Make America Open Again: Grassroots Protest or Astroturfing?

What's really behind calls to open up the country and end the lockdown?

Posted Apr 30, 2020

 GoToVan/Flickr
Source: GoToVan/Flickr

Now that the country has been on lockdown for over a month, with many out of work and all of us trying to cope with the myriad inconveniences of social distancing, people seem to be growing increasingly restless.

As President Trump and other conservative politicians continue to clamor for ending the lockdown and opening up the country, we’re seeing stay-at-home orders flaunted and protested, with some local jurisdictions planning to ease up on restrictions. For good or bad, we'll be witnessing the effects of those actions through a kind of real-life social psychology experiment of utilitarianism over the coming weeks.

Looking at the rest of the world, any declarations that it's time to move on from COVID-19 would seem to be premature. Although Japan had seemingly sheltered itself from the pandemic early on, it has more recently declared a state of emergency due to a sharp rise in cases in the past few weeks. Sweden, often hailed as evidence that skipping social distancing in order to foster “herd immunity” could work, has had 10 times the number of COVID-19 related deaths than the rest of Scandinavia. Germany, having “flattened the curve,” is already considering whether to reintroduce lockdown measures following a spike in cases after opening up some retail businesses last week.

Here in the U.S., the country’s existing political polarization has become caricatured in COVID-19. Although the political divide over responses to the pandemic has narrowed from its initial gap, it’s clear that the politicians pushing to end the quarantine have been firmly right-leaning, while protesters against continued restrictions seem to be pro-Trump people rallying behind libertarian slogans like “Land of the Free” and even “My Body, My Choice.” Meanwhile, liberals and those who trust science and heed the warnings of medical epidemiologists largely accept that remaining quarantined may be a necessary evil for now.

But is that really what’s going on—is COVID-19 just stoking the flames of an existing ideological divide in the U.S.? Is it really blue-collar America on one side, revolting against the yoke of big government’s overreach and gambling on the deaths of thousands in order to return to their livelihoods and get haircuts? Is the other side comprised of victims of hysteria and fearmongering, demanding that government come to the rescue with "socialist entitlements” like unemployment benefits, universal basic income, and loan forgiveness?

Unsurprisingly, it’s looking like it may be more complicated than that. News outlets have recently reported that many of the protests against COVID-19 restrictions have been organized by conservative organizations supporting President Trump’s re-election campaign and funded by Republican mega-donors like the Koch Brothers and Robert Mercer. Some have argued that on closer inspection, the protests don’t appear to be so much about COVID-19 as they are about other conservative agendas like gun control, immigration, and abortion. One does have to wonder why some protesters are dismissing the risks of COVID-19 while brandishing “assault rifles” or still wearing masks.  

In today's political climate, seemingly good old-fashioned “grassroots” protests that are actually being staged by sponsors who are advancing their own special interests have become an increasingly common phenomenon known as “astroturfing.” Part of the astroturfing playbook is to give the false impression that a large segment of the population supports the cause. In reality, live protests against COVID-19 have been “small, sparse, and few” and some 80% of the U.S. population supports continued social distancing restrictions, even in “red states” like Texas despite its lieutenant governor's claim that “there are more important things than living.”

Of course, the point of any political protest is to amplify the voices of groups wanting to be heard by legislators. But astroturfing highlights how people aspiring to be part of grassroots movements can become the unwitting megaphones and therefore pawns of powerful lobby groups including wealthy political donors, "big business," and other vested interests. And astroturfing isn't only orchestrated by American interest groups that might align with our own political ideologies and doesn't only occur by getting people to show up for protest rallies. It's also a more insidious tactic of ideologically opposed forces working abroad that's being deployed within our daily social media interactions.

Indeed, over the past several years, information science researchers have determined that a variant of astroturfing has become a significant online phenomenon. In 2018, George Washington University professor David Broniatowski and his colleagues reported that Twitter bots (automated accounts that promote content) and Russian trolls (fake accounts controlled by Russia’s Internet Research Agency that misrepresent their true identity) have been playing a major role in stoking the flames of online vaccine debates.1 These fake accounts have posted rhetoric from both sides of the debate on social media in an apparent attempt to foment discord and breed dissatisfaction with democracy.2 Now it’s increasingly clear how Russian trolls adopt carefully crafted “thematic personas” on Twitter, masquerading as American citizens who are passionate about various charged political causes.3

In the COVID-19 era, misinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic have become enmeshed with other popular conspiracy theory themes about vaccines or 5G networks. No surprise then that new research has shown that now Twitter bots and trolls are spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 too, often calling for the end of quarantine efforts, claiming that it’s safe to go back to work, or suggesting that restrictions have been engineered by liberals and Democrats to make President Trump look bad.

Although it’s now well known that Russia has devoted considerable resources to such information warfare and "weaponized identity politics,"2 it isn't clear whether that knowledge can immunize us against attempts to manipulate by astroturfing when we unknowingly encounter it in our online interactions. Perhaps we’re too incensed by arguments from the other side of the ideological divide to consider that we might actually be agreeing with or arguing against a Macedonian teenager working in a Russian troll farm. And fueled by that ire, we then assume the mantle of social media outrage, with posts and Tweets that risk making memes out of misinformation.

Over a few short months, COVID-19 has quickly evolved from a pandemic into a political cause, with our responses to it determined not only by individual psychology, social circumstance, and faith in science, but by ideologies influenced by unseen forces working to save Trump's chances of reelection and Russia stirring the pot for its own sake. Fortunately, attempts at such manipulation may not be as impactful as they intend to be.

The reality is that almost everyone wants to end the quarantine and get back to our lives—the real question that deserves debate is when and how. Recent polls indicate that only 10% of the U.S. supports ending social distancing now in order to restart the economy such that we're a lot more united than it might seem, at least for the time being. But as we grow more restive, putting off our lives and livelihoods in quarantined limbo, spending more time online than in face-to-face interactions, and becoming more vulnerable to the vested interest groups hoping to sway our better judgment in the process, we can expect that to change.

For more on the psychology of COVID-19 responses:

Why Aren't Some People Taking COVID-19 More Seriously?
Disregarding Science: The Politics of COVID-19 Beliefs
The Deadly Effects of COVID-19 Misinformation

References

1. Brontiakowski DA, Jamison AM, Qi S, et al. Weaponized health communication: Twitter bots and Russian trolls amplify the vaccine debate. American Journal of Public Health 2018; 108:1378-1384.

2. Brontiakowski DA, Quinn SC, Dredze M, Jamison AM. Vaccine communication as weaponized identity politics. American Journal of Public Health 2018; 110:617-618.

3. Walter D, Ophir Y, Jameison KH. Russian Twitter accounts and the partisan polarization of vaccine discourse, 2015-2017. American Journal of Public Health 2020; 110:718-724.