How Facebook and YouTube mask the truth

The spread of coronavirus is accelerating at an alarming rate in the United States. But viable options to flatten the curve are limited. There is no political will to reimpose stay-at-home orders, testing capacity cannot keep pace with demand, and there are too many cases to do contact tracing in most areas. But there is one simple thing that could help immensely: masks. 

Studies have found that wearing a mask reduces the chances of contracting COVID-19 by 80%. This protection is magnified when other people are wearing masks as well. 

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that adaptation of masks by 95% of the population could save between 45,000 lives between now and November 1. That means that, in less than four months, masks have the potential to save more people than can fit in Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals, which has a capacity of 41,313. 

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

By that time, near-universal masking could reduce projected daily COVID-19 infections from 162,000 to 32,000. In other words, if everyone wore a mask, the pandemic would soon be a much smaller problem. People could resume most of their daily activities with vastly reduced risk. 

Yet many Americans are still not wearing masks. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 65% of Americans say they wear a mask "most of the time" when inside a business, an environment where the risk of infection is increased. (According to the same poll, 44% of Americans say they observe other people wearing masks "most of the time" inside stores.) About 25% of Americans, and one-third of Republicans, believe that masks are not effective in reducing the spread of coronavirus, or don't have an opinion. 

Retailers like Costco, which have imposed a mask mandate to protect its employees and customers, are dealing with belligerent customers who refuse to comply

How did so many Americans become misinformed about the efficacy of masks? Some of the confusion is driven by Trump, who has refused to wear a mask publicly and questioned their efficacy. He has also resisted calls to impose a national mask mandate. 

Another factor is that false information about masks is proliferating on social media. Facebook and YouTube announced strong policies banning misinformation about COVID-19 transmission and prevention. The platforms recognize this kind of misinformation puts lives at risk. But these policies are not being effectively enforced, exposing millions to false and dangerous information.

Facebook's breakout anti-mask star

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." On May 11, Facebook said that, as part of that pledge, it would remove claims any content that suggests "wearing a mask can make you sick" because that misinformation "could lead to imminent harm."

Yet, on June 30, Ohio State Representative Nino Vitale posted a lengthy rant on Facebook that claimed masks "drop oxygen below danger levels in 5 seconds." The post was tagged #masksdoharm and #masksdonotwork. In just a few days, the post was shared more than 13,000 times across Facebook. 

The claim that masks interfere with your ability to get enough oxygen is false. Christopher Labos, a doctor affiliated with McGill University, explains:

There are actually only two ways to develop low oxygen levels in the blood. One is to deliver less oxygen into the lungs, and the other is to impair the lungs’ ability to allow oxygen to diffuse into the bloodstream. A mask will obviously not impair gas exchange within the lungs, and the cloth face coverings advocated by public health experts do not provide an airtight seal that would impair oxygen delivery into the airways. Furthermore, masks are designed to filter out large particles, like water droplets, and cannot stop tiny molecules like oxygen that can infiltrate between the weave of any fabric...It is frankly implausible to think that wearing a mask is dangerous. Think of all the surgeons, nurses, anesthetists, and perfusionists that have worn masks during long operations and suffered no ill effects.

In response to a request for comment by Popular Information, Facebook removed Vitale's post and two others with similar claims. “We removed several of these posts for violating our policies against making false claims about COVID-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm, including the suggestion that wearing a mask can make you sick," a Facebook spokesman told Popular Information. 

But the fact that these kinds of posts were able to make dangerously false claims about masks — and rack up more than 13,000 shares — suggests that Facebook's enforcement of its policy is ineffective. Moreover, Facebook left up two posts by Vitale that also claimed masks are dangerous, including a post from July 3, claiming "there is overwhelming scientific evidence showing masks actually do harm." 

A Facebook spokesperson said this post did not make a specific enough claim about the harms of masks to be removed. 

Popular YouTube video claims wearing a mask can ‘literally suffocate and kill you’

In May, YouTube announced a policy that banned videos with "medical misinformation that contradicts the World Health Organization (WHO) or local health authorities’ medical information about COVID-19." This includes misinformation about "prevention."

The WHO and CDC recommend wearing a cloth mask in public settings to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The WHO states that wearing a mask "does not lead to CO2 intoxication nor oxygen deficiency."

Yet videos claiming masks are dangerous and create oxygen deficiencies are amassing hundreds of thousands of views. One video is by Representative Vitale. In the video, he shoves a device (the GX2009) inside the masks of several children. After the device beeps, Vitale says that proves masks are dangerous.

Another video, posted by a user named Peggy Hall, claims that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says "masks don't work" and "violate OSHA oxygen levels." The video has been viewed nearly 200,000 times.

These claims are not true. OSHA guidance recommends, before reopening, employers ensure "workers wear appropriate face coverings, such as cloth face masks, to contain respiratory secretions." 

Another popular video, with over 60,000 views, claims that, by wearing a mask, you "are submitting yourself to a hazardous environment which can literally suffocate and kill you." 

In response to a request for comment by Popular Information, YouTube removed the three videos for “violating our policies.”

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