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SANTA ANA, Calif. — A week before California reopened its economy, a group of 100 or so demonstrators gathered in front of the Orange County Board of Supervisors here to decry lingering mask mandates and other health restrictions.
Whipped up by a misleading campaign of social media promotion, doorstep fliers and TV ads, they carried signs that read, "RIP COVID VAX VICTIMS" and "My Body, My Choice, No Vax." The previous month, more than 600 people had gathered in the same spot to protest a voluntary digital vaccine passport - by falsely claiming it would be mandatory, comparing it to Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars.
"A year from now, I don't want to be back at this board demanding they repeal a requirement to donate a kidney," local activist Peggy Hall said into a microphone at the passport protest in May. "What's next? You're going to be sterilized for the common good?"
Four of five county supervisors voted to put pause on any efforts to create vaccine passports in the county that day, effectively killing the plan. The lone holdout - a Democrat - says the others caved to the pressure.
Another day, another victory. California was emerging from the pandemic, but for these activists, the battle - both online and off - was far from over.
For years, social media companies have sought and failed to limit the reach of misinformation and other harmful material spread on their sites. That failure culminated in January when - after months of allowing falsehoods about a stolen election to proliferate - the companies kicked former president Donald Trump as, along with tens of thousands of rank and-file followers and some prominent ones off their platforms for inciting violence during the Capitol insurrection.
But six months later, a right-wing movement is reconstituting itself across the United States, and once again, it is fueled by social media.
Researchers say that's because the combination of the pandemic and the election radicalized people and enabled right-leaning groups that were not previously aligned to find one another - creating a mega-network that was fueled by outrage and misinformation. Armed groups, Trump supporters, anti-vaccine moms, government skeptics and conspiracy theorists were suddenly protesting the same things.
The mainstream tech companies' crackdown on Trump and his followers helped splinter that vast network, researchers have found, without fundamentally weakening it. Influencers kicked off Facebook or Instagram ported followers to the lightly-policed app Telegram or right-wing YouTube rival Rumble, but they've also found ways to get back on the mainstream platforms by creating new accounts or using alternate language to avoid detection.
That has helped them to rack up significant advancements for their movement, whether it's pushing followers to take up local fights over vaccine passports or pushing attacks on the teaching of critical race theory to the forefront of the national conversation. Meanwhile, tech companies are in no better position to stop a misinformation-driven incident like the Capitol riot from being organized on their services today than they were six months ago, the researchers say, and the fragmentation would make preventing such incidents even harder.
One of the epicenters of this movement is in Southern California, where activists have successfully protested the national vaccine rollout, even at one point prompting the temporary shutdown of a mass vaccination site at Dodger Stadium. But more than a dozen Southern California activists interviewed by The Washington Post say their movement is bigger than opposition to public health measures or any other single issue - even Trump. They see their fight against government overreach and the establishment as a patriotic struggle to counter authoritarianism, and even a battle for the civil rights of those who refuse vaccination.
"This is a humanitarian issue," said Jason Lefkowitz, a Los Angeles-based organizer behind the Dodger Stadium anti-vaccine protest and others. Like others here interviewed by The Post, he said he was motivated to became an activist during the pandemic, after losing his job and other freedoms. "It is about our civil liberties being taken away over a made-up pandemic. It is a global war over everything."
More than 600,000 people in the United States have died of the coronavirus since January 2020.
In a post-Trump era, these activists use social media to organize, share information and sometimes to make a living as influencers in a right-wing universe, though the companies say they ban most misinformation about the coronavirus as well as groups that encourage breaking public health rules.
The Facebook group promoting the Dodger Stadium anti-vaccine rally, Shop Mask Free Los Angeles, was incorrectly listed on the social network as a "local business" for months and was only banned by the company this past month. Lever had no comment.
Alan Hostetter, a former local police chief and yoga teacher as well as a speaker at the June rally attended by The Post, was indicted on a charge of his alleged role in the insurrection June 10. Shortly after, he went back on Facebook Live, YouTube, Spotify, Rumble and several other services, filming himself walking on the beach in San Clemente in a "Free Man" baseball cap. He decried the Jan. 6 riot as a "false flag staged event" and a "fakesurrection" because he believed infiltrators were in the crowd.
(More than 400 people have been charged in connection to the Capitol riots, many of whom had come to Washington at Trump's behest to protest the election results.)
Within hours, his accounts were banned on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook says that it does not allow people charged in the insurrection on the platform and that it may fact-check claims that the riot was staged. Spotify and YouTube removed the videos a week later.
"The entire indictment is so corrupt, so full of half truths," Hostetter said in an interview. "I am very much looking forward to my day in court, where not only will I be vindicated, but I will also be part of exposing one of the greatest scandals in U.S. history." He plead not guilty.
Facebook's Lever and YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi said the companies have removed millions of pieces of misinformation and have systems in place to limit its spread. Telegram did not respond to requests for comment. A corporate email address from Rumble said the company has "strict moderation policies."
Southern California, and particularly Orange County, is a longtime bastion of reactionary conservatism and far-right politics in a largely liberal state. The region was a breeding ground for the John Birch Society, a conspiratorial anti-communist group in the '60s. A "White Lives Matter" Ku Klux Klan rally that took place in Huntington Beach in April was organized on Telegram.
From January 2020 through April of this year, the most "Stop the Steal" rallies and U.S. demonstrations opposing coronavirus restrictions combined took place in Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies misinformation.
Twenty people from Orange County and its neighboring counties, including Los Angeles, have been arrested in connection with the Capitol rally on Jan. 6, according to a Post review. Orange and Los Angeles have had the most people arrested of any two neighboring counties in the U.S.
Over the last year, Hostetter, Hall and other leaders - some with long-standing ties to the state's influential anti-vaccine movement - have helped mentor and motivate a new crop of activists, who have organized online to host "mask-free shopping" events throughout the region, where they purposefully enter stores without masks to provoke a viral confrontation. They've also protested at vaccine sites, school boards, the Board of Supervisors and L.A. City Hall.
Now that California has reopened, the protesters are continuing to push local rulemaking bodies to loosen remaining restrictions for the unvaccinated and are planning for a fight over school immunizations for covid. Some are also focused on Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, himself, including supporting a Republican-led recall campaign that has garnered enough signatures for a statewide vote this year. Some also post about a 2024 run for Trump.
In the near term, public health experts say groups like those in Southern California may sow just enough doubt in vaccination to prevent the broader population from reaching herd immunity. Orange County and Los Angeles County have vaccination rates slightly higher than California's average of 49%, but the regional average is well below it.
And in the years ahead, every successive fight - waged in person and over social media - is an opportunity build a bigger political movement, said Richard Carpiano, professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California at Riverside, who has researched local organizing against public health measures.
"Covid was a spark for a fire that was just waiting to happen here in Southern California," he said. "There's already this belief that we're in a high-tax state with too much government overreach and this politically organized anti-vaccine movement. Add in Trumpism . . . and you have a perfect storm."
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Before the pandemic hit, L.A.-based organizer Lefkowitz was working three nights a week as a waiter at a Beverly Hills restaurant to support his career as a stand-up comedian. For much of his adult life, he was barely interested in politics, he said. He voted twice for Barack Obama.
But after California closed restaurants except for takeout and banned large gatherings, he lost his day job and his comedy gigs were canceled.
He began spending hours a day online, finding articles and documentaries purporting to chronicle how powerful figures were involved in sex trafficking. Content about pedophilia has proliferated because of QAnon, an extremist ideology based on false claims that elites affiliated with the Democratic Party engaged in crimes against children, and is tied to broader skepticism of authority. He says he is not a follower of the movement.
He found similar details on how public health officials doctored covid statistics and suppressed information about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug Trump touted. (The World Health Organization strongly advised against using the drug to treat the coronavirus.) He said he came to believe the covid lockdowns were part of a bigger plot by elites to control society.
"People call this going down the rabbit hole," he said. "But it's all part of the big truth. This whole new world order - Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Food, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, Bill Gates, Hunter Biden - unfortunately, it all is tied together and happens to be coordinated by one group of people."
Alison, a Los Angeles makeup artist, found herself in a similar predicament under the lockdowns, she said. Her makeup clients disappeared overnight, and the salon where she worked was temporarily shuttered.
"I've poured my whole life into this makeup business," said the 29-year-old, who would not allow The Post to use her last name for privacy reasons. The more she read, she said, the angrier she became. People in California were being shuttered in their homes without knowing the facts, she said, adding she believed masks were ineffective and the vaccine was actually "poison."
"The fear that this virus is instilling in people is crazy," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended mask use to stop the spread of the virus among the unvaccinated and has said that coronavirus vaccines have met rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality.
Alison said she started to become more vocal online, posting on Instagram against health restrictions. In the summer, she showed up at her first protest for the recall of Gov. Newsom, which she had also heard about on Instagram.
"I kind of went undercover," she said, "I wasn't even out as a Trump supporter then."
As the election approached, Lefkowitz, Alison and Bryna Makowka, a self-described independent journalist who believes QAnon "awakened people," began attending weekly pro-Trump "freedom rallies" at a Beverly Hills park with those they met at the anti-Newsom events.
By the election, Beverly Hills police had declared the ongoing rallies unlawful after clashes with Black Lives Matter protesters took place there.
To keep the momentum going, the group started attending events by Shop Mask Free Los Angeles. The Facebook page helped organize "maskless shopping events." The effort would inevitably lead to a clash with customers or shopkeepers - and an opportunity to create a viral meme claiming discrimination.
After the first coronavirus vaccine was authorized for emergency use by the FDA in December, Lefkowitz began organizing a protest at Dodger Stadium. He pushed the idea out on a 400-member group on Telegram and broadcast it on Facebook.
Alison said she promoted the Dodger rally on Instagram, as did the Shop Mask Free Los Angeles Facebook group which at one point had more than 3,000 followers and another Telegram group called California Curfew Breakers. The latter group - before it was banned from Facebook and moved to Telegram - had previously organized protests with Hostetter, the former police chief. One flier for the event said: "Please refrain from wearing Trump/MAGA attire as we want our statement to resonate with the sheeple."
Lefkowitz says the group planned to show up at 11 a.m. As the group trekked toward the vaccine site, passing out fliers about "toxic chemicals, aborted fetal cells, and nano aluminum inside the vaccines," the Los Angeles Fire Department closed the site.
As the day devolved into a shouting match between the anti-vaxxers and a handful of counterprotesters, Makowka said she believed - without citing evidence - that her side would prevail because "we have passion and they are paid."
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One of the inspirations for the mask-free shopping confrontations is a former administrator at University of California-Irvine named Peggy Hall.
Hall, now a YouTube personality who is a regular speaker at the Orange County board protests, has tailored legal tactics pioneered by the state's anti-vaccine activists to the conditions of the pandemic.
On social media, an organizer of the Shop Mask Free group - who was arrested this year for confronting a shopkeeper at a Family Dollar - calls her a "forever mentor and fearless leader."
UC-Riverside professor Carpiano says some of the new influencers like Hall are also profiting off their activism. Alongside selling health serums and survival gear on her website, the Healthy American, Hall offers online legal education seminars at a cost of $39 to $175 for business owners and parents who want to use civil rights and anti-discrimination laws to avoid mask-wearing, testing and vaccination requirements. (Hall disputes Carpiano's characterization and says he is a Twitter troll who has mischaracterized her work).
Claiming that vaccination requirements equate to civil rights violations is part of a long-standing playbook for California's anti-vaccine groups, said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of Law who has researched the issue. Now those tactics are being repurposed online with greater effect.
In an interview, Hall said she was previously involved in animal rescue causes, but really became an activist during the pandemic. The movement, she said, would continue long after it ends.
"It is going to flourish, and it will take the shape and form that makes sense for each individual advocate," she said. "Some will take it on vaccines. Some will take it on freedom. People will find their own lanes because there is no single rallying cry as there was for Trump."
She said she does not endorse the tactic of confronting people maskless in stores and did not attend the Capitol rally.
Other prominent figures here have also been swept up in the sprawling investigation resulting from the events of Jan. 6, including a model who organized the Beverly Hills rallies.
Hostetter, the former police chief, was part of a Telegram group for Capitol rallygoers called "The California Patriots-DC Brigade," the indictment said. He allegedly joined rioters that pushed through a line of law enforcement officers guarding the Capitol until he reached the building's upper West Terrace and shouted, "The people have taken back their house!" The indictment does not accuse Hostetter of entering the Capitol building itself.
At the Board of Supervisors rally in June before his indictment, he told The Post that the mainstream media "had squelched any debate from the other side of this argument."
"We're not crazy. We're not conspiracy theorists. We are not kooks. We are people that love our country," he said.
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And others are there to continue the fight.
Since the initial Dodger Stadium protest on Jan. 31, Lefkowitz has raised his profile. He now plans to start a community market for people who are opposed to government oppression, want to eat non-GMO food and aren't "poisoned" by the vaccine.
Alison, the makeup artist, suffered a setback when she was temporarily kicked off Instagram after someone reported her content. But she regained thousands of followers after a viral incident in which she filmed herself appearing to be denied coffee by a Starbucks drive-through barista for not wearing a mask.
She said that people should be more motivated to fight "now that we don't have a president that is on our side."
While a formal vote on Orange County's voluntary vaccination passport was paused until July, Hall and others are now pushing for a county resolution prohibiting any vaccine verification system. They also want an end to California's state of emergency, which gives Newsom special powers to issue executive orders.
In interviews, protesters said they understand the digital passport was billed as voluntary but said they were skeptical it would stay that way and that the county had poorly managed the program.
Katrina Foley was the only one of five Orange County supervisors who voted against pausing the plan.
Since her opposing vote, she has been barraged with hate mail and targeted with social media posts calling her a "worshipper" of Adolf Hitler. Protesters also showed up at her home.
"There's just too many vocal people who have managed to change the narrative from, 'We're providing a convenient, voluntary option,' to 'This is a mandate and big government is trying to control you,' " she said. "This is not about vaccines. This is about a political movement they are trying to build."
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The Washington Post's Meghan Hoyer contributed reporting.
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