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Motivating a Movement: “Give Me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19” | Op-Ed

Calls to ease social-distancing guidelines and open up society. Calls by whom? And for whom?

Patrick Henry said: “Give me liberty of give me death.” Today we have: “Give me liberty, or give me Covid-19.” Quite a turn, so we should ask: where do these ideas originate?

In short: Societal responses to crisis are difficult to predict, but with mass media’s integration into daily life, it becomes increasingly possible for popular movements to be created, co-opted, and/or directed in an attempt to marshal people for and against causes.

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Astro-turfing and its impacts: The idea of artificially generating a movement, called astro-turfing, creates a bind for policy makers who want to respond to the interests of the people, but may find it difficult to discern which interests are genuine.

Although social media can be fertile terrain for building these movements, it has also presented the possibility of tracking the growth of a project or movement to determine whether it seems organic or centrally-coordinated.

Liberate, Liberate, Liberate! In the case of the United States based “Liberate” movement, the timeline has led some to speculate this is an astro-turfing campaign. Commentators have noticed that:

A family-run network of pro-gun groups is behind five of the largest Facebook groups dedicated to protesting the shelter-in-place restrictions, according to an NBC News analysis of Facebook groups and website registration information.

This contrasts with opinion polling taken April 20th, which suggests that the vast majority of American citizens do not support these actions.

The waters have been muddied by a media environment trafficking in shock and thriving on exceptions to the norm. This is further complicated by an American President, Donald Trump, who is willing to fan the flames of this dangerous rhetoric.

The political angle: The problem seems to be that although this may have initially been considered the actions of a disenfranchised and angry minority, it has manifested into real political action. According to CNN:

A group of conservatives, some with close ties to the White House, formally announced a new coalition Monday that will push state officials to reopen for business quickly.

The bottom line: As COVID progresses – be that with an increase or a reduction of cases – it is becoming increasingly evident that although policy makers should take stock of economic, psychological and other pressures faced by the public, they should also remain vigilant of the possibility of artificially inflated movements.