As cases of COVID-19 surge across the country and more than 127,000 Americans have died to date, harmful narratives about mask wearing lead the conversation in the right-wing Facebook ecosystem. Over the past month, posts about masks from right-leaning pages earned over 5.5 million interactions and the posts that promoted skepticism about the efficacy of face coverings, despite experts’ recommendations, earned the most interactions.
Media Matters analyzed over 2,000 Facebook posts about masks from right-leaning Facebook pages between 12:45 p.m. EDT on May 30 and 12:45 p.m. EDT on June 30 in order to understand the narratives being spread within the right-wing Facebook ecosystem. We found that posts from these pages earned nearly 5.5 million interactions (reactions, comments, shares) on Facebook and averaged approximately 2,700 interactions per post.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear cloth face coverings in public and while interacting with people not living in the same household -- especially in instances where social distance is difficult to maintain -- to reduce coronavirus transmission via respiratory droplets. That recommendation is based on what is currently known about the virus and emerging evidence of the effectiveness of these coverings in reducing the spread. Public health experts agree with the CDC recommendation.
The top 10 posts about masks from right-wing pages that earned the most engagement in the ecosystem illuminate narratives that dispute CDC recommendations. The posts hold up mask-wearing mandates by public officials as a symbol of government overreach, dispute the effectiveness of face coverings, and, in some instances, encourage people not to wear them.
These narratives on social media are consistent with the broader right-wing media ecosystem, in which media figures have mocked and attacked others for wearing masks, bragged about or defended others for not wearing masks, and even made unsubstantiated claims that encouraging mask usage is part of a media conspiracy. This rhetoric has even created a partisan gap over safety measures, with Republicans less likely to say they wear masks even as they are more likely to want quick reopening of businesses temporarily closed to slow the virus spread.
These are the top 10 posts about mask usage from right-leaning pages:
The Hodgetwins (over 177,000 interactions)
Black conservative influencers The Hodgetwins posted a video on June 27, which has nearly 3.7 million total views. In the video, a woman proudly states, “I do not have a mask. I do not own a mask. I haven’t bought a mask. And I have no plans to buy a mask.” The video, which the woman describes as a “public service announcement,” also justifies not wearing a mask using misinformation typically promoted by anti-vaccine advocates.
Fox News (over 125,000 interactions)
On June 26, Fox News linked to an article about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden favoring a federal mask-wearing order for all Americans, which Fox described as “a significant intervention by the federal government and could see considerable pushback from states.”
Terrence K Williams (over 111,000 interactions)
Right-wing comedian Terrence K Williams posted the same video as The Hodgetwins on June 27 with a woman saying she hasn’t used a mask. Williams' post contributed over 1.2 million views to the nearly 3.7 million total views of the video.
American AF (over 103,000 interactions)
On June 11, right-wing retailer American AF linked to a selection of masks for sale which ironically included one that declares, “This mask is as useless as our governor.”
Ben Shapiro (over 99,000 interactions)
On June 23, Ben Shapiro linked to a race-baiting Daily Wire article about a county in Oregon that had exempted non-white people from wearing masks in public out of concerns about racial profiling — the order was rescinded and the article updated.
Daily Mail (over 94,000 interactions)
Right-leaning outlet the Daily Mail posted an article on June 25 about a barista earning $21,000 in tips after a viral video showed he refused to serve someone not wearing a mask. This and the American AF posts are the only two posts in the top 10 list that don’t explicitly oppose face coverings.
Diamond and Silk (over 84,000 interactions)
On June 26, right-wing social media personalities Diamond and Silk spread misinformation about the use of masks, claiming that people should be concerned only with wearing a mask to protect themselves and not be worried if others aren’t wearing them. In fact, public health experts say that masks are more effective at preventing an infected person from spreading the virus to others.
ForAmerica (over 77,000 interactions)
On June 28, conservative social media nonprofit For America linked to a Washington Times report on a Nancy Pelosi comment about a national mask-wearing mandate. “Nancy Pelosi wants to mask all Americans,” the post said.
Ted Nugent (over 67,000 interactions)
Musician and pro-Trump conservative activist Ted Nugent posted a meme on June 11 that ridiculed people for wearing masks.
Tomi Lahren (over 57,000 interactions)
In a June 10 video, Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren delivered an angry monologue about businesses owners being “punished” by cautious reopening measures while “protesters, looters and rioters get a pass.” Lahren also mocked leaders for encouraging people to socially distance and wear masks during reopening. She ended the screed with: “Welcome to 2020, where you can’t enter the grocery store without a mask, but if you’ve got a brick you’re A-OK.”
Media Matters compiled a list of 1,223 Facebook pages that pertain to news and media outlets, media figures, politicians, political parties, and issue-focused advocacy groups. Each page in this study also had over 500,000 page likes, had primarily English-language content, and posted content related to U.S. political news.
Pages were independently coded by two researchers and reconciled by a third researcher for two factors: (1) content related to political news and (2) ideological alignment (left-leaning, right-leaning, nonaligned, or “other”). Each page was individually reviewed, and only pages that regularly focused on news about American politics were included in the study. The ideological alignment of a page was determined by a page’s name, information in the “About” section, the page owner, and posts. Pages that expressed opposition to President Donald Trump or focused on issues primarily aimed at liberals (e.g., protecting abortion rights, calling for action against gun violence, etc.) were coded as left-leaning. Pages that expressed support for Trump or focused on issues primarily aimed at conservatives (e.g., restricting abortion rights, downplaying gun violence, etc.) were coded as right-leaning. All pages for right-wing and left-wing media outlets were automatically coded as right-leaning or left-leaning, respectively. Pages that did not have an ideological leaning in their content were coded as nonaligned. If there was doubt about whether to code a page as nonaligned or left-leaning, the page was coded as left-leaning. Pages were coded as “other” if they did not fit in any of the above categories or if they contained a mix of left-leaning and right-leaning content. These pages were excluded from the final dataset. The resulting list of pages were 384 right-leaning pages, 377 nonaligned pages, 435 left-leaning pages, and 27 “other.”
Media Matters compiled and reviewed data, including total interactions (reactions, comments, and shares), on Facebook posts about masks that were shared by Media Matters’ list of 384 right-leaning Facebook pages between 12:45 p.m. EDT on May 30 and 12:45 p.m. EDT on June 30. We defined posts that mentioned masks as any post that had any of the following keywords in the post’s message or in an included link, article headline, or article description: mask, masks, “face mask,” or “face masks.” The resulting data set included 2,009 posts from 235 right-leaning pages.