How the pro-Trump message machine is seizing on anti-lockdown fever

Amid the president's mixed messages, some supporters go against health experts.

April 29, 2020, 4:03 AM

Outside groups tied to President Trump’s re-election bid have ramped up recent efforts to promote back-to-work protests, pushing anti-lockdown messaging -- and even some conspiracy theories -- that would appear to contradict the Trump administration’s own prescription for knocking down the novel coronavirus.

Some political experts have previously lauded the Trump campaign for building out an impressive digital operation and harnessing the power of Facebook on the back of the president’s 2016 run which generated a legion of loyal supporters. Since, the re-election team has assembled a sprawling network of conservative media influencers who share and spread pro-Trump content to their millions of followers.

At Miami fundraiser in 2019, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale touted a plan to train "swarms of surrogates" to undermine news coverage across not just major national outlets but local newspapers and television stations as part of the president's re-election strategy, according to The Palm Beach Post.

And amid the throes of the global coronavirus pandemic, some pro-Trump influencers with ties to the president’s re-election team, who’ve already joined forces with outside political action groups such as Turning Points USA and ViralPAC, are bombarding millions of social media followers with messaging that undermines health experts by claiming the impact of the virus is being exaggerated, and the efforts to keep people indoors are not necessary.

This week, Lynette "Diamond" Hardaway and Rochelle "Silk" Richardson, who are co-chairs on the Trump campaign's "Black Voices for Trump" advisory board, parted ways with Fox News, according to The Daily Beast, following days of making unfounded coronavirus claims and criticizing stay-at-home orders to their large social media audience. Fox News and Diamond and Silk did not return ABC News' request for comment.

Days before the news of the split broke, the conservative commentary duo with over 36 million views on YouTube appeared on a Trump campaign digital show and compared stay-at-home orders to "socialism phase one" and warned viewers "if we're not careful, we're going to be slaves."

When asked about the protests targeting governors' stay-at-home orders on "Good Morning America" recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top government official on infectious diseases, warned that abruptly rolling back the guidelines would "backfire" and could further delay the reopening of the economy.

"If you jump the gun and go into a situation where you have a big spike, you’re going to set yourself back," Fauci told ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos. "So as painful as it is to go by the careful guidelines of gradually phasing into a reopening, it’s going to backfire. That’s the problem."

PHOTO: An empty Street is seen in Times Square amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 26, 2020, in New York.
An empty Street is seen in Times Square amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 26, 2020, in New York.
Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

As protests started sprouting up around the country, the president himself took to Twitter in support of Michiganders, Minnesotans and Virginians demonstrated against restrictions, saying in separate all-caps tweets: "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!"; "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!"; and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!"

When asked if a protest in Wisconsin organized by White House economic adviser Stephen Moore undermined his own administration’s guidance, the president pointed what he said was "a lot of injustice,” specifically pointing to Virginia, where he said "they want to take your guns away," though he didn't explain how that was connected to coronavirus.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this report.

Former White House Chief Technology Officer under President Barack Obama, Jason Goldman, who has been sounding the alarm to Democrats regarding Trump’s digital advantage over presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, called the web of pro-Trump influencers pushing protests against stay at home orders and conspiracy theories “clearly part of the way [the Trump campaign] has weaponized disinformation in a coordinated way.”

“The pro-Trump influencers create a closed ecosystem of disinformation; one that is immune to fact-checking because its target audience is consistently getting the same message from multiple channels about, for example, Trump's response to the pandemic,” Goldman told ABC News. “But more importantly [the strategy] is to create a media environment in which nothing can be trusted. There are no expert sources, the media elites are lying to you, it's all a deep state conspiracy, etc.

"If there's no objective truth except what you can find by 'doing your own research' there is little left but tribal loyalty," he said.

Social media emerged as a powerful messaging tool during the 2016 presidential campaign, and political experts said it is expected to play an even more prominent role in the 2020 presidential campaign.

While those supporting Trump’s reelection have used traditional venues like conservative television and talk radio, political spending shows a heavy investment in social media efforts. The campaign has already spent more than $51 million on ads to appear on Facebook and Google, according to data aggregated by Bully Pulpit Interactive, triple the $18 million spent so far by Democrat Joe Biden.

Political experts have already seen signs of symbiosis between the anti-lockdown movement and other pro-Trump groups, setting politics and public health on a collision course.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that Facebook messaging calling for protests in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, was being pushed by a number of avid Trump supporters. That included the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group founded by Republican officials who sit on the Trump campaign advisory board.

"[Trump's] never missed an opportunity and consistently plays the politics of divisiveness when attacking governors and identifying with the extreme right. Especially when it comes to these protests, he was calling for the economy to be opened and tweeted liberate certain states," said former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emnanuel, now an ABC News contributor. "It's one thing if this was in the first three months of his presidency, but he's been president for three and a half years, and people now associate him with extreme voices."

Diamond and Silk and debunked claims

For weeks, right-wing commentators Diamond and Silk promoted conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus including debunked claims regarding billionaire Bill Gates and unverified claims linking 5G towers to the coronavirus.

The duo, who appeared as recently on a Trump campaign digital show, pushed on social media that the Microsoft founder’s efforts to combat the coronavirus had a secretive “agenda” to “rule the world with vaccines.”

“Bill Gates money does not give him permission to control, and rule the world with vaccines!” Diamond and Silk tweeted.

In another, now-deleted tweet, the pair wrote: “Bill Gates has no business being over our vaccines. Why? Because he’s not a damn Doctor or Scientist! He has another agenda!”

On a livestream shared across social media in mid-April, the conservative duo, who’ve also visited the White House on multiple occasions, pushed false theories claiming 5G, the fifth generation of mobile technology, related to increases in coronavirus cases.

After news of the pair's split with Fox News was reported, Trump backed up his loyal supporters on Tuesday, tweeting, “But I love Diamond & Silk, and so do millions of people!"

Turning Points USA founder's calls for protests

One of the most vocal anti-lockdown voices to emerge in recent weeks is conservative firebrand Charlie Kirk, founder of conservative student group Turning Points USA. He has started to mobilize millions of his followers across social media to protest against the stay-at-home orders.

“Every patriot should go outside, socially distanced and with masks, and protest these Democrat tyrants,” Kirk tweeted on April 17. “They must hear our anger and rage—they are destroying America. Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, California—these marxist tyrants should be recalled & resign Protest!”

Kirk reiterated his calls for protests later on the same day, specifically targeting Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stance that abortions won’t be banned during the coronavirus pandemic. “SICK: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer called Abortion a 'life-sustaining' service and said they should continue through the pandemic Abortion stops a beating heart—how is that life-sustaining? Whitmer fights for babies to be terminated but not for freedom Protest & recall!”

Just hours after Kirk called for protests, Trump promoted the conservative activist's Twitter account, re-sharing a three-month-old tweet promoting Kirk’s book titled “The MAGA Doctrine," a reference to Trump's ubiquitous Make America Great Again 2016 campaign slogan.

Behind closed doors, Kirk also looked to rally young members of his conservative group, urging Students for Trump, the college campus arm of Turning Point USA, to help launch a "peaceful rebellion against governors" in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, as first reported by ABC News.

Speaking to over 500 members of the high-school and college conservative nonprofit organization, Kirk ripped into governors like Whitmer for encroaching on civil rights and urged them to join the protests around the country.

A spokesman for Kirk reiterated in a statement to ABC News for the original report that “peaceful is the operative word.”

“Charlie is simply calling on Americans to exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully push back against the arbitrary overreaches of certain governors who are prohibiting completely safe activities," the spokesman said. "Americans have patriotically and heroically unified to slow the spread, and now Charlie believes it's time to let our political leaders know that it's time to open the country back up."

ViralPAC member zeroes in on NY governor

Another organization established to bombard millions of social media followers with pro-Trump messaging is called ViralPAC. The political group formed in October says on its website that it plans to harness the messaging power of a collection of activists with broad social media followings as a “weapon of mass instruction."

“ViralPAC will be leading the charge to re-elect President Donald J. Trump and conservative candidates in the 2020 election,” the organization’s website says.

A review of the messaging from members of the ViralPAC team, however, suggests a current focus is to push back against the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. ViralPAC did not respond to a request for comment.

One ViralPAC activist, John D. Willis, appears on Facebook under the title, “Liberal Privilege,” posted a photo of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo with a caption that reads in part, “You’ve accomplished turning your state into a Soviet-like state." The post goes on to make the unfounded claim that Cuomo inflated death numbers related to the coronavirus.

Another , CJ Pearson, a teenage political activist who gained widespread notoriety within conservative circles during the 2016, tweeted: “22 million Americans are now unemployed, struggling to provide for themselves and their families. 90% of all doctors visits are for stress-related issues. By working to reopen this country as soon as possible, @realDonaldTrump is saving lives. Period."

Candice Owens tells followers to 'Keep the protests up'

Conservative activist Candice Owens, who previously worked at Turning Point USA, has also amplified the stay-at-home protests to her millions of followers on social media, urging in a tweet on April 16th: “Keep the protests up, Patriots!”

“I don’t know who needs to hear this but -- my freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins. I invite you to stay inside and order GrubHub for the rest of your life, but the rest of us would like to get back to work,” Owens wrote.

Owens did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News.

In a tweet on April 19th, Owens, who the president has praised multiple times, called on her followers to “inundate” a number set up by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to report places that aren’t enforcing social distancing with “random photos.”

“Whatever you do today, don’t spam the NYC gestapo,” Owens wrote, seemingly sarcastically.

Owens has also promoted anti-vaccine conspiracy theories connected to the coronavirus, including writing in a mid-April Facebook post that Bill Gates is a “vaccine-criminal." The post has been shared over 23,000 times. She later vowed, like Diamond and Silk, that "under no circumstances will I be getting any #coronavirus vaccine that becomes available."

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