Do you wear a mask when you go shopping? If so, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), believes you could be helping “bring this epidemic under control” within the next few months.
Or, according to members of the Unmask US Facebook group, you're a "sheep" participating in the "manufactured plandemic."
Experts now broadly agree that masks are an important tool in combating the spread of coronavirus, and those who eschew wearing them have been shamed on social media, starring in multiple viral confrontations in recent weeks.
However, social media has also provided a so-called "safe space" for these "anti-maskers," who have turned to Facebook groups for swapping debunked science and strategies to support their position.
On Tuesday, the Verge reported Facebook suspended a public group called Unmasking America!, "one of the largest anti-mask groups" with more than 9,000 members. According to a statement to the Verge from Facebook, the group was removed for "promoting harmful misinformation about COVID 19," and the platform was reviewing some of the "dozens" of others mentioned in the article.
However, searching for both "unmask" and "mask" on Facebook continues to rank many of these groups highly, despite some including posts flagged by Facebook itself for falsehoods.
While most of the remaining groups are significantly smaller than Unmasking America!, they still see hundreds of posts a day. Many are localized, with state-specific "unmask" groups appearing in search results for California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, among others.
Most are private, but a scroll through public ones, such as Unmask California, shows tips for shopping without masks, pseudoscience articles, and plenty of mask-related memes, repeatedly comparing mask mandates to both slavery and the Holocaust.
Members link to multiple YouTube videos, many since removed, which attempt to "debunk" scientific facts or proudly present confrontations with masked store employees.
In this group and others, there is a clear connection to conspiracy theories. The Unmasked Nation., another public group with about 1,500 members, writes for its description: "Unmask the lies of the virus. Expose the evil of those [who] claim to care for others but control is their goal."
Recent posts in that group speculate on Trump's about-face on face masks (yes, there are QAnon theories), erroneously attribute quotes about controlling populations to Hitler, and promote the false claim that masks will weaken your immune system.
As the Verge noted, Facebook has stepped up its moderation efforts during the pandemic, employing artificial intelligence in addition to human fact-checkers and adding measures to identify fake content to users. The platform has also run alerts at the top of its pages encouraging people to wear face coverings.
However, the content shared in groups, in particular, has proved problematic for months, even after being flagged to Facebook.
For example, groups the Daily Dot reported to the platform in May can still be found on the site months later, despite including potentially dangerous advice on obtaining and consuming bleach "cures" to combat coronavirus.