They showed up last Sunday in Tampa led by a Hummer with a DJ stationed on the roof, hordes of MAGA signs, Gadsden ("Don't tread on me") flags, and even anti-abortion posters. Tampa, along with a handful of other Florida cities, witnessed its first protest calling for Florida to reopen immediately despite statewide shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
While the event, which involved hundreds of people gathering shoulder-to-shoulder along Kennedy Boulevard, was widely covered by local news outlets, not a single one mentioned who actually organized it.
Why does this matter?
Well, despite how it appeared, the event wasn’t an entirely organic gathering of angry citizens. Sure, some may have just randomly showed up with signs and flags, but the event was actually hosted and organized by a local chapter of The Freedom Keepers, an anti-vaccine group that formed in 2015 in response to a California bill that removed “personal beliefs” as a reason to not vaccinate your kid before sending them to school.
Unlike the founding group in California, the Tampa chapter has tried to separate itself from its roots, claiming they are in fact not an anti-vaccine group. But under the Tampa Freedom Keepers' “Five Foundational Pillars,” which are listed on the Tampa website, the group says it's dedicated to “sharing vaccine injury stories.”
In the days leading up to event, the group shared flyers on its site promoting the upcoming Tampa protest and had members create the actual Facebook event page.
For reasons unknown, none of this was reported by local outlets, including WFLA, and Spectrum Bay News 9. Instead, those outlets gave free platforms to protesters on how the virus is a hoax, vaccines are bad, and, most importantly, a direct message to Gov. Ron DeSantis that Florida residents want the state to reopen.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
A poll released last week by Quinnipiac found that 72% of Florida residents actually prefer the state keeps social distancing rules in place after the original executive order expires on May 1.
It’s also incredibly problematic and, almost unheard of, for a news organization to not mention who organized a protest. Whether it’s the Women’s March, a Black Lives Matter rally, or fucking Earth Day, it’s near impossible to read any article about any organized protest without a single reference to who or what made it all happen.
So, when an anti-vaxx group is hosting a large scale protest on one of the busiest streets in Tampa, it seems like this wouldn’t be an exception to the rule.
Obviously, covering a protest is fine and something every outlet should do. But it makes no sense to leave this key piece of information out. Most importantly, it just gives these fringe groups a free pass to spread misinformation and mobilize followers.
But Tampa TV news stations weren’t alone. Outlets in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale also failed to mention a single word on who was behind their protests last weekend. This is unfortunate, since Orlando’s protest was partially organized by the far right extremist group The Proud Boys. Not to mention, many of these reopen protests around the country have direct links to right wing groups militias, and gun rights groups.
As we reported last week, Facebook claims it is cracking down and removing event pages that encourage people to violate state laws on social distancing (like what happened in Tampa last weekend). But so far, this announcement has mostly been symbolic.
Most of Florida’s shutdown protests are posted and promoted on the “Reopen Florida” Facebook page, which currently has over 8,400 members. Unsurprisingly, this group, and the events posted there, have yet to be removed or banned.
As of Monday, the Florida Department of Health says the state has 1,088 coronavirus-related deaths, and 32,138 confirmed cases.
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