Facebook, unmasked

Facebook says it is "taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading." Specifically, the company has pledged to "remove COVID-19 related misinformation that could contribute to imminent physical harm." But, in the context of a deadly pandemic, what does that mean?

Facebook has taken a relatively narrow interpretation of "imminent physical harm." As Popular Information reported earlier this month, conspiracy theories suggesting that virus is a hoax engineered by the government and economic elites, have not been removed. 

But Facebook has been specific about one category of content that will not be allowed. The company says that it will remove content that suggests "wearing a mask can make you sick" because that misinformation "could lead to imminent harm."

Facebook's policy is well-founded. A new study by De Kai, a professor at UC Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute, found that "If 80% of a closed population were to don a mask, COVID-19 infection rates would statistically drop to approximately one-twelfth the number of infections." Japan has "no lockdown, still-active subways, and many businesses that have remained open," but just 729 confirmed deaths from COVID-19. Japan's fatality rate is just 2% of the United States. How? Everyone wears a mask. 

False information on Facebook that discourages people from wearing masks contributes to the spread of the virus, which will ultimately kill more people. But despite Facebook's policy, Popular Information was able to identify dozens of popular Facebook posts that state or suggest that wearing a mask will make you sick. 

The Facebook page for VacTruth, which has 122,000 followers, claimed that masks will result in "TAKING IN LESS OXYGEN YOUR BODY NEEDS!!!" The post also falsely claimed that masks were ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus.

The Conservative Republicans of Texas, similarly, posted a message to Facebook on May 14, claiming that masks "create serious health risks for the wearer" and do nothing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The group, which is run by Steven Hotze, has 85,000 followers on Facebook.

Blaylock is a well-known conspiracy theorist. Before claiming masks make you sick, Blaylock advanced "chemtrail conspiracies alleging cancer-causing nanoparticles" are "being purposefully released into the atmosphere in a government-corporate scheme." Blaylock also has sold bottles of "brain repair" pills for $51.25. He has been a guest on InfoWars, a notorious conspiracy outlet that was sued for alleging that the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre were child actors. The Outline reported Blaylock "has hitched his wagon of books and nutritional supplements to just about every medical conspiracy theory that has come along."

Popular Information alerted Facebook to the posts by VacTruth and the Conservative Republicans of Texas on Friday morning. By Saturday, Facebook had removed both. "We are removing content that could lead to imminent physical harm, including the suggestion that wearing a mask can make you sick," Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told Popular Information. 

But Facebook's efforts to identify and remove content that violates its policies are flawed. Facebook removed the post from the Conservative Republicans of Texas promoting Blaylock's dangerous information that was flagged by Popular Information. But it failed to identify or remove an identical message that Hotze posted to his personal fan page, which has more than 13,000 followers.

The oversight suggests that Facebook, a company that had over $70 billion in revenue last year, is not even taking basic steps to identify duplicates of content it has determined to be unsafe. 

But it gets worse. In the last 24 hours, Blaylock's claims that masks can make you sick have exploded on Facebook. 

As of this publication, none of these posts have been removed and continue to spread widely across Facebook. 

Dangerous misinformation on masks reviewed by Facebook — and allowed to stay up

As part of the reporting process for this article, Popular Information sent 23 posts containing misinformation about mask-wearing to Facebook on Friday. By Saturday, 11 of these posts have been removed. But Facebook, which confirmed it reviewed all 23 posts, allowed some posts with dangerous misinformation to remain on the platform.

For example, the National Vaccine Information Center, which has 211,000 followers on Facebook, posted a message from a "doctor," claiming masks were "useless" and interfered with building "natural life strong immunity." The post remains of Facebook. 

Facebook also did not remove a lengthy post from a pediatrics office that practices "alternative medicine," Well-Rooted Pediatrics, which explicitly claimed "mask-wearing poses more risks to the healthy than preventing the virus from spreading." The post goes on to extensively quote Blaylock's false claims about the dangers of masks. 

Facebook did not explain why these and similar posts were allowed to remain on the platform despite the company's stated policy. 

Fact-checking masks

Misinformation about COVID-19 on Facebook that doesn't pose a risk of "imminent physical harm" is subject to the platform's third-party fact-checking program. 

Popular Information, however, identified several posts claiming that wearing masks were dangerous — a claim that Facebook says it determined posed a risk of "imminent physical harm" — that were fact-checked instead of removed. 

For example, Vaxism, a Facebook page with 117,000 followers, published a post claiming that wearing will allow viruses to infect your brain. It also cites Blaylock's claim that "healthy wearers of face maks are harming their own health." This post was flagged as containing false information but not removed. 

This indicates that there is a lack of coordination between Facebook's removal procedure and its fact-checking program. The post has been flagged because it claims mask-wearing is dangerous, which Facebook's fact-checking partners found to be false. But that still didn't result in it being removed, despite Facebook's explicit policy to remove content that makes that claim. 

Facebook removed the post after it was flagged by Popular Information. 

Similarly, a viral image that encourages people to refuse to wear masks — and to tell government officials that it "poses a health risk" —  was fact-checked but not removed. 

Facebook did not explain why encouraging people to falsely assert the "right" not to wear a mask would not risk "imminent physical harm" through spreading the virus. 

Why Facebook is treading lightly

COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of people globally, and Facebook is a major source of information for billions of people. Why is Facebook so reticent to crack down on dangerous misinformation? It could come down to politics. 

One of the biggest sources of misinformation about COVID-19 is Trump. As the New York Times reported last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has prioritized improving his relationship with the White House. 

With the coronavirus, Zuckerberg has drawn lines in the sand, only to look the other way when Trump crosses it. 

It remains to be seen what an increasingly visible Mr. Zuckerberg will do when challenged by the powerful. In March, in an interview with The New York Times, he said Facebook would not tolerate “misinformation that has imminent risk of danger.” He cited as an example “things like ‘You can cure this by drinking bleach.’ I mean, that’s just in a different class.”

Days later, during a White House news conference, Mr. Trump wondered aloud about an “injection inside” of disinfectant. As poison control centers were flooded with questions and the makers of Clorox and Lysol issued statements imploring Americans not to ingest their caustic cleaners, Facebook wilted, and across the platform, video of the comments went swiftly viral.

Trump also famously refuses to wear a mask. 

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