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.