Misinformation and the Mask

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

August 1, 2020 by Kate O'Connor

During a global pandemic, it is more important for individual citizens to take recommended actions and fulfill their civic responsibility in order to stop the spread of a virus. As the world works together to contain COVID 19, the vast majority of public health officials have set out recommended, and often required, actions. They encourage people to wash their hands often, stay two meters apart, and wear masks. 30 states, including California, Hawaii, and New York require people to wear masks when outside of their homes. However, many, particularly in the US, are fighting against mandates to wear masks and are using misinformation to back up their claims. In a time as serious as a global pandemic, misinformation directly causes people to lose their lives. It is becoming apparent now, more than ever, the true dangers that lie in misinformation.

The debate over masks, particularly in the US, has become politically polarizing and is causing both Republicans and Democrats to become even more entrenched in their own political views. As we live through a pandemic, we’re also living through a time where doctoring posts on social media and the use of social media as a major source of news is increasing. It is easy to photoshop supposedly ‘scientific’ posts claiming that masks are harmful to the wearer. These posts can then be shared thousands of times before anyone realizes they are fake. News and information can spread incredibly quickly which is worrying when the information that is spreading is not only untrue but also harmful.

The battle against misinformation started long before the coronavirus, but has become more important in recent months. In January 2020, the BBC developed a team that runs “BBC reality check,” in which they follow up on stories, articles, and social media posts that might contain misinformation. Recently, they looked into the mask debate and systematically debunked the common claims that masks deprive your body of oxygen, cause carbon dioxide poisoning, and harm the immune system. Furthermore, Facebook recently suspended the anti-mask group “Unmasking America” for violating Facebook's policies against the spread of misinformation related to COVID 19.

Attempts to stop the spread of misinformation are important because in a time where governments and health officials are calling for unity, the pandemic is being exploited and politicized to create further divisions. Instead of wearing masks to promote safety, it is becoming a symbol of political identity. Trump is on record saying that wearing a mask is “not for him.” He talks about masks in ways which speak to his supporters and reinforce the idea that the decision whether to wear a mask is a political choice.

It seems that America is becoming more polarized every day. Both sides see the other as the problem. However, hope is not lost. The American nonprofit, Beyond Conflict, studies polarization and global conflicts. They recently conducted polling which shows that Americans are not as polarized as they think they are. In fact, both sides “overestimate how much mutual disdain there is.” When isolated incidents are reported on the news such as armed right-wing militia groups in Michigan protesting stay at home orders, or mayors and government defying shutdown orders and opening up stores, it is easy to fall into the assumption that the “other side” must all be that way or think the same way when in reality that is not true. The actions of a few people do not define an entire political party or group of beliefs. While this is not an example of misinformation, it is an example of a lack of information which can be just as harmful. Assumptions based on little data only serve to increase feelings of polarization and hate.

650,000 people worldwide have now died from the coronavirus. 149,000 people who have died were American citizens. It is evident, now more than ever, that the spread of misinformation is a deadly threat. It is time that the US government depoliticized the choice to wear a mask and unite their people in order to fight COVID-19 together.

Kate O'Connor ('20) is a Managing Editor at SPR. She is heading to the University of Toronto to study Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.

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