Facebook is banning protest events that violate social distancing rules

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Facebook is banning promotions for protests that violate social distancing rules, the company has confirmed. CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan wrote this morning that promotions for anti-quarantine protests in California, New Jersey, and Nebraska had all been removed after Facebook consulted with state governments. The company is also reportedly seeking guidance for whether New York, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania protests violate current shelter-in-place orders. “Events that defy governments’ guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook,” a spokesperson told The Verge.

Facebook emphasized that it’s leaning on government rules rather than editorial judgment. “Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook,” said the spokesperson. But organizers can’t advocate meetings that break health guidance, and they can’t discourage taking precautions against spreading the novel coronavirus.

Mark Zuckerberg reiterated the distinction in an interview on Good Morning America. “It’s important that people can debate policies so there’s a line on this, you know, more than normal political discourse,” he said. “I think a lot of the stuff that people are saying that is false around a health emergency like this can be classified as harmful misinformation.” Since January, Facebook has said it’s removing claims that are “designed to discourage treatment or taking appropriate precautions.” Facebook didn’t offer details about the specific events that were removed.

Several groups either planned or recently held protests over social distancing and shelter-in-place rules, egged on by President Donald Trump, who tweeted calls to “liberate” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia last week. BuzzFeed notes that many of these events have been coordinated with help from the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which helped plan a sizable protest in Lansing, Michigan, last week. These groups’ Facebook pages call the coronavirus “a very real virus” and encourage appropriate hygiene measures like handwashing.

Protestors in Lansing disregarded requests that they stay in their cars during the event, however, raising the risk of contagion. Other events have been more dismissive of the virus’s threat, like a rally in Texas held by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has previously been censured for promoting fake COVID-19 cures.

More Americans are more worried about states lifting shelter-in-place rules prematurely than waiting too long, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. And some protests’ internet and news footprints may be larger than the events themselves. Kata Hall, communications director for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, claimed on Twitter that a demonstration had gotten more media inquiries than participants.

But Facebook has taken heat for not responding proactively enough to scams, hoaxes, and other misinformation related to the virus. Now, it’s trying to walk a delicate line between removing harmful content and avoiding censorship of political protests.

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