Earlier this week, Jodie Meschuk, an anti-vaccination advocate with 19,000 followers, posted a graphic of children’s cherubic cartoon faces, with the caption “Un-mask our kids. Let’s talk mom to mom.” The graphic contained many erroneous claims about the risks associated with wearing face masks, including that it can lead to “inhaling micro-mold caused by trapped water vapor from exhalation,” “inhaling the slow buildup of CO2” which can cause “impaired cognition,” and most terrifyingly, “suffocation for babies or toddlers who cannot communicate when they need more oxygen.”
“Our community is seeing evidence of ALL of these issues in children. LET KIDS BREATHE,” the graphic concludes.
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The graphic was widely shared among certain circles of Mom Instagram, including by Jalynn Schroeder, an influencer with more than 54,000 followers who has recently pivoted to posting QAnon content. Of course, such claims are dangerously incorrect, says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine of the Baylor College of Medicine. “In general, for a person who’s healthy or an individual with moderate levels of disability, there is no health contraindication that I’m aware of,” he says of wearing masks, adding that such misinformation as that perpetuated by Meschuk’s post is “the price we pay for underpaying high school science teachers.”
Yet this messaging about masks does not just exist on the fringes. Lifestyle influencers of all stripes have been sharing inaccurate and dangerously misleading information about masks. Such posts often adhere to the personal liberty narrative espoused by many on the right opposed to mandatory masks policies, but some go even beyond that, arguing that masks are ineffective at preventing COVID-19 (they are not) or, even more egregiously, that they are actively harmful to children’s health.
One post by mother-of-seven Heidi St. John, a podcaster with more than 32,000 followers, is a repost of a video showing a woman coughing out what appears to be vapor while wearing a mask. “Still think masks work?” the caption says. Another, by Echo Unafraid, a self-described “wife, mama, and birth doula” with 43,000 followers, shows a crumpled mask on the ground, the caption decrying “discrimination” against those who refuse to wear one. “I am FOR you and I BELIVE [sic] in your right to make the right choice for your body, your face, your health, your beliefs, your family, YOU! with or without a mask on,” the caption reads. (“I am not a part of a political party nor do I choose who I care about through the lens of red or blue. I am not anti vaccine, anti mask, anti science, or anti anything,” she said in response to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.)
Many viral posts shared by influencers reflect a convergence of various debunked conspiracy theories, such as the Wayfair trafficking conspiracy theory, and anti-mask propaganda. “You’re worried I’m not wearing a mask I’m furious about the elite child trafficking pedophiles flaunting their crimes. – #WeAreNotTheSame #Wayfair #PedoGate,” one viral post reads. Another argues that children wearing masks puts them at risk for being abducted by traffickers. “How will a perpetrator or missing child be identified if you don’t know what he or she looks like?,” the post reads.
Much of this content also contains strong anti-vaccine messaging. “This has, in many respects, also become an extension of the anti-vaccination movement,” says Hotez. “It’s all under this fake banner of health freedom or medical freedom.” With the increasing politicization of masks, however, what started as a largely fringe movement “is starting to become more mainstream and normalized, and this is one of the big problems we face right now. [Masks are being viewed as] a sign of defiance or political identity, and that’s very dangerous when that starts to happen.”
Instagram has taken numerous steps to curb disinformation on its platform. It has, for instance, instituted policies against anti-vaccine misinformation by blocking numerous hashtags. Earlier this year it announced that it would be using third-party fact-checkers to scour the platform for misleading information related to COVID-19, much as its parent company Facebook has, downranking content that has been rated false by fact-checkers and prioritizing accounts like the World Health Organization for those searching for coronavirus information. And when one looks up hashtags like #nomasksneeded or #maskscauseillness, for instance, a notification pops up saying, “Looking for vaccine info?” and directing users to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Many of these influencers also share more traditional health and wellness content and do not necessarily brand themselves as harboring extremist views. A post that is skeptical of mask-wearing, for instance, is often couched in the language of organic living or non-toxicity, allowing followers to slowly view such content as normalized. And once one falls down the rabbit hole of anti-mask content, it is fairly easy to become initiated into various other conspiracy theories. Following one of these influencers, for instance, automatically prompts Instagram’s algorithm to recommend dozens more, all of whom share similarly anti-vaccine and COVID-19-skeptical.
The pivot to anti-mask content is somewhat surprising given how wary many influencers have traditionally been of expressing any remotely political views, for fear of alienating brands or followers. Yet in light of how much conspiracy theorizing in general has spiked during the pandemic, it doesn’t seem to be having much of a negative effect. “These are great! Every time I see a child in a mask my heart breaks a little more,” one comment on Meschuk’s post reads. “I can’t stand it.”