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.”
Read: Masks are a tool, not a symbol
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.”