Facebook suspends anti-mask group for spreading COVID-19 misinformation

Facebook has removed one of the largest anti-mask groups on its platform for violating its policies against spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

The About section of the public group Unmasking America! — which had more than 9,600 members — described it as “here to spread the TRUTH about masks!” It made several claims which have been widely debunked about masks obstructing oxygen flow and having a negative psychological impact. “It is a psychological anchor for suppression, enslavement and cognitive obedience. When you wear a mask you are complicit in declaring all humans as dangerous, infectious and threats,” the post stated.

It is one of dozens of such groups easily found in a search for “unmasking” on Facebook. Some of the groups are private, meaning a group admin has to approve new members before they can join. But the theme is the same: the groups oppose the public health intervention championed by medical experts. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks in all public areas, which should limit the spread of the virus. These Facebook groups are for people who don’t want to wear masks, and there are a lot of them.

Facebook’s action came after an inquiry about the group from The Verge. “We have clear policies against promoting harmful misinformation about COVID 19 and have removed this group while we review the others,” Facebook spokesperson Dami Oyefeso said in an email.

According to Facebook’s rules, if a group shares false news repeatedly, the platform will show the group’s content lower in users’ News Feeds and stop suggesting people join the group to reduce its growth.

Some of the anti-mask groups on Facebook

The Unmasking America group page included posts of photos from members wearing masks emblazoned with the Make America Great Again slogan or other references to President Trump, usually as a way of protesting mask requirements. Other posts described experiences dealing with stores that require masks, and many posters asked how to claim an “exemption” from mask rules.

An image of a “Face Mask Exempt Card” issued by the “Freedom to Breathe Agency” was linked to prominently; one poster advised others to “print it, laminate it and use it. The number is legit.” No such government agency exists and law enforcement officials have warned that such cards — which use a version of the justice department’s eagle logo — “do not carry the force of law,” The New York Times reported.

Among the private groups are the “Million Unmasked March” group, which has more than 7,800 members. “Parents are powerful! We are a group of moms, dads, grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers, friends, nurses and anyone who is concerned with our children wearing masks to school in fall,” the group’s “about” section reads. “We believe that our children wearing masks to school is physically and psychologically damaging. Join us in saying NO MORE MASKS!” And the “Unmasking Fear” group, which has about 400 members, is promoting an August 1st event “rallying against mandatory masks.”

Medical experts, however, say there are very few medical reasons to preclude most people from wearing cloth face coverings when they go out in public. About two dozen states now have some kind of public mask requirement in place. Even President Trump, who has been largely resistant to wearing a mask in public, tweeted Monday that it was “patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance.”

Facebook has taken several steps to attempt to stem the flood of coronavirus misinformation on its platforms, with mixed results. A scathing report in April from human rights group Avaaz found 100 pieces of misinformation regarding the virus on Facebook were shared more than 1.7 million times and viewed about 117 million times. Facebook announced April 16th that it was adding a warning label when a person liked, commented, or reacted to a post with fake coronavirus information. Also in April, the company said it was removing “pseudoscience” from the list of categories advertisers could use to target potential customers “to prevent potential abuse in ads.”

In May, the company released a report describing its use of artificial intelligence along with human fact-checkers and moderators to enforce its community standards. According to the report, in April, Facebook put warning labels on 50 million pieces of content related to COVID-19, and since March 1st, has removed more than 2.5 million pieces of content related to mask sales, hand sanitizers, and COVID-19 test kits.

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