Virus misinformation flourishes in online protest groups

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

A woman holds a sign as she attends a rally outside the Missouri Capitol to protests stay-at-home orders put into place due to the COVID-19 outbreak Tuesday, April 21, 2020, in Jefferson City, Mo. Several hundred people attended the rally to protest the restrictions and urge the reopening of businesses closed in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus . (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

CHICAGO – Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of posts fly in the new Facebook groups daily.

The coronavirus numbers are fake, some of the social media videos claim. “Social distancing is the new way to control you, your family and your behavior,” another commenter warns. Others say the pandemic is an overblown hoax.

The loose network of Facebook groups spurring protests of stay-at-home orders across the country have fast become a hotbed of misinformation, conspiracy theories and skepticism around the coronavirus pandemic. Launched in recent weeks by pro-gun advocacy groups and conservative activists, the pages are repositories of Americans' suspicion and anxiety — often fueled by notions floated by television personalities or President Donald Trump himself and amplified by social media accounts.

In a matter of days, the Facebook pages have mobilized protests at state capitols and collectively gained an audience of nearly 1 million followers on Facebook, according to The Associated Press’ analysis of the groups.

There's little basis in reality for many of the claims on the sites. The coronavirus has infected millions of people worldwide, and the U.S. has recorded more deaths — 43,000 — than anywhere else in the world, according to a Johns Hopkins University count. Stay-at-home orders have been used by governments across the world — and the political spectrum — to try to contain the spread, as recommended by the world's top health officials.

But the power of suspicion is apparent in the Facebook groups. A private group was key in enlisting people for a “Liberate Minnesota” march outside Democratic Gov. Tim Walz’s home Friday, despite his order limiting large gatherings. Trump backed the protesters on Twitter, calling to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” right before the protest kicked off.

“We recruited some trusted friends, threw it up on Facebook Sunday night,” said conservative activist Michele Even, who oversees two Facebook groups in Wisconsin and Minnesota with a collective following of 100,000. “By Friday, we had over a thousand shares for the event.”

Under pressure after a spate of nationwide protests organized on its site, Facebook said Monday that it would ban events that don’t follow social distancing rules.