My hometown—Hillsborough, New Jersey, population 38,000—is not often in the national spotlight. Throughout its history, which dates back to 1771, it has mostly been a farming town. A population boom after World War II set it on a path to becoming an idyllic American suburb, with acre plots backing onto fields, woods, and brooks. Not much happened there; when I was in elementary school and my writing was published in a children’s magazine, The Hillsborough Beacon ran a picture of me in the fort I built in the woods near our house. The town gathered for high-school football games and musicals and the annual Memorial Day parade, which featured the Hillsborough High School Marching Band and a never-ending, ragtag stream of children’s recreational sports teams. When an Applebee’s opened while I was in middle school, it became the center of my social life.
Today, the Beacon is a shell of its former self, usurped by a local Patch website and Facebook groups. As New Jersey’s coronavirus stay-at-home order persisted through Memorial Day, those groups were abuzz: A Hillsborough gym was opening, rejecting the governor’s guidelines. The anti-shutdown movement—and the conspiracy theories it appears to engender—seemed to have come home. But it didn’t look like it had been invited by a hydroxychloroquine pusher, an anti-vaxxer, or a QAnon follower; the rebel gym owner, Kyle Newell, is a self-described libertarian who told me he does not mix work and politics. He said he reopened his facility to save his business and support his family. But after he posted about his plans on Facebook, the online reopening advocates made him their cause célèbre. What happened next shows how activists seize on moments of crisis to rally more people to their cause—in this case, a cause that puts public safety at risk—and how social media incentivizes this.
Kyle Newell graduated from Hillsborough High eight years before I did and opened his gym, Newell Strength, nearly a decade ago. He looks like a gym rat, but he has the effect of a guru: When the 38-year-old is not directing a small-group personal-training program geared toward 30–55 year olds, he makes live motivational videos on Facebook and YouTube, walking around his neighborhood in a weighted vest and American-flag bandanna, discussing perseverance and presence in a series whose titles include “Mental Toughness Monday,” “Thursday Boosters,” and “Friday Finishers.” Sometimes his kids—ages 5, 3, and 14 months—make appearances. I didn’t know what to expect when I spoke with him; he and my brother are acquaintances and Facebook friends, but all I knew about Newell was that he seemed to be making a dangerous decision regarding the ever-more politicized coronavirus pandemic.
Newell insists that his choice in mid-May to ignore New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s stay-at-home order was not political, but economic: The gym is the sole source of income for his family of five. However, he told me over the phone shortly after the reopening, channeling the calmly affirming voice that has become familiar from his videos, “the main thing I wanted to do was give people hope.” Newell had noted the adverse psychological and physical effects the shutdown was having on people, and felt his gym could alleviate them for his community. Values played a role in Newell’s decision, too: “My grandfather is a World War II vet. He fought for our freedoms. He wanted to do this with me,” he said. As a dad, Newell also wanted “to be able to tell [my kids] one day that I stood up for our freedom.”
This narrative of economic motivation and mental-health concern, largely decoupled from explicit party politics, seemed to contradict what I had seen of Newell’s reopening on social media: Trump flags rippling in the breeze, anti-vaccination media personalities live-streaming from outside the gym. But I believe Newell. He didn’t launch into any political diatribes during our conversation, in his Facebook posts, or during any of the TV and podcast interviews he did as his decision gained traction. While others in favor of reopening berated Governor Murphy or the “sheeple” adhering to stay-at-home orders, Newell did not. His interest in reopening jibed with his politics, but wasn’t a performance of it.
Newell does not believe that the coronavirus is a hoax, or a bioweapon created by the Chinese government. Though operating any business indoors, perhaps especially a gym, is dangerous, Newell took pains to keep safety in mind when he reopened: He reduced the number of people in the gym to six across 6,200 square feet, checked temperatures and symptoms at the door, assigned each patron their own workout “pod” with their own equipment, and allotted extra time for sanitizing equipment between every workout—many of the same guidelines that were prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to salons and other businesses reopening across the country.
Newell announced these plans in a video posted to the nearly 50,000-member “REOPEN NJ” Facebook group, in which he made the case that his family depends “on my business, my livelihood.” The video led to Newell’s appearance on Fox News, filmed in front of a “Don’t Tread on Me” banner. Soon, strangers were posting clips of that interview along with an invitation to “stop the tyranny” by attending Newell’s grand reopening. The videos from that afternoon show a small crowd brandishing American flags and Trump paraphernalia in a Hillsborough industrial park behind the town’s movie theater, where Newell Strength is located.
Newell says he was unhappy that his reopening event became politicized. He asked one woman to tell her fellow protesters “not to bring the Trump stuff, ’cause it’s creating more division,” he told me. “I said, ‘This is an America thing; this isn’t left, right, or any of that’… The whole point is that everybody’s got the freedom to make the choice that’s best for themselves and their family.”
Despite his efforts, he noticed that some people seemed to use the event as a platform for their own disparate causes. “Some of the people are definitely a little out there,” he said of his supporters. “One lady was screaming about something that had nothing to do— somehow she was trying to tie an issue into this … I just jacked up the American music”—New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”—“and drowned her out.”
Online, though, no music is loud enough to overpower conspiracies and disinformation; social-media platforms amplify and incentivize them. And as panic about the pandemic persisted and anguish over the police killing of George Floyd ballooned, so did related “theories” about those events on social media, including in the Facebook groups that boosted Newell’s cause to the national spotlight.
On June 6, one Facebook group discussing “medical freedom” encouraged its 4,600 members to “burn your mask.” The group is moderated by an anti-vaccination activist who showed up at Newell’s reopening. Members joked in the comments: “What mask?,” “Never had one, never will.” In the “REOPEN NJ” group, multiple posts alleged that the video of George Floyd’s death had been created by crisis actors to instigate a civil war, to undermine President Trump, and to distract the American people. The viral video of Buffalo police pushing an elderly man to the ground? Also the work of crisis actors; the bag the man carried housed a supply of fake blood that ran through a tube under his mask and was deployed when he hit the pavement. The posts claim that “antifa” was also involved in organizing the protests, and that George Soros was bankrolling the effort. And, their authors write, they are protesting the wrong thing anyway: Bill Gates is conducting the “real” genocide against Black children with his vaccine program, meant not only to enrich himself but to plant microchips in our bodies to track and control us. According to these groups, Gates also paid the World Health Organization to label the coronavirus a pandemic. In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson emphasized that the company takes various actions against “groups that repeatedly share content that violates our Community Standards or is rated false by fact-checkers,” but of all these spurious claims, only this one was labeled “partly false” by Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program, and covered with an interstitial overlay.
Within 12 hours of joining just two of these groups, Facebook “suggested” I follow a Facebook page whose owner insinuates to her nearly 170,000 followers that the Democratic Party organized the George Floyd protests as part of its election strategy. Thanks to my recent memberships, the top suggestion on Facebook’s “Groups”discovery tab was “SHEEP NO MORE,” a 10,000-member group with Pepe the Frog, a cartoon beloved by white supremacists, in its cover image. It shared 710 posts a day related to the QAnon conspiracy until Facebook began removing QAnon content in August. Groups that would make sense for me to join based on my 14 years of engagement on the platform are now interspersed with those about 5G conspiracies, “alternative” health remedies, and false-flag operations, thanks to my research for this story.
Put simply: By taking a passing interest in Newell, and by following the activists adjacent to him, in Facebook’s algorithmic brain, I was now one step removed from misinformation and dangerous conspiracy theories. Facebook knows this is a problem; a recent Wall Street Journal investigation found compelling evidence that the platform’s recommendation system compounded users’ descent into extremism. NBC News reported in August that “[a]n internal investigation by Facebook has uncovered thousands of groups and pages, with millions of members and followers, that support the QAnon conspiracy theory.” (Facebook later took action against QAnon content, banning 900 groups and pages and restricting the reach of thousands of others.)
In September, Facebook took further steps to guard against the spread of harmful information from groups. In a blog post, Facebook VP of Engineering Tom Allison wrote, "People turn to Facebook Groups to connect with others who share their interests, but even if they decide to make a group private, they have to play by the same rules as everyone else." Among other changes, the platform reduced distribution of content from groups that repeatedly share misinformation, and removed health groups from the recommendation algorithm entirely. But as with the groups in which Newell's story was shared, the line between health misinformation; authentic, protected political speech; and violent conspiracy isn't always so clear cut.
The political and media psychologist Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, the author of Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States, isn’t surprised at the way Newell’s cause was co-opted, she told me on the phone. “I have no reason to believe that he is disingenuous in his motivations,” she said, but “reactionary cultural and political groups glom onto whatever moment or person or crisis … they feel they can exploit to their own ends.” This has always been the case, Young said; what has changed is the means of delivery. “Facebook provides the infrastructure to allow it to happen … [and] the economic incentive that drives it.” (Perhaps this is why Facebook announced in October that it would begin suggesting more content from public groups in the news feed, despite increasing evidence that groups are vectors of indoctrination.)
At a time when millions of people are more online than ever, when the future is uncertain and the world is in upheaval, and when our brains are rolling up the informational lint of the internet, trying to make sense of it all, social-media platforms such as Facebook are not only hosting insidious information; they are actively encouraging users to engage with it via their algorithms and recommendation tools. For the desperate human mind, conspiracies are comfort. They present a simple explanation for something complex, whether it’s the science behind controlling the coronavirus, or the persistence of systemic racism in America. But for social-media platforms, conspiracies are content, compelled through more clicks, more reactions, more likes, more eyes on ads, more time spent on the platform trading away valuable personal data in exchange for information, however specious.
Newell received four summonses for opening his gym while New Jersey was under its stay-at-home order, but reached a deal with local authorities to hold small, socially distanced group workouts outside. One video he posted shows his patrons lunging through a parking lot, holding weights in the pouring rain. He talks about his brief stint in the spotlight with a mixture of bewilderment and his characteristic positivity. “I was acting out of a place of pureness and love,” he told me. “I knew nothing bad would come of it, ’cause I wasn’t coming at it as a rebellion or you know, as anarchy. I was coming at it from what I thought was the right thing to do for the people who wanted to come out, and to give people hope.”