October 15, 2020

Why it's so hard to bust myths about face masks

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 5, 2021.

    Writing for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan breaks down how an incorrect claim that wearing a mask can cause illness has managed to thrive online amid the novel coronavirus epidemic—despite being debunked by medical and public health experts.

    Want to improve your Covid-19 messaging? Use the 4 communication 'archetypes.'

    The spread of anti-mask misinformation

    According to Khazan, the claim that a mask can make the wearer sick originated online long after government officials had started to recommend, and then require, that people use masks while in public.


    For instance, a news station in Tennessee in early July claimed, without citing research, that "[w]earing a fabric mask for long periods of time—or for several days at a time—can allow bacteria to build up and actually make you sick." And in May, a video called Plandemic cited "the discredited researcher Judy Mikovits saying, among other things, that masks can make people sick," Khazan writes, noting that the video was viewed "millions of times" before being removed from Facebook and YouTube

    More recently, these types of claims have taken to incorrectly citing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a source of information, even though OSHA focuses mostly on workplace safety standards, not epidemic response, Khazan writes.

    For example, a relatively recent claim floating around on Facebook, allegedly from an OSHA inspector, inaccurately claims that every type of mask is ineffective and harmful. Specifically, the post claims that N95s won't "filter your air on the way out," and therefore do not curb the risk of becoming ill with the coronavirus, while surgical masks are made ineffective because of the moisture created by breathing and because of the "amount of particles" on them. Meanwhile, cloth masks, the post claims, trap carbon dioxide, which put the wearer's health at risk.

    According to Khazan, versions of this claim have been popping up in anti-mask articles and videos for several months, persisting even though a Snopes article published in June refuted a nearly claim seen on Facebook. According to the Snopes article, the statement not only made false claims about masks, but it was purportedly written by someone with an "OSHA 10&30" certification—a certification that the Snopes article says doesn't exist. "We reached out to OSHA, and a representative told us that these courses 'do not include Covid-19 topics,' nor does OSHA 'certify' trainers," the article stated.

    How did this misinformation become so popular?

    According to Khazan, "crucial to understanding the spread of this particular piece of misinformation is that, for many weeks early in the pandemic, everyday people were told not to wear masks."

    At the time, experts said masks were needed for health care workers on the front lines of the epidemic, and they indicated that they were "borderline ineffective" for the public—with some even going so far as to suggest that masks could increase the odds of someone becoming ill. For instance, Jenny Harries, England's deputy chief medical officer, said masks could "actually trap the virus," and that therefore, "for the average member of the public walking down a street it is not a good idea."

    However, as more research emerged, experts and public health officials changed their stance on masks. About seven months ago, they began urging and eventually mandating that the general public wear masks in public to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. And the research continues to accumulate: According to Khazan, "study after study" demonstrates that "[e]very kind of mask" helps "slow the spread of Covid-19," the disease caused by the coronavirus, she writes.

    Moreover, experts "dismiss" claims that masks can make people sick, unless the wearer never washes the mask or they have a health issue that makes it hard to breath. "The way that masks are being recommended is perfectly safe," Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, said.

    However, it can be challenging to effectively communicate such a significant shift in understanding, Khazan writes. She points to the experience of one physician, David Eisenman, as an example. Eisenman in February was quoted in an article that, although since updated, originally suggested that incorrectly wearing masks could make you sick, stating at the time, "I think people see a mask and they see an illusion of protection."

    And while Eisenman has since changed his opinion, noting that "the evidence is very much in favor of masks as an important protector in the spread of Covid-19," he's found it difficult to convince people who point to his earlier statements. As he put it, even though he explains that the science has changed—and so therefore have his recommendations—"it doesn't seem to satisfy anybody."

    Another challenge is how some people deal with their dislike of the mask mandates, Khazan writes. Matt Motta, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University, who researches online misinformation, explained that people who won't want to do something—in this case, wear masks—will often adopt as fact these sort of "quasi-scientific rationalizations" to support their preferences.  

    Ultimately, Khazan writes, online misinformation like this is just one example of the "'infodemic' scientists have been battling alongside the coronavirus pandemic" (Khazan, The Atlantic, 10/8).

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