and territories. The group says that the report suggests the next decade will be a crucial one for press freedom, and will involve a series of converging crises that will impact journalism, including: a geopolitical crisis due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes; a technological crisis due to a lack of democratic guarantees; a democratic crisis due to polarisation and repressive policies; a crisis of trust due to suspicion and even hatred of the media; and an economic crisis.

Thanassis Cambanis writes for CJR about what life was like as a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe in Baghdad during the Iraq War, and how he is trying to use some of that experience to survive quarantine in New York City during the COVID-19 crisis. “How did we do our jobs? The same way that everybody gingerly got on with the necessities of life: calculated risks and extreme logistics. In practice that meant learning how to manage the ambient fear and anxiety of possible death. In order to minimize the threat for everyone on our team, we planned obsessively and rationed the risk.”

The Compass Experiment, a project started by the McClatchy newspaper chain aimed at starting a series of hyperlocal news outlets in small towns, has announced its next experiment: a local news site in Longmont, Colorado called The Longmont Reader. “A global pandemic probably seems like a bad time to be building a new local news website,” writes Compass Experiment general manager Mandy Jenkins in a blog post announcing the new site. “And yet, the need and demand for local news and information has never been greater. If now isn’t the time to show up for our communities, then when?”

National Public Radio is cutting executives pay to combat the effects of the economic collapse brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report in the New York Times. The radio and podcasting giant doesn’t run traditional ads, but about one-third of its revenue comes from corporate sponsors like Angie’s List, General Motors, State Farm and Trader Joe’s. In an email to the staff on Friday, CEO John Lansing (who joined the nonprofit in September), projected that NPR would fall $12 million to $15 million short of the amount it had expected to receive from sponsors this year. He described the pay cuts as a way for NPR to avoid layoffs.

The Jewish News in the UK is back to “business as usual” despite bidding farewell to readers with last week’s paper, Press Gazette reports. The paper had planned to merge with the 180-year-old Jewish Chronicle, but those plans were torpedoed by the coronavirus downturn, and both titles announced earlier this month that they would shut down and liquidate their assets. The Kessler Foundation, which owns the Chronicle, submitted a bid to the liquidators to buy the assets of both and merge them into one title. But then an acquisition bid emerged for the Chronicle, which in turn spurred the owner of the Jewish News to take it out of liquidation.

NewsGuard, the news-ranking service founded by Steven Brill and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz, has released a data set made up of what it calls COVID-19 misinformation “super-spreaders” on Facebook — pages and accounts that repeat, share, and amplify myths, from false cures to conspiracy theories about the virus. The company says it plans to release similar data for other platforms, such as Twitter and YouTube, in the coming weeks. The Facebook data set identifies pages that have a combined reach of more than 18 million users.

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