Reason Roundup

Don't Get Fooled by Fake Photos of Coronavirus Lockdown Protests

Plus: Drudge challenges Trump on traffic claims, France taxes links, COVID-19 in Ohio prisons, and more...


COVID-19 lockdown protests are spreading and so is misinformation about them. As a series of demonstrations against COVID-19 lockdown orders sweep the U.S., protesters have shown wildly varying degrees of responsibility and realism. Some have been staying 6 feet from others or even protesting from within cars, while simply asking for some shutdown leeway for local businesses and entrepreneurs who are willing to take extra steps to keep pandemic-times customers safe. Alas, others have been crowding up against each other in large numbers—without masks or any other precautions—while suggesting that the entire coronavirus outbreak might be a hoax.

Some folks online have started spreading rumors that protesters are paid "crisis actors"—alleging their signs too well-made or similar and that their websites have fishy origins. But we needn't turn to conspiracy theories for an explanation; we've been seeing in real time as the president and his media supporters encourage protests against COVID-19 containment measures, while popular fringe figures like Alex Jones portray the protests as "leading the way against the tyrants." No nefarious backers need to whip out their checkbooks when cult favorites are on the case.

On the flip side, people's revulsion at the more reckless or bratty elements of these protests is setting up social media for a round of fake protest news.

Over the weekend, flyers were posted around Tottenville, Staten Island, advertising an "End the Lockdown Rally." The flyers, which bore President Donald Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" and a MAGA hashtag, called for people to gather without masks at Conference House Park on April 19, adding "bring your children" and "if you're sick still come, it's your right."

Twitter has been buzzing with condemnations of the protest and the Trump fans who were allegedly organizing it. But whatever the intentions of those who posted it (a political prank, either attempting to make Republicans look dumb and evil; trying to make it look like liberals are trying to make Republicans look dumb and evil; or a genuine attempt to cause chaos and contagion are all possible, I suppose, though in varying degrees of likelihood), no one showed up.

After last week's protest around the Michigan Capitol, a picture of someone holding a large swastika flag that said "TRUMP PENCE" began circulating on social media as a sign of the supposed Nazi leanings of Trump supporters and the people protesting. But after some viral outrage about the kind of people the conservative organizers of these protests were in cahoots with, it turns out that the picture in question actually came from a March 2 Bernie Sanders rally in Boise, Idaho.

The man holding the swastika flag also showed up at a rally in Arizona, where he was kicked out, shouted anti-Semitic slurs at people, and was subsequently reported on by Buzzfeed. He was identified as Robert Sterkeson, who describes himself as a "stunt activist" and the Anti-Defamation League describes as a white supremacist.

It does not seem that the man's flag was meant to be a critical commentary on the Trump administration, as some have suggested, nor a false-flag operation to make Trump supporters look bad. But it also wasn't part of social-distancing protests in Michigan.

Whatever your stance on business shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, and protests against them—I tend to think one can't make any pronouncements on these things at large, as so much depends on the way they're being done and under what local conditions—these stories should serve as a good reminder that the more outlandish and horrific claims about life under COVID-19 quarantine should always be approached a little skeptically at first, especially when they tidily confirm your prior perceptions or fears.


On the COVID-19 era internet, "we are living under an emergency constitution invoked by Facebook, Google, and other major tech platforms," argues Evelyn Douek, an affiliate with Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, at The Atlantic.

In normal times, these companies are loath to pass judgment about what's true and what's false. But lately they have been taking unusually bold steps to keep misinformation about COVID-19 from circulating.

As a matter of public health, these moves are entirely prudent. But as a matter of free speech, the platforms' unconstrained power to change the rules virtually overnight is deeply disconcerting.

More here.


In France, "antitrust authorities ordered Google to negotiate with publishers to pay for the news content shown in search results" and (sigh) president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance David Chavern thinks that's a model for the U.S. to emulate. The New York Times ran on op-ed yesterday in which Chavern argued:

There are several ways the pressure on Google could be brought to bear. If Congress passes the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, publishers would be allowed to negotiate rates with Google as a group. Alternatively, publishers might finally be forced to undertake their own lengthy copyright litigation. In any case, I believe that Google will eventually be required to treat news publishers, like music publishers, as equals.

Read Reason's Scott Shackford on why this is a terrible idea.


The COVID-19 outbreak could keep Libertarians and Greens off ballots. "In 2016, the Libertarian Party was on the general election ballot in all 50 states; this year, it has secured ballot access in just 35," points out Politico. And while the Green Party made it onto 44 state ballots during the last presidential election, this year it will only be on the ballot in 22 states.

This could amount to a crisis for the Libertarian and Green Parties, Politico's Bill Scher explains:

Without ballot access, national pollsters won't feel obligated to include Green and Libertarian candidates in their surveys; voters will be less aware of their nominees and platforms; journalists will be less likely to pay any attention to them; and the probability diminishes that either the Libertarians or Greens can reach the holy grail of 5 percent of the popular vote—the point at which they would finally qualify for federal campaign matching funds.


At just three Ohio prison facilities, more than 1,300 prisoners have contracted COVID-19.  From CNN: "Officials decided to test all inmates and staff at the facilities starting Thursday, and results have been coming back in stages, said spokeswoman Melanie Amato of the Ohio Department of Health. She said 103 staff members also tested positive at Marion. One of those staff members died, and no additional details were immediately available on the death."

In Philadelphia:


  • In a typical Trump retort, the president claimed without any evidence on Saturday that Drudge Report traffic had been drying up as the site grew more Trump-critical. On the contrary,  "the past 30 days has been the most eyeballs in Drudge Report's 26 year-history," Matt Drudge told CNN.
  • Alexis Martin, who was sentenced to prison for "murdering" the man forcing her into prostitution at 15 years old when that man was shot by someone else in the course of a robbery, will be granted clemency by Ohio Gov. Mark DeWine.
  • "Abortion is a time-sensitive procedure. Delaying a woman's access to abortion even by a matter of days can result in her having to undergo a lengthier and more complex procedure that involves progressively greater health risks, or can result in her losing the right to obtain an abortion altogether," a federal judge in Tennessee wrote in his ruling against the state's attempt to ban abortion during the pandemic.
  • Phoebe Maltz Bovy reviews Woody Allen's new autobiography.