In the last few weeks, protests against state lockdowns and social distancing measures have seized national headlines. The wall-to-wall coverage might give the impression that what we’re seeing is a powerful grassroots movement in the making.
But research we just conducted on protest attendance and media coverage shows something different: This massive media coverage has in fact been out of proportion.
A comprehensive look at the social distancing protests reveals that they have been small in terms of both the number of participants and locations. As one official in the administration of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) tweeted about a protest in Annapolis on April 20, “There were more media inquiries about this than there were participants.”
Our count confirms this impression. As of May 3, we counted 245 protests throughout April and early May against social distancing and related restrictions. In contrast, notable recent uprisings numbered in the hundreds of protests throughout the country in a single day, including Lights for Liberty against the detention of immigrants on July 12, 2019 (699), the climate strikes of September 20, 2019 (1184), pro-impeachment rallies on December 17, 2019 (599), and the fourth Women’s March on January 18 of this year (267).
The social distancing protests have also drawn modest crowds, with between 35,000 and 47,000 total attendees reported across all events combined through May 3. In comparison, a single protest against the governor in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, brought out upward of 250,000 on July 21, 2019. Hundreds of thousands turned out for PRIDE marches in June 2019 and the September 2019 climate strike. The Lights for Liberty protests exceeded 100,000, and December’s pro-impeachment rallies exceeded 75,000.
Yet anti-Trump protests with far more attendees in a single day than all of April and early May’s #ReOpen events (as they have been called) passed with far less attention in the national press.
Some coverage of the #ReOpen protests emphasized their Midwestern locales such as Michigan and Wisconsin. It makes sense for reporters to be on alert for evidence of political winds shifting in crucial battleground states.
But earlier, larger, and more numerous left-wing protests in the Midwest often failed to draw extensive coverage. If every protest was seen as a potential harbinger for 2020, we would have expected the hundreds of Families Belong Together rallies (against Trump’s family separation policies), Lights for Liberty protests, and post-Parkland marches in support of gun reform to top the headlines too.
The media’s interest in the anti-lockdown protests, explained
Why might the anti-social distancing protests have become a top story?
One reason is fairly straightforward: The president of the United States has encouraged them, and Fox News, the country’s most-watched cable news network, has amplified them. Both have significant power to commandeer the national conversation, much greater than that of civil society actors who organized many of the other protests we mentioned. And it’s in President Donald Trump’s interest to keep the attention on such protests — such a storyline would likely be better for the president’s standing than a continued focus on the death toll or the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in our hospitals.
Another possible reason for the widespread coverage is that some of the rhetoric and accoutrements — Confederate and Nazi flags, weapons, and militaristic attire — are reminiscent of the (much larger) Tea Party protests of 2009, which remade the Republican Party. Analysts may assume that since the packaging looks like the Tea Party, it will have a similar impact and therefore merits extensive coverage, even if this seems decidedly nowhere close to the scale of the Tea Party uprising.
Some protests featured these symbols so prominently that they sparked coverage that questioned whether gun rights or white supremacy might be the central drivers behind these protests. The HuffPost drew parallels to the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, an alarming antecedent.
In addition, by mid-April, the Covid-19 story had been the top story in the US news for weeks, with overwhelming public approval of stay-at-home orders. Perhaps the media was looking for a new angle to change up the storyline. The demonstrations, with controversial symbols and, in some cases, heavily armed participants, provided the perfect imagery for a different spin.
Meanwhile, many people who have participated in anti-Trump actions in the past are now observing public health guidance and are therefore engaging in physically distant or online actions that have attracted less press coverage. Immigration activists have demanded that ICE release its detainees; prison reform advocates have called for mass releases; renters have demanded eviction moratoriums; and voters have staged die-ins against disenfranchisement. Over the course of April there were at least 240 protests nationwide whose message was that leaders are not doing enough in response to the pandemic, with another 155 protests in early May as nurses protested PPE shortages.
Some counter-protesters also interrupted the anti-lockdown rallies. Indeed, the extensive coverage in Denver, Colorado, may have been related to the emergence of an iconic counter-protest — nurses clad in scrubs and masks, arms folded, blocking protesters’ cars. But for the most part, these counter-protests have been muffled by the very fact of social distancing — precisely the thing the pro-Trump protesters reject, allowing them to create an unrivaled spectacle in front of cameras.
The bottom line is that the anti-social distancing protests really have been modest, especially when compared with previous protests. That’s not to say they can’t grow bigger. More of the Trump base could still turn out for these protests, especially if the media that has given them so much attention amplifies their message, influence, and appeal to a nation in lockdown.
Erica Chenoweth is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard University.
Tommy Leung is a software engineer and co-founder of countlove.org, a website that documents local news coverage of US protest activity.
Nathan Perkins is a software engineer in natural-language processing and co-founder of countlove.org.
Jeremy Pressman is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut and author of the forthcoming book, The Sword Is Not Enough.
Lara Putnam is UCIS Research Professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh.