Balancing freedoms, rights and responsibilities during COVID in US

In this second post drawing from her research on people’s reactions on social media during the US covid-19 crisis, CDE member Dr Gillian Bolsover focuses on how people are talking about different kinds of rights and freedoms in pro- and anti-lockdown discourse in the US.

In an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, countries across the world have instituted unprecedented restrictions on freedom of movement, privacy and individual rights. These measures tend to have been initially derived in East Asian cultures, where COVID, as well as a number of recent potential pandemics (such as SARS in 2002-2004), originated. However, these cultures tend to favour communal rights more strongly than individual rights and, in the case of China, have existing strong state frameworks of surveillance and control.

The way that culturally relevant concepts of rights and freedoms underpin COVID restrictions in democratic and individually orientated countries remains unknown. Given the unprecedented and fast-moving nature of COVID policies and practices, it is extremely important to understand how members of the public are reacting to these policies. We are in particular interested in the way in which these reactions are underpinned by different cost-benefit analyses of how rights and freedoms should be balanced in these challenging circumstances. This can help illuminate what policies and practices are supported by the population in democratic states, as well as shape how the rationale underlying COVID control policies are communicated to citizens.

These issues have been particularly pronounced in the US, with an individualistic culture, a high proportion of libertarian supporters, a constitution strongly protecting individual freedoms and a distributed federal-state system in which powers and responsibilities are opaque. As a consequence, US has seen major protests against state-level economic and social restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with President Donald Trump pushing back against the efforts of states to control the spread of the virus through economic and social restrictions.

A particularly notable protest occurred in Michigan on 30 April, when hundreds of armed protestors entered the capitol building during a debate over Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer’s request to extend the emergency powers that underpinned the state’s stay-at-home measures. Photos of heavily armed protestors in combat gear inside the state capitol kicked off a discussion in the US about how rights and freedoms were being balanced in local and national responses to the COVID pandemic.

In order to contribute to this important but as yet unexplored issue, the Centre for Democratic Engagement has published a new data memo that presents an analysis of pro- and anti-restriction discourse on US social media during the week-long period from 27 April to 3 May (including the Michigan capitol protest). This builds on the previous data memo that investigated public reactions to COVID health misinformation on US social media. Social media has become the main venue for political information access, political opinion expression and collective action organisation for many US citizens. The research focuses on the platform Twitter, which is the most open social media platform (and therefore a space in which public sphere debates would play out) as well as the major platform that is most orientated towards political news and debate.

The research examines a random selection of posts from within four groups of trending topics: trends discussing COVID policies and practices from within the top 200 trending topics that week, specifically pro-lockdown trends, specifically anti-lockdown trends and trends specifically about the Michigan protests. One hundred posts from each of these four groups were randomly selected (for a total of 400 posts). The memo then analyses these posts to understand how individuals expressed their opinions of how rights and freedoms should be balanced, and indeed, which rights and freedoms deserve discussion.

Post that opposed economic or social restrictions to fight COVID frequently articulated ideas of rights and freedoms (77%). In contrast, only 43% of those that supported these restrictions articulated ideas of rights and freedoms. Anti-economic and social restriction posts tended to equate freedom with freedom of movement, basing their arguments on ideas of an individual’s inviolable right to freedom of movement, an individual’s inviolable right to economic activity or a cost-benefit calculation that favoured economic activity over protecting public health. In contrast, pro-social and economic restriction posts rarely mentioned rights and freedoms, instead justifying their position based on following the advice of state and medical professionals as well as deference and respect to the medical profession. These arguments are unlikely to convince anti-restriction individuals of the importance of communal rights or positive freedoms. Discourse was highly polarised and divisive, and articulated largely through established political identity positions that are not amenable to debate.

Pro- and anti-political restriction discourse took a slightly different tone and focused mostly on the Michigan capitol protests. Even in the way the issue was discursively presented, polarised political positions appeared to prevent debate, with supporters calling the protestors Michigan patriots and opposers calling the protestors Michigan terrorists. The important and under addressed issue of how the right to collectively protest can remain under socially distanced conditions was not discussed. Instead, opposition to the protests were articulated largely without concern for COVID and through existing politically polarised positions regarding gun ownership and race.

This research concludes that much more attention should be paid to the theoretical issue of rights and freedoms in discussing COVID restrictions. These discussions should appreciate and articulate the importance of communal rights and positive freedoms. In doing so, supporters of restrictions to control the spread of COVID should both borrow and adapt discourse and ideas from communally orientated societies to help articulate why these restrictions are currently needed. These communal rights and positive freedoms arguments must also be critically evaluated to assess whether and how these perspectives need to be adapted to be appropriate and resonant in democratic and individualistic countries. It is also noted in the analysis that discussion in explicitly pro- and anti-restriction hashtags tends to be more hateful and divisive and, therefore, neutral hashtags should be favored for engaging in debate over these issues in online spaces.

Download the full data memo to learn more about the research.

Image credit: “COVID-19 in Washington DC” by dmbosstone is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0