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Chapter Two

The Data.
Quantifying Facebook’s COVID Denial Group Problem



COVID Denial Groups


COVID Denial Members


Chapter Two

The Data

Quantifying Facebook’s COVID Denial Group Problem

The problem of organized COVID denial groups on Facebook is massive. It is national in scope and comes in many different rhetorical packages. Now in its second wave, COVID denial organizing on Facebook encompasses more than seventeen hundred groups with nearly two and a half million people involved.

The COVID denial movement is constantly evolving and adapting to the situation on the ground. Left unchecked, it threatens to become a violent, anti-democratic force long after the pandemic is gone.

Before diving into the data, let us define the parameters of the problem.

COVID Denial as a Social Movement

Since the beginning of the pandemic, under a “freedom is the cure!” banner, segments of the far-right congealed into a movement opposed to COVID-19 health measures: spreading misinformation and conspiracies about the origins and nature of the pandemic; pushing for an end to temporary shut-downs and demanding immediate reopening of businesses, schools, and churches; and protesting against masks and vaccination mandates.

COVID denialism describes a far-right protest movement raging against a range of governmental and community efforts to stop the spread of the virus and animated by a refusal to accept the pandemic’s gravity and reality.

A tremendous amount of COVID denial organizing activity traces back to Facebook. COVID deniers use the platform to spread misinformation, recruit new members, radicalize recruits, and organize efforts to stop pandemic-related health measures—sometimes violently.

Just a small sampling of recent COVID denial events organized on Facebook

Some COVID denial efforts, like Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights network, now operate outside the platform. However, even the People’s Rights network was aided by Facebook, which allowed the group to recruit nearly ten thousand members in the six months before their removal. And People’s Rights activists and supporters continue to have a presence in these Facebook forums.

Also like the People’s Rights network, COVID denial on Facebook is attracting a higher percentage of women as members, organizers, and leaders compared to other far-right movements. This, too, is reshaping the focus of the movement.

Facebook does not make demographic data about these groups publicly available. However, a sampling of COVID denial Facebook groups by the IREHR research team found that members were overwhelmingly white. In addition, women represented a significant percentage of the overall membership—particularly in newer groups.

Just as Louise Day Hicks led the racist anti-busing group, Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) in Boston in the 1970s, today, women lead many of the COVID denial Facebook groups described in this report.[38] With a particular emphasis on health, children, and schools during the latest wave of COVID denial activity, the movement has resonated the rhetoric of anti-busing efforts that opposed school integration. “Parental choice,” “child abuse,” and “our children are not pawns in your political chess game” are just a few of the common refrains.[39] Both efforts expressed suburban white rage and mainstreamed racism. And both attracted higher numbers of women than the over-arching far-right movements of their periods.

As scholars have noted, the anti-busing crusade was never really about busing. It was an assault on efforts to end segregation.[40] Similarly, COVID denial efforts are not really about the coronavirus but instead are rooted in far-right ideologies that keep racism alive and undermine democracy and democratic institutions (including public schools).

A Continuing National Problem

The problem of COVID denial is undeniably international in scope. Protests against COVID-related health measures have broken out in Canada, across parts of Europe, and Australia. However, the data in this report focuses on the problem of COVID denial in the United States and the role Facebook plays in facilitating the COVID denial rebellion.

During August 2021, the IREHR research team documented 1,732 COVID denial groups active on Facebook. These groups have a combined membership of 2,445,602 individuals. (For how we collected the data, see the Data Methodology appendix).

COVID denial groups are spread across the country, with state/local groups in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. The largest number of active COVID denial groups are in California (117), followed by Ohio (82), Washington State (69), North Carolina (67), and Michigan (65). States with the largest number of members in such groups include California (199,158), Pennsylvania (194,506), Washington State (173,217), Illinois (151,121), and Wisconsin (149,924).

State COVID Denial Group Membership Rankings

6North Carolina132527
7New York100829
9New Jersey84967
19South Carolina34830
31New Mexico17129
43West Virginia3592
46New Hampshire2804
47Rhode Island2591
49South Dakota1015
50North Dakota286
51District of Columbia73

Additionally, there are 350 groups, with 288,624 members, that are national in scope or do not specify a geographic location. Six other groups, with 4,114 combined members, have a regional or multi-state focus.

Facebook COVID denial is not a problem confined to one region of the country. In fact, there is a fairly even distribution across regions, both in terms of the number of groups and members.

COVID Denial Groups and Membership by Region


The Many Categories of COVID Denial

Based on naming conventions used by the breadth of groups represented in this report, COVID denial groups on Facebook fall into seven different categories: anti-lockdown, anti-mandate, anti-mask, anti-vaxx, hoaxer, multidimensional, and reopen.

Before examining these categories in detail, it is worth noting that the categories do not fully reflect the orientation of the groups, particularly over time. Groups have tended to shift and adapt to circumstances and outside far-right trends. Some of those shifts are reflected in wholesale group name changes. At other times, a group name may stay constant while a particular focus of the group moves from reopening to opposing masking to opposing COVID-19 vaccines. However, the spread of misinformation and efforts to organize opposition seldom remained siloed in any category, and members group foci have considerable crossover.

Let’s look at the different categories of COVID denial on Facebook.


Shortly after California’s March 18, 2020, stay-at-home order, which was quickly followed by other states, Facebook groups started forming with “reopen” as a theme. These groups focus(ed) on propaganda and agitation at workplaces, schools, and government offices. At times these protests involved violence. Some groups in this category centered on primarily reopening subsets of the country, such as schools and churches. Though active groups maintained the Reopen brand, many have shifted to a more multidimensional version of COVID denial. Common themes among these groups are economic liberty and personal choice, among other libertarian-oriented motifs. Total membership – 1,581,438.


Following the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic that spread with ferocity in early 2020, hundreds of Facebook groups sprouted up in opposition to laws and practices designed to slow the spread of COVID 19, including social distancing and, where possible, sheltering at home. Unfortunately, the patchwork of policies was often contradictory across overlapping jurisdictions (a city may have a loose interpretation of a mask law in contravention to the state or county). As a result, the dye was set for opposition. These Facebook groups oppose laws that require masks to slow the spread of COVID 19. Anti-mask activism focused on challenging and often flouting recommendations, regulations, and laws governing wearing masks indoors and outdoors. Total membership – 536, 241.


Multidimensional Facebook groups incorporate multiple strains of COVID denialism, COVID-19 conspiracy theories, anti-COVID-vaccine, anti-mask mandates, etc., into powerful narratives of far-right origin. For example, attacks on so-called “critical race theory,” anti-Chinese political agendas, alternative medicines and “homeopathic” treatments, anti-Black Lives Matter material, and far-right activism have been found in these groups. Total membership – 134,530.


The Facebook groups that fall under this category focus on opposing employer and government “mandates,” which refers to imposing a consequence for vaccine, mask, or social distancing refusal. The consequence may be a fine or denial of access to a service, job, or venue. Many such groups focus on health care workers and teachers, two constituencies regarded as “front line workers.” Total membership – 97,339.


“Anti-Vaxx” Facebook groups target their invective at COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness, cost, distribution, and ingredients. Groups in this category focus explicitly on opposition to COVID-19 vaccines. It does not include previously established anti-vaxxer groups that pivoted to opposition to COVID-19 vaccines, nor does it include general anti-vaccine groups. The groups included in this report operate autonomously. However, misinformation in the groups is often imported from pre-existing anti-vaxx networks, such as those around Joseph Kennedy Jr. and others in the so-called “Dirty-dozen.” Total membership – 78,172.


Far-right groups immediately began to mobilize against lockdowns in April 2020. With the fourth wave of the pandemic now in full swing throughout Southern and Western states, a familiar (and depressing) patchwork of conflicting policies on the part of government at all levels has ensued. In those states where lockdowns were fully or partially implemented, protests followed. The term was most popular during the first few waves of the pandemic; as vaccines became available, the focus of ire turned there. Total membership – 13,853.


Hoaxers believe in one or multiple varieties of conspiracy theories regarding the virus’s origins and policies intended to prevent the coronavirus pandemic. Such narratives may focus on the “lab leak” hypothesis (itself not a conspiracy theory) and reach launch capacity when they attribute nefarious and unsubstantiated intent on the part of the Chinese government or other corporate or governmental entities. During the first waves of the pandemic, these conspiracy theories often dovetailed with an anti-Chinese political agenda. However, other groups regard the virus and, therefore, the vaccines designed to thwart it as wholly concocted, the central belief that informs their activism. While this category refers to groups specifically named for and engaged in promoting these ideas, hoaxer ideas often appear in the other types of COVID denial Facebook groups. Total membership – 4,029.

Two Waves of COVID Denial

One crucial point leaped out of the COVID denial Facebook group data: the United States has experienced two distinct waves of COVID denial Facebook group organizing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, IREHR has tracked the formation of COVID denial groups on Facebook. There have been two significant waves of COVID denial activism on the platform. August 2020 was the peak of the first wave of COVID denial group growth on Facebook. IREHR tracked 1186 groups with over three million members at the peak of the first wave.

During the first wave of COVID denial mobilization, most groups focused, at least in name, on ending COVID-19 health regulations and “reopening” the economy. But, don’t let the name fool you. Many of the “ReOpen” groups did not stick to the issue of the timing of ending COVID health measures. Instead, many “ReOpen” groups, particularly those that remained in 2021, expanded their portfolios and became distribution points for a wide range of COVID denialism—from COVID conspiracies to anti-mask mobilizations to anti-vaxxer activism.

Despite repeated announcements from Facebook that the company had addressed the issue, COVID denial continued to fester on the platform. In fact, of the 1186 COVID denial groups tracked in 2020, IREHR found that 822 (69%) were still active on the platform in August 2021. Several of the groups no longer on the list were not removed by Facebook. Instead, they are still available on the platform to view but have been archived by administrators. (More on the Facebook fail in chapter three).

The second wave of COVID denial groups on Facebook emerged this summer, just as the Delta variant of the virus began to spread across the nation. The IREHR research team found 910 new groups with 649,205 combined members formed on Facebook in the past year, 718 of those were created in 2021, while 269 formed in August 2021 alone.

Most of these new groups (499 groups with 314,476 members) center around anti-masker activism—from pushing schools to prevent children from wearing masks, lobbying to stop local mask measures, and attacking businesses that make masks mandatory.

The second wave of COVID denialism organized on Facebook has not yet crested. New COVID denial groups are popping up on Facebook every day. This report contains only data up until late August 2021. However, the problem continues to multiply on Facebook.

Despite repeated attempts at public relations spin during the pandemic, Facebook failed to address the problem of COVID denialism adequately on the platform during its first wave. Now amid COVID denialism’s second wave, Facebook’s repeated failure could be catastrophic.


One: COVID Denial as “Culture War”


Three: Facebook and the Far-Right Group Problem



[38] Banks Nutter, Kathleen. “’Militant Mothers’: Boston, Busing, and the Bicentennial of 1976.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts. Fall 2020.

[39] See for example, Frank, Gillian. “The Colour of the Unborn: Anti-Abortion and Anti-Bussing Politics in Michigan, United States, 1967–1973.” Gender & History. Volume 26. Issue 2. August 2014.

[40] Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “It Was Never About Busing: Court-ordered desegregation worked. But white racism made it hard to accept.” New York Times. July 12, 2019.