Breitbart, the far-right website, published a story over the weekend claiming Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) contracted COVID-19 at a White House event even though he was wearing a mask. The story relies on a tweet from Heather Childers, a former Fox & Friends anchor, and one photo.
“Thom Tillis wore a mask at the event in the Rose Garden — he has tested positive,” journalist Heather Childers reported on Saturday. A photo also shows Tillis wearing a mask at the event. Despite that, he has since contracted the virus.
The story was posted to Facebook at 12:59 AM Monday with the following caption: "Sen. Thom Tillis contracted the Chinese coronavirus following last week's Rose Garden event despite wearing a mask at the gathering."
The story, if it were true, would be silly. No one claims wearing a mask provides 100% protection against the virus. The primary benefit of wearing a mask is to protect other people if you have the virus and don't know it. But masks also reduce the risk somewhat for the wearer. Even if Tillis wore a mask during the entire event, many people were not, and could have infected Tillis. And, of course, Tillis could have contracted COVID-19 away from the White House.
Breitbart, however, uses Tillis' infection to push the narrative that masks are ineffective. The piece claims that there is a "lack of consensus on the controversial subject" of mask-wearing. This is false. There is virtual unanimity in the scientific community that wearing a mask can significantly reduce the risk of transmission.
In any event, Breitbart's story is completely false. Tillis did not wear a mask for the entire event, including a portion that took place indoors. Photos of a maskless Tillis were captured by the New York Times.
This false story that misleads people into thinking that wearing a mask is ineffective and controversial was shared widely on Facebook. According to Crowdtangle, a social analytics service owned by Facebook, the story was shared nearly 3,000 times by Monday afternoon.
Facebook has a policy, however, to "remove COVID-19 related misinformation that could contribute to imminent physical harm." The misinformation in the Breitbart article appears to fit that definition. The misinformation in the article is used to cast doubt on the efficacy of mask-wearing. If people who read this article decide not to wear a mask, they are more likely to catch a deadly virus and spread it to others.
Facebook told Popular Information that the Breitbart article did not violate its COVID-19 misinformation policy.
Facebook credentials Breitbart as a "trusted" news source
Facebook is not just tolerating Breitbart's lies. It has credentialed Breitbart as a "high quality" and "trustworthy" news source by including Breitbart in its Facebook News tab. When the Facebook News tab launched in October 2019, CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended Breitbart's inclusion. "Part of having this be a trusted source is that it needs to have a diversity of views in there, so I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives," Zuckerberg said.
At the time, CNN reported that Zuckerberg's decision to include Breitbart was unpopular with journalism experts, media critics, and even conservative commentators.
CNN Business reached out to some experts in the journalism field to ask them what they thought of Facebook's decision. None were supportive. Columbia Journalism School Ph.D. chair Todd Gitlin, also a longtime progressive, asked, "If Breitbart.com, which under Steve Bannon's tutelage devoted itself to fraudulent inflammatory immigrant-hating claims, is 'high quality,' what's low? Including Breitbart on [Zuckerberg's] 'news tab' disgraces the name of news."
WaPo media critic Erik Wemple commented: "Breitbart, a 'trusted' news outlet? Trusted, indeed -- to attack the female accusers of Breitbart buddy Roy Moore. That episode alone should be enough to actuate Facebook to reconsider this call." And conservative commentator and Bulwark Editor-In-Chief Charlie Sykes told me, "Facebook's choice is worse than embarrassing; it's inexplicable. Breitbart is a poster child for disinformation and hackery."
The issue generated controversy again in late-July when Breitbart posted a video that falsely claimed hydroxychloroquine was a "cure" for COVID-19. (Clinical studies have shown it is completely ineffective and potentially dangerous.) The video quickly accumulated 14 million views. According to a report in BuzzFeed News, Facebook employees asked Zuckerberg how Breitbart could be included in the Facebook News tab as a "trusted" source after publishing a false and dangerous video.
Zuckerberg suggested that Breitbart could be removed if it published more misinformation within 90 days. "This was certainly one strike against them for misinformation, but they don't have others in the last 90 days. So by the policies that we have, which by the way I think are generally pretty reasonable on this, it doesn't make sense to remove them," Zuckerberg said.
It has been 70 days since July 27, the day Breitbart published the video claiming hydroxychloroquine cured COVID-19. Monday evening, one of Facebook's fact-checkers, Lead Stories, rated the Breitbart article false. But, according to Facebook, Breitbart is still part of the Facebook News program.
After the fact check was published, Breitbart deleted its Facebook post and "updated" the article.
Breitbart added this text to the beginning of the article:
UPDATE: Since the original publication of this article, Breitbart News has been alerted to a photo of Senator Tillis going without a mask at an event in the Oval Office on the day Judge Barrett was nominated to the Supreme Court. This article’s headline and text have been updated to include that information.
The premise of the entire article has collapsed. But other than the headline and the first paragraph, the article remains unchanged. Breitbart has not posted the updated story to Facebook.
Special treatment for the far-right
Facebook has removed prior "strikes" that would disqualify Breitbart from the Facebook news tab, according to Facebook employees. BuzzFeed reported the story:
On July 22, a Facebook employee posted a message to the company’s internal misinformation policy group noting that some misinformation strikes against Breitbart had been cleared by someone at Facebook seemingly acting on the publication's behalf.
“A Breitbart escalation marked ‘urgent: end of day’ was resolved on the same day, with all misinformation strikes against Breitbart’s page and against their domain cleared without explanation,” the employee wrote.
A Facebook spokesperson acknowledged that the company will remove misinformation strikes from certain publishers. "When a fact checker applies a rating, we apply a label and demotion. But we are responsible for how we manage our internal systems for repeat offenders," Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said.
Why would Facebook bend over backward to appease a company that is misinforming its users? The primary advocate for Breitbart and other far-right publishers at Facebook is Joel Kaplan, the head of Facebook's powerful DC office. "Any time there was an issue with Breitbart or Daily Caller, Joel made the decision, and he always acted to protect them," the former Facebook employee told Popular Information last year.