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Facebook takes down events about protests against COVID-19 measures in some U.S. states

Coronavirus outbreak: Anti-shutdown protesters rally for economic reopening at Pennsylvania Capitol
WATCH: Anti-shutdown protesters rally for economic reopening at Pennsylvania Capitol

Facebook Inc said on Monday that it has removed events in Nebraska, New Jersey and California promoting protests against stay-at-home measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the new coronavirus.

But the social media company, which has been under pressure to police harmful content and misinformation related to the pandemic, said it would only take down anti-quarantine protest events if they defied government guidelines.

READ MORE: Coronavirus lockdowns prompt scattered protests in U.S. despite death toll of 31,000

Stay-at-home orders, which experts say are essential to slow the spread of the virus but which have battered the U.S. economy, have been enacted at the state level.

Facebook said it would align with those directives, and also remove events that defy social distancing guidelines. Facebook is seeking guidance to clarify the scope of state orders in New York, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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Counter-protesters in scrubs block anti-lockdown campaigners in Denver
Counter-protesters in scrubs block anti-lockdown campaigners in Denver

“Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook,” said Facebook spokesman Andy Stone. “For this same reason, events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook.”

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Facebook did not identify the events removed.

READ MORE: Live updates: Coronavirus in Canada

While the majority of Americans agree with the restrictions, according to a Pew Research Center survey in April where 66 per cent of respondents said they were more concerned that restrictions would be lifted too quickly rather than not quickly enough, protests have flared up across several states.

On Sunday, an estimated 2,500 people rallied at the Washington state capital of Olympia to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order and hundreds gathered at Colorado’s state capitol.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Protesters across U.S. demand end to COVID-19 lockdown
Coronavirus outbreak: Protesters across U.S. demand end to COVID-19 lockdown

White House guidelines to reopen the economy recommend that a state record 14 days of declining case numbers before gradually lifting restrictions. But protests have taken on a partisan tone and on Friday, Republican President Donald Trump appeared to encourage protesters in tweets calling to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, all states run by Democratic governors.

Twitter Inc ruled that Trump’s tweets did not violate its coronavirus guidelines, saying that Trump’s words did not clearly suggest harmful physical intent.

READ MORE: A look at when and how Canada could reopen after COVID-19 closures

Asked about the use of Facebook to organize protests to defy social distancing orders, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told ABC News on Monday that content suggesting social distancing would not be effective in stopping the virus’s spread would be removed as it would “classify as harmful misinformation.”

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Facebook said its policy relates to events and promotions of those events on the site. Some large Facebook groups where anti-quarantine activists have organized have been allowed to operate and have gained traction on the site.

Coronavirus outbreak: Protesters in California flout stay-at-home orders
Coronavirus outbreak: Protesters in California flout stay-at-home orders

Anti-quarantine Facebook groups targeting Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, which were created by three activist brothers who run gun rights groups in several states, had about 220,000 combined members on Monday after their creation last week.

“This is very much a Second Amendment issue as much as it an anti-quarantine issue,” said 28-year-old Ben Dorr, one of the brothers, in a phone interview with Reuters from Northfield, Minnesota. None of the brothers’ network of groups were removed.

READ MORE: Some American states will lift coronavirus restrictions in coming week, says Trump

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“They just want their rights restored, they want their freedom back, they want the tyranny in some of these states to end,” he added.

The “Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine” group promoted Monday’s drive-in protest at the state’s capitol in Harrisburg and streamed a live video of people gathered on the streets at the rally.