Facebook’s Pandemic Feuds Are Getting Ugly

Two North Carolina groups are locked in a battle full of name-calling, conspiracy theories, and morbid memes.

Facebook thumbs-up and thumbs-down logos, ripping apart a face mask.
Adam Maida

A disposable face mask is burning in the bottom of a cake pan. It’s a controlled blaze, the perfect size for roasting a hot dog—which someone is doing, holding it above the flame on a metal skewer. A tinny recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays in the background, building to its familiar end just as the hot dog appears to be fully roasted.

The comments beneath the 30-second video, posted to Facebook in June as part of the “Burn Your Mask Challenge,” run the gamut from mirth to disdain to a swelling of patriotic pride. “LOVE THIS!” with three laugh-crying emoji. A smattering of sober warnings not to eat a hot dog that has been roasted in the fumes of incinerated fabric.

The “Burn Your Mask Challenge” started in a private Facebook group called Reopen NC, which was created in early April, not long after North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, announced a statewide stay-at-home order. The 81,000 members of the group generally believe that state measures to control the spread of the coronavirus infringe on their personal rights. When Cooper announced a mask mandate last month, they started a petition against it, which has so far accrued about 5,500 signatures. A mock-up of a face mask reading This mask is as useless as our governor is still shared regularly.

The pandemic has opened up a new front in the American culture wars. There have been protests against masks and lockdowns in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and several other states. In North Carolina, Facebook has served as a highly visible hub for both sides. Reopen NC has sparked more than 30 smaller, county-specific groups that started sharing its videos of mask burnings in the spring and have echoed its complaints about government “tyranny” all summer. It also has a number of antagonists, who bristle at the group’s flagrant disregard for public health and have spent the last several months becoming more and more embittered—often referring to those who don’t take the pandemic seriously as “plague rats.”

Watching these warring groups has been like seeing polarization happen in real time. Members of the Reopen NC group joined it to complain and vent with people who felt similarly to themselves, but soon they were naming enemies—the mask-wearing “sheep,” and the “socialist” governor who controls them. These North Carolinians were looking for online community in a moment when the offline world had become a pressure cooker, in a time when they were bored, and they found it on Facebook in the form of ever-escalating suspicion and anger.

The Reopen NC Facebook group was started by 33-year-old Ashley Smith, a Trump-supporting independent who lives in suburban Asheville and runs a small payment-processing business with her husband. Smith says she created the group simply for discussion—and maybe some anti-shutdown email campaigns—but when the membership hit 10,000 in just a few weeks she started mobilizing it for on-the-ground political action. In late April, she was arrested at a protest she organized outside the governor’s mansion, bringing increased attention to the group from local media. The next month, reports emerged about her husband’s use of Facebook Live to vow that he was “taking up arms” and “willing to kill” over the stay-at-home order. The membership of the group only grew.

“We’re not constitutionally promised a virus-free existence,” Smith told me in a phone call. “I think we’ve seen a gross overreach of power.”

Collective actions in the group have been creative and wide-ranging, including an afternoon of “throwing axes for freedom” at an ax-throwing space near Charlotte that refused to adhere to the statewide shutdown, and a “sit-in” at a nearby barbecue restaurant. When Cooper closed the Ace Speedway racetrack, Reopen NC led a “cruise-in,” described by one of the group’s administrators as “NC’s 21st CENTURY ALAMO!” The group has organized multiple “unmasked” protests in front of the governor’s mansion—“American Flags only please,” the description for a June protest requests politely in a parenthetical.

Janet Presson, a former nurse who stumbled across the Reopen NC group on Facebook, was so excited by it that she donated money to help recoup some of Smith’s protest expenses. “The government’s responsibility is not to protect my health,” she told me. “It’s to protect my rights.”

Presson says she has worn a mask only once during the pandemic, to a doctor’s office for a Botox injection. Otherwise, she’s endured the hostile looks. She’s ignored the couple who shouted at her by the lake. She’s even resisted the urge to buy one of the more stylish masks, or the cute American flag ones—they do nothing, she insists. The virus has been blown “way out of proportion,” she said, and businesses are being destroyed for no reason. “If it was Ebola or something else truly devastating, I wouldn’t be complaining about it at all, because you wouldn’t see me. I would be home with a tree down across the driveway.” (More than 120,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.)

Though much of Reopen NC’s rhetoric is dark, the group finds plenty of time for entertainment. “Show us your maskless selfies in public!!!!!!!” reads one post, paired with six American flag emoji. There are hundreds of responses—blurry, poorly lit, taken straight up the chin like every photo a dad has ever sent, of naked faces at “Big Al’s Barbecue” and a mini-golf course and a wig store and a water park. There are multiple comments about being kicked out of various Subway restaurants for going mask-less. But many of the comments are just about praising the thread’s existence, finding camaraderie in rebellion and comfort in relaying scoldings to sympathetic ears.

Scrolling through all the drama, it’s easy to forget that Facebook has a special ability to warp reality. According to a poll conducted in May, more than 75 percent of North Carolinians supported Cooper’s decision to extend the state’s stay-at-home order. A June poll showed his approval rating stood at 63 percent—significantly higher than it was a year ago. (“Pandemic response is not a time for partisan politics,” Dory Macmillan, Cooper’s press secretary, said in an email. “Governor Cooper will continue to be guided by science and the law working to keep North Carolinians safe.”)

As a counterweight, the Facebook group Banned from Reopen, which has more than 800 members, popped up in April to support the stay-at-home order. Everything about it is a deliberate contrast to Reopen NC. Besides the name, the group’s cover photo is the Reopen logo—a black cut-out state of North Carolina with the hashtag #Reopen printed in white—but with a disposable surgical mask Photoshopped on top of it. The description reads, “This is a public group for people cast out for trying to inoculate the ignorant with truth.” Scrolling through Banned from Reopen, it’s easy to stumble on characterizations of the Reopen NC members as “wackadoodles,” “#MAGAtards,” and “deplorables.” The memes shared on the page often depict death: a toe tag that reads “At least the economy is open again,” and a cemetery with gravestones shouting “We owned the libs!”

Smith describes Banned from Reopen as existing “solely for the purpose of trashing us, trying to infiltrate and find out what we’re doing,” and explains that her group went from private to “secret” for several weeks to keep these “trolls” out. The group’s creator, Dan Nance, an information-security specialist who lives in Charlotte, describes it differently. He’d been disturbed by the disinformation and conspiratorial sentiment in the Reopen group and was kicked out of it for protesting in the comments. Banned from Reopen was intended as “therapy,” for him, he told me in an email. “Just a group of like-minded people having discussions.”

Even so, those discussions sometimes get out of hand. “I think a legal case could be made to shoot non-mask-wearing people in self defense,” one member wrote in a thread posted in June. Another replied that while shooting might be “a little extreme,” a “solid kick, square in the nuts” might be more appropriate. A third chimed in, “spray bottles of water work on simple-minded creatures like house cats so with that in mind, perhaps …” The original poster, Scott Thompson, eventually resolved to take a Super Soaker squirt gun the next time he shopped at Sam’s Club.

When I spoke to Thompson, a 37-year-old musician who moved to North Carolina two years ago, he was sheepish. “Yeah, you know that was kind of tongue in cheek,” he said. “I think the rhetoric of the online back-and-forth isn’t a true reflection of either side, but it’s easy to get enraged. I see people flouting being safe to prove a point and then I’m huddled up at home doing what we’ve been told to do.”

Over time, the rhetoric in each group has become noticeably more dramatic. While Banned from Reopen was once a place to swap dazed stories about the experience of clashing with people who were vehemently antiscience, it is now full of self-righteousness and morbid jokes. In a recent post, screenshots of a North Carolina man complaining about the tyranny of masks are paired with a screenshot of a post revealing that he has died from COVID-19—the comments below include “one less plague rat” and “dumbass is as dumbass does.” Reopen NC has also become even more extreme: While users were initially indignant about lockdown measures and suspicious of the motivations of politicians like Cooper who implemented them, it is now teeming with outright conspiracy theories.

There are posts in Reopen NC suggesting, without evidence, that Cooper is deliberately misrepresenting deaths from causes like car accidents as coronavirus deaths. Smith didn’t specifically corroborate that theory, but she said she does think “it’s likely” that he is faking the numbers in some way. This month, she has led a call to impeach Cooper—necessary, she and other Reopen-ers say, because he is deliberately crippling the economy at the request of the Democratic National Committee, to harm Trump’s 2020 campaign. (There is no evidence of this either.) Cooper is up for reelection in November, but Smith thinks the people of North Carolina can’t just wait until then. “What would make us think that we’re going to have a legal election? I would bet money we will not,” she said. “And his actions would lead any reasonable person to believe that.”

But even removing Cooper from office isn’t enough for some in the group. “We’re past impeachment!” one member wrote on the Fourth of July, under a photo of the North Carolina governor with a cancel sign drawn across his face. “It’s time to tar and feather!!!

North Carolina’s coronavirus case count has been steadily rising for months. But deaths peaked in late May. As the months have dragged on and Reopen NC has grown in popularity, the group has also become a home for conspiracy theories about this curious gap. “The virus is weakening just as viruses will do,” Smith told me, which is why the local media is focused on case numbers instead of death counts. “It is coming to the end of its life cycle.”

There is a lag between new cases and death numbers partly because it takes an average of 14 days after symptoms start for a person to die of COVID-19, and an average of seven more days for the death to be reported. So far, the latest surge of the virus has also been largely among younger populations, who are less likely to die from it. Even so, daily deaths are now on the rise in dozens of states, including North Carolina.

North Carolina has a history of channeling right-wing anger into digital activism. The state was a hotspot for online Tea Party activity during Barack Obama’s presidency, as the sociologist Jen Schradie writes in her 2019 book The Revolution That Wasn’t. Schradie emphasizes that right-wing groups in North Carolina were more active than their left-wing counterparts, viewing social media as a “revolutionary communication tool” to disseminate information they believed the media wasn’t covering. “I think what’s happening in the Facebook groups is reflecting conversations that are already happening,” she told me when I asked her about Reopen NC, “but it kind of puts them into hyperdrive.”

But disinformation and extreme rhetoric are known problems within Facebook groups more broadly, particularly private ones that members must request to join. These spaces tend to shed casual participants and intensify the feelings of more active ones. Looking at information from the other side tends to make them all the more certain of their beliefs: In a 2018 study of anti-vaccine Facebook groups, researchers found that “the introduction of dissenting information ... can produce a backfire effect, thus reinforcing the pre-existing opinions within the sub-group.”

That both Reopen NC and Banned from Reopen are becoming parodies of themselves is common with online groups set up as silos. “In a self-selecting population with a lack of dissenting views, it does become a reinforcing spiral,” Alice Marwick, an assistant professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told me. “What usually happens in these communities is that more and more of the people who are moderate drop out and you’re left with the more extreme individuals.”

As the pandemic surges again, and Americans become even more exhausted by the task of modifying their lives because of it, people want ways to express their frustration. Members of groups like these are also looking for community and a sense of purpose, which are difficult to come by in the best of times. That impulse is now complicated by orders to stay away from each other, and the feeling of hopelessness that comes with months of illness, death, and economic devastation.

But Facebook doesn’t seem to bring them much peace. While Smith told me she felt a “calling” to start Reopen NC, other members of the group were less sentimental about it, saying they went there once in a while to be around “like minds.” Members of Banned from Reopen also had a very hard time articulating to me what they got out of their ritual dissection of what they see as horrible and dangerous opinions. “It’s an uncertain time, and people are bored. So I found myself wandering around internet rabbit holes that I might otherwise not have,” Raymond Desmarais, a 38-year-old personal trainer from Durham who is active in the Banned from Reopen group, told me. “Sitting around on social media criticizing other people seems like not the best use of one’s time necessarily,” he conceded.

Thompson—the commenter who joked that he was going shopping with a water gun in hand—said he finds participation in his group pretty pointless. “Will I have a few drinks and get on there and entertain myself? Probably,” he said. “But, I mean, I don’t think anyone is going to change anyone’s minds.”