The yellow poster behind the “no more lockdowns” protests

How the poster spread and mutated alongside the protests

(Source: @AlyssaKann/DFRLab via Wikimedia)

A poster exhorting people to join the so-called “global march for freedom” on April 12, 2020, to protest COVID-19 lockdown measures spread to multiple countries within days, seeding similar messaging for further anti-lockdown protests around the world.

While public health experts insist that social distancing is necessary to halt the spread of COVID-19 and lessen the potential peak impact of the coronavirus on hospital resources, some people are protesting lockdowns as governmental overreach.

The first “no more lockdowns” marches were organized took place on April 12. Within days, protests arose in at least 15 U.S. states. Many of the U.S. protests were organized by the Dorr brothers — a trio of right-wing gun rights activists — with a significant pro-Trump sentiment characterizing many of the events. In a series of inflammatory tweets about “liberating” three states with Democratic governors, President Trump himself seemed to condone some of the protests, despite presiding over the very COVID-19 task force that recommended social distancing in the first place. Another round of protests are expected on May 2.

The poster, which first appeared on April 8, advertised an April 12 “global march for freedom” in “every city hall, village piazza, or town hall in every country.” It was amplified by 5G and Illuminati conspiracy pages on Facebook, as well as by fringe influencers with large social media followings. Online, it spread to English, Filipino, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish language environments. The poster’s spread occurred despite little engagement on many of the social media platforms it was posted on.

The DFRLab found the earliest reference to the poster on an April 8 post by a Facebook page called “Stop 5g Global,” run in part by Australian Paul Seils. While this is the earliest confirmed posting, the poster had likely already been shared elsewhere online, as the image in this post appears slightly cropped compared to later images of the poster. Stop 5g Global used the hashtag #nomorelockdowns and tagged separate location-based 5G Instagram accounts in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Spain, and elsewhere, none of which shared the poster on their own accounts. While the post only received 35 reactions and 11 comments, it was shared 83 times, many of which were to other 5G conspiracy pages and groups.

Notable other shares of the poster on April 8 occurred on U.S. and Brazilian image aggregation sites. On both of these sites, the same phone screenshot of the poster was shared by two accounts that both had a variation of the word “facepalm” in their usernames. While these two sites appear different and are in different languages, they share an almost identical layout and have the same Google advertising ID, indicating that the advertising profits funnel into one account. On April 9, a third account with “facepalm” in its handle posted a version of the poster, this time seemingly a Facebook screenshot, claiming that “They have already been protesting in Berlin Germany.” This user also posted another differently screenshot version of the poster.

Some of the poster’s cross-platform spread on April 8, 2020. The two right-most images are the same screenshot, on two image aggregation platforms that appear different but have the same Google advertising ID. (Source: @stop5global/archive, left; @WaterFilterLady/archive, left middle; americasbestpics.com/archive, right middle; ifunny.co/archive, right)

The promotional poster gained traction on April 9 through a Facebook page called “Illuminati Exposed,” in a post that gained 557 reactions, 222 comments, and 324 shares. Not all of the engagement on the post was positive; many reacted negatively to the poster and the perceived irresponsibility of protesting social-distancing. That same day, the poster appeared on Dutch and Spanish websites, with a follow-up article on April 14 on the Dutch website implying that a protest in Amsterdam had indeed occurred, although the 36-second clip shared showed empty streets.

Meanwhile, two activists appearing to come from very different viewpoints shared the poster in their countries beginning on April 9. Dan Berhman — a perma-presidential candidate running as a libertarian in 2020 — shared the poster on his Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts, using the hashtag #nomorelockdowns. Other protests — including Michigan’s Operation Gridlock — were referenced in the replies of his Twitter post. Americasbestpics.com further amplified Berhman’s share through a user called entire_facepalm. On April 10, Berhman posted updates on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with a modified version of the poster, instead calling for a “freedom drive by” in order to comply with social-distancing measures.

The other individual was Susan Standfield, a Canadian social justice activist who shared the poster on several social media platforms and exhorted her followers to join her in protesting on April 12 in Vancouver and to join Operation Gridlock more widely. She shared the poster on Instagram on April 9 and made a web page on April 11 to share a slightly different design of the poster. Her website and social media presence include many different black-and-yellow posters about No More Lockdowns. In an article published by the Vancouver Sun, Standfield was interviewed while attending a local protest, and claimed in the article to have created the version of the yellow No More Lockdowns poster she shared online. It is unclear if she was involved in the original iteration of the poster; the DFRLab has reached out for comment.

Berhman’s updated and modified version of the poster, left; Standfield’s version of the poster, right. Note that the Standfield’s poster does not mention a “village piazza” in its text as the April 8 version did. (Source: @DanForTexas/archive, left; healthandjustice.site/archive, right)

Another iteration of the poster using almost identical language but in a different font also started spreading on social media on April 9, promoting protest gatherings on May 2. This poster used two hashtags — #WeWontStayHome and #AllJobsAreEssential — but neither of them garnered significant engagement. For example, #AllJobsAreEssential peaked on April 18 with just 158 mentions, according to the social media monitoring platform Meltwater Explore.

Comparison of the original poster to one advertising the May 2 protests. (Source: @WaterFilterLady/archive, left; @dotjenna/archive, right)

On April 13, a modified version of the poster was shared in a Facebook group called “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine.” A Washington Post analysis found that the Dorr brothers created similar Facebook groups — “Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine,” “Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine,” “Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine,” and “New Yorkers Against Excessive Quarantine.” The Michigan version of the group has over 300,000 members, despite being only created on April 9; Ben Dorr is one of the group’s members.

Michigan iteration of the poster. (Source: Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine/archive)

Alyssa Kann and Max Rizzuto are Research Assistants with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

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