July 29, 2021

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. Sign up here to receive it on your email every Thursday.

Masked mania

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on mask-wearing to recommend that those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and living in areas with high rates of transmission wear masks in indoor settings. Naturally (because we can’t have nice things), this set off a firestorm of confusion, political bickering, and arguments about the merits of mask-wearing.

This is a newsletter about falsehoods, fact-checkers, and fact-checking, so I’ll leave the political analysis to others, but given the potential for zombie falsehoods about masks to reemerge from debunked obscurity, I want to take a moment to highlight some of the most prominent mask falsehoods from the CoronavirusFacts Alliance database.

The CoronavirusFacts Alliance is a collaboration between more than 90 fact-checking organizations in more than 70 countries who’ve compiled a database of nearly 15,000 fact-checks about COVID-19 in more than 40 languages. Here are three prominent falsehoods we’ve cataloged:

1) Masks (DO NOT) hurt children.

This falsehood has a few iterations, but two notable ones are the promotion of a German study that supposedly found negative psychological impacts on children from wearing masks and a claim that 10 children were admitted to a hospital in Vienna due to fungal infections from face masks.

The Franco-American fact-checking organization Health Feedback checked the claim about the German study and found that its flawed methodology undercut its conclusions. The study relied on online surveys from parents reporting negative impacts of mask-wearing on their children, but it never established a causal link between mask-wearing and the supposed negative impacts.

Georgian fact-checking organization Myth Detector and Agence France Presse’s Spanish-language fact-checking unit both tackled the claim about the 10 Viennese children. Myth Detector discovered it was a rehash of a falsehood debunked by German fact-checker Correctiv from October 2020. Correctiv reached out to 36 hospitals and found no evidence that 10 children had been afflicted with a mask-related fungal disease. AFP confirmed the same information by speaking with a spokesperson from the Viennese Health Association.

2) Masks (DO NOT) cause hypoxia

This one’s an oldie but a goodie and essentially claims that masks deprive wearers’ brains of oxygen, which causes an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and thus poisons the wearer. Of course, that’s not how masks work. As several fact-checkers have noted, the mask would have to be sealed to your face airtight with no ventilation to cause anything close to hypoxia.

This falsehood first popped up in the database in April 2020 right after the CDC began recommending cloth face masks as a protective measure against COVID-19. Mexican fact-checking organization Animal Politico told readers in its fact check, “although it is true that the mask can generate unpleasant sensations, do not worry. It is normal and wearing it will not cause you to lack oxygen.”

3) Studies (DO NOT) show masks don’t protect you against COVID-19.

Two separate fact-checks from Brazil, one from Agência Lupa and one from Estadão Verifica, confronted versions of a claim that science had disproven the effectiveness of masks.

Estadão Verifica confronted a flawed study that attributed correlation to causation while concluding that masks were ineffective. Experts cited in Estadão’s fact check noted the preprint/non-peer-reviewed study failed to consider other factors such as the impact of other public health measures such as lockdowns and forced isolation.

Agência Lupa’s fact check confronted a claim that the CDC had determined masks were a useless tool at preventing the spread of COVID-19. On the contrary, Lupa was able to cite studies from February and March 2021 that provided data proving that masks had a measurable impact on slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Interesting fact-checks

AP Photo/Luca Bruno

  • Reuters: “Video takes footage out of context and features clips of retractable needles” (in English)
    • World leaders have been publicly getting their COVID-19 vaccinations to prove the jabs are safe, but some online have propagated the falsehood that these vaccinations are fake and meant to lull the public into a false sense of security. Reuters confronted a compilation video of these fake jab claims and laid out accompanying fact checks that refuted the idea that retractable needles prove the vaccinations were staged.
  • FactCrescendo: “Priya Malik Did Not Win Gold In Tokyo Olympics” (in English)
    • India celebrated its first medal of the Tokyo Olympic Games with Mirabai Chanu taking home the silver medal in weightlifting. However, a social media post sought to add to India’s glory by falsely claiming another Indian weightlifter, Priya Malik, had taken home the gold. FactCrescendo ran a reverse image search, and found that the image used in the claim was from a separate weightlifting competition in Hungary that took place at the same time.

Quick hits

By Vitamin444/ Shutterstock

From the news: 

  • “Disinformation for Hire, a Shadow Industry, Is Quietly Booming,” from The New York Times. An increasing number of public relations and marketing firms are getting into the business of disinformation for hire. One study from Oxford University found these firms were operating in at least 48 different countries.
  • “The YouTubers who blew the whistle on an anti-vax plot,” from the BBC. An influencer marketing agency called Fazze got caught up in a scheme to recruit social media influencers to push disinformation about Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. The influencers were told not to mention that their videos were sponsored so as to appear as organic as possible.

From/for the community: 

  • “New Facebook partnership tackles health misinformation,” from Axios. Facebook announced a partnership with technology nonprofit Meedan to conduct trainings for members of its Third-Party Fact-Checking Program with doctors and health experts about confronting health misinformation. (Full Disclosure: Fact-checking organizations are required to be signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles to be eligible to partner with Facebook)
  • Brazillian fact-checking organization Agência Lupa is launching a membership program called “Contexto” (context in Portuguese) to help galvanize Brazilians into joining the fight against mis- and disinformation.  Members will get discounts to specialized trainings and a behind-the-scenes look at Lupa’s fact-checking process. The program will launch Aug. 3.

If you are a fact-checker and you’d like your work/projects/achievements highlighted in the next edition, send us an email at factually@poynter.org by next Tuesday.

Thanks for reading Factually, and a special thank you to Alex for his contributions this week!

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
Harrison Mantas

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