Update (7/8/20): Following the publication of this article, YouTube removed videos from Peggy Hall, Leigh Dundas, Aaron Lewis, and Del Bigtree for violating its community guidelines.
YouTube has allowed videos falsely stating that wearing a mask is harmful to rack up at least hundreds of thousands of views (and even be monetized in at least one case), even though YouTube’s policies prohibit it. Previously, the platform was forced to take down a viral conspiracy theory video titled Plandemic pushing that same claim. The videos in turn have been shared on Facebook, accumulating hundreds of thousands of engagements, even though Facebook’s policies also seem to prohibit it.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic has worsened in recent weeks in the United States, both public officials and health experts have urged people to wear masks to decrease the spread of the coronavirus.
But YouTube has hosted multiple videos falsely telling viewers that wearing a mask is harmful to their health, according to a review by Media Matters of English-language YouTube videos since early June featuring “mask” or “masks” in their titles on the tracking tool BuzzSumo. As of July 6, these videos have received a combined total of at least 700,000 views. The videos have also been shared on Facebook, getting a combined total of more than 400,000 engagements as of July 6.
YouTube and Facebook struggled with the spread of the same misinformation when the coronavirus conspiracy theory video Plandemic went viral on social media in May, although both platforms attempted to remove instances of the video specifically because it falsely suggested that wearing a mask can make people sick or lead to imminent harm. YouTube also has specific rules prohibiting “content about COVID-19 that poses a serious risk of egregious harm” and “medical misinformation that contradicts the World Health Organization (WHO) or local health authorities’ medical information about COVID-19.”
The new videos pushing the false claim against masks include a few featuring Peggy Hall, an activist opposing masks who recently started a lifestyle website. In those videos, which received over 200,000 combined views, Hall falsely claimed that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that wearing a mask lowers a person’s oxygen levels and urged people to not wear them, claiming masks cause an “increasing ... risk of infection.” Those videos in turn received nearly 200,000 Facebook engagements combined.
Another video, from Leigh Dundas, an anti-vaccine attorney, pushed a similar false claim regarding OSHA, alleging that masks “impede the flow of oxygen into your system.” The video has more than 170,000 YouTube views and 65,000 Facebook engagements (including being shared on the campaign Facebook page of an Arizona Republican state senator).
Another video featured a doctor named Aaron Lewis talking to James Meehan, a former ophthalmologist turned anti-vaccine “wellness” practitioner, in which Meehan falsely claimed a mask “blocks oxygen levels.” The video, whose title says “wearing face masks can be deadly,” has more than 100,000 YouTube views and more than 90,000 Facebook engagements.
Other videos that received tens of thousands of views each featured similar claims about masks. Del Bigtree, a major anti-vaccine figure, told his young son in a video titled “Mask test proves toxic for children” that wearing a mask creates “a toxic environment,” a claim he said was “based on science” (the video was shared on Twitter by a far-right Canadian political party). Another video featured Ohio Republican state Rep. Nino Vitale falsely claiming oxygen levels fall to dangerous levels after putting on a mask (Vitale also shared the video on Facebook); the video has since been removed by YouTube for violating its rules, but at least one reupload was still up at the time of publication. Other videos have also claimed masks are “oxygen-depriving” and “immune-wrecking” and that “we're killing ourselves” when wearing them. All of these videos got tens of thousands of Facebook engagements combined.
In one case, a video from conspiracy theory YouTube channel The Next News Network that falsely claimed that wearing a mask “lower[s] your immune system” even featured ads, meaning YouTube and the channel each made money off of the dangerous falsehood.