- Protests against lockdown orders taking place in several states are being organised in groups and events on Facebook, but the platform has started taking down content that advocates violations of social-distancing guidelines.
- Business Insider has found that protesters are moving their organising efforts to MeWe, a social media platform that says it prides itself on user privacy.
- The site’s founder says it doesn’t accept “lawbreakers and people promoting threats and violence,” but Business Insider found more than a dozen examples of popular groups that encouraged breaking state-issued shelter-in-place orders.
- MeWe has also faced criticism for hosting those who have been kicked off other networks, like conspiracy theorists and white supremacists.
- In groups on the platform, users criticise Facebook’s action against protest groups, rally against health experts and state governors, and organise protests with no mention of adhering to social-distancing guidelines.
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Organisers of anti-quarantine protests have been forced to flee Facebook as the platform has cracked down on coronavirus content. Business Insider has found that they’re now organising on another social network – one that’s been a refuge for conspiracy theorists and others who have been exiled from mainstream online communities.
Subscription-based social site MeWe has become host to groups with names that are explicit in their members’ goals: there’s Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine, Open Texas Now!, and #ReOpenFL, among others. These MeWe groups are iterations of those on Facebook with the same names. But ever since Facebook started to crack down on these organizational efforts and remove some of their content, members have been searching for a way to plan their rallies uninhibited by Facebook’s moderators.
While social networks have become a haven for the millions affected by stay-at-home measures, the platforms have also had to grapple with users organising in-person events and protests that are in direct conflict with health and safety measures in place to curtail the virus’s spread.
Facebook now requires all events to explicitly tell attendees to adhere to social distancing guidelines, and has banned groups that encourage users to break state mandates. There are no similar guidelines on MeWe.
More than 20 MeWe groups against state shelter-in-place orders have popped in the last week, Business Insider has found. Inside these groups, members rail against Facebook for censoring their movement and mock the state governors and health experts who talk about the dangers of re-opening the economy too quickly.
And members of these MeWe groups are in recruitment mode, flooding feeds with urgent calls for members to invite everyone they know in anticipation of other platforms taking down protest content.
It’s a sign of the difficulties officials face in regulating behaviour during a pandemic. For all of one social media site’s adherence to guidelines, another can ignore or dismiss them. Indeed, many of the groups on MeWe explicitly oppose states’ orders.
Since its founding in 2012, MeWe has attracted 8 million members, spokesperson David Westreich told Business Insider. The platform operates under a freemium model, where users can access a limited number of features for free and pay for access more extensive ones. Groups operate similarly to Facebook Groups: They can be set public or private, and members can write posts and organise events. There’s also a chat room for each group for instant messaging with other members.
Although its size is only a fraction of Facebook’s 2.5 billion monthly active users, MeWe presents itself as the antithesis to Facebook. It promotes a social platform with no ads, no sharing of user data, and no manipulation of what appears in your feed.
“Unlike Facebook, MeWe respects its members as customers to serve and delight, not data to target or sell to advertisers, marketers, or politicians,” Westreich told Business Insider. “MeWe members have total control of their data, news feeds, and privacy.” MeWe also issues every user a Privacy Bill of Rights.
MeWe’s founder, Mark Weinstein, has said he started the site as a protection against what he calls Facebook’s overreach on privacy and user rights, and that his site protects the privacy and rights of its users better.
But MeWe’s hands-off approach has attracted those who have been kicked off of Facebook and Twitter for violating their policies. While many of MeWe’s groups are home to innocuous discussions of conservative values, some of MeWe’s most popular groups revolve around extremist rhetoric.
A group called “Stop Mandatory Vaccination Official” that has more than 13,000 members spreads dangerous falsehoods about vaccines. Another called “Wake the f— up” prompts interested members to answer the prompt, “Who was really responsible for 9/11?” A group called “HERBAL SURVIVAL AND HOMESTEADING” falsely promotes plants as cures for coronavirus.
In 2019, Rolling Stone discovered a number of groups on MeWe catering to conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, anti-vaxxers, and flat-Earthers. The report also found several examples of content violating MeWe’s own community guidelines, which includes a ban on “unlawful, harmful, obscene, or pornographic content.”
Weinstein refuted Rolling Stone’s report in January 2019. “MeWe’s TOS is clear: haters, bullies, lawbreakers, and people promoting threats and violence are not welcome,” he wrote on Medium.
Even so, Business Insider found events on the platform that encouraged breaking shelter-in-place orders. Popular posts also spread bizarre conspiracy theories that blamed the coronavirus outbreak on Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and 5G technology.
Business Insider shared with Westreich, the MeWe spokesperson, several examples of posts and events that appeared to encourage people to break state or local laws. Westreich said it was “likely” MeWe’s moderators were already reviewing such content. However, none of the content has been taken down yet.
“False information about anything is concerning at MeWe and so we take a systemic approach to the solution,” Westreich said. “If you’ve found such content on MeWe, then it’s likely it hasn’t yet been reported to our Trust and Safety Team team or it may already be pending review.”