How A Wave of Disinformation Fueled Michigan’s Pandemic Protests

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Dawn Perreca protest in Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Flag-waving, honking protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

By Katelyn Kivel

April 20, 2020

How did Michigan, Facebook, the Tea Party and the DeVos family lay the groundwork for a national wave of  protesters’ defiance in the face of pandemic response?

LANSING, MI — With armed protesters set to return to Lansing, looking back on last week’s “Operation Gridlock” as a portent of things to come in the next phase of response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 can be instructive. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her stay-at-home order, as well as her broader efforts to combat the coronavirus, have become flashpoints in the nationwide politics of pandemic. 

READ MORE: How Gov. Whitmer Emerged as a Leader During the Coronavirus Crisis

As The ‘Gander reported, Lansing’s protests were punctuated with confederate flags, assault weapons and a decided lack of social distancing that risked the further spread of the viral pandemic the protesters were ostensibly there to decry efforts to slow. 

“Operation Gridlock” was the project of the Michigan Conservative Coalition and Michigan Freedom Fund, reports the Washington Post. Both those groups are funded by Greg McNeilly, political adviser to the DeVos family whose notable members include Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos. 

“A lot of Republicans and conservatives feel there might be an overreaction to all of this,” tea party organizer Richard Viguerie told the Post. “We’re all anxious to get back. Conservatives feel the government has overreacted, and it’s got to end.”

That feeling of overreaction is heavily fueled by misinformation and disinformation on social media. Whitmer cautioned against campaigns of disinformation last week, specifically debunking claims of martial law or that rural areas don’t face challenges from the coronavirus. But that disinformation and misinformation has only grown since. 

RELATED: WATCH: Why Conservatives Broke Social Distancing To Yell At Whitmer

Disinformation around the coronavirus has been so prolific that Facebook was driven to take action against users spreading false claims about the pandemic. Comedian and commentator John Oliver dedicated his program Last Week Tonight to addressing the deep-rooted infection of false coronavirus narratives in the media, particularly targeting conservatives. 

But the protests from Lansing may soon be a national export, as BuzzFeed reports.

“You’re going to see some massive protesting going on,” Matt Seely, a spokesperson for the Michigan Conservative Coalition, told BuzzFeed. “We’ve been asked to basically share our template with other groups to do the same thing, and we’ve done that.”

SEE ALSO: Experts Predicted a Coronavirus Pandemic as Far Back as 2017. Trump Ignored Them.

The strong anti-government tone of the protests, the fact that they are fueled in large part by national Republican leaders and that despite seeming organic the protests are organized by dedicated conservative political action groups have drawn comparisons to the Tea Party of the early 2010s. The Intelligencer connected the movements with a coherent throughline of the kind of right-wing angry populism that was, and still is, instrumental to Donald Trump’s campaigns. 

“I think they’re listening to me,” Trump said of the armed Michiganders taking to Lansing streets. “They seem to be protesters that like me and respect this opinion, and my opinion is just the same as about all of the governors. They all wanna open.”

But Whitmer remains focused on the pandemic instead of the politics. 

“I’m not focusing on politics,” she said. “I’m trying to save lives here. We have to remember the enemy is the virus. Not one another.”


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