Coronavirus: Face mask exemption cards and other US claims fact-checked

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There have been protests against new rules on face masks across the United States

As some parts of the United States battle a surge in coronavirus cases, misleading posts and videos have been spreading on social media.

We’ve examined some of the most widely seen examples.

Fake face mask exemption cards

People opposed to the wearing of masks to tackle the spread of Covid-19 have been vocal in public meetings and on social media.

Footage of individuals resisting requirements to wear them in shops have gone viral online.

Now, the US Justice Department has put out a statement about “fraudulent cards” that purport to give the carrier an exemption from wearing a face mask in public.

The cards for sale state that “under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), I am not required to disclose my condition to you”.

One version includes a Justice Department seal and a link to the “Freedom to Breathe Agency”. The cards warn that businesses could be reported to this so-called agency. But the cards are not genuine.

An official government statement said: “These cards do not carry the force of law. The ‘Freedom to Breathe Agency,’ or FTBA,’ is not a government agency.”

According to fact-checkers Snopes, the Freedom to Breathe Agency is a Facebook group calling itself a “movement of proud American citizens who are dedicated to protecting their freedom and liberty”.

No evidence masks harm the immune system

Meanwhile, medical misinformation about masks continues to circulate.

One graphic shared thousands of times includes several misleading claims. It’s called, What happens when you wear a face mask, and has been marked as containing false information on Instagram.

The World Health Organization is clear in its advice – face masks of a breathable material which are worn properly will not lead to health problems.

It says: “The prolonged use of medical masks when properly worn, does not cause CO2 intoxication nor oxygen deficiency.”

The post claims the masks could suppress the body’s immune system, though there is no evidence to back this up.

“Masks may stop germs getting into your mouth or nose, so your immune system doesn’t have to kick in, but this doesn’t mean it is being suppressed,” says Keith Neal, an infectious disease expert.

How do you fact-check information you see online?

Misleading news about the coronavirus seems to be everywhere. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the pandemic, which helps misinformation to thrive.

Throw in a lot of unfamiliar science or statistics into the mix and it can be difficult to know what to believe.

Plenty of posts appear authoritative so it’s always wise to check if something you read on social media has been reported by an organisation you can trust.

The BBC has tips you can follow to help spot misinformation and stop it from spreading.

It was shared by various accounts including one claiming to be a “Natural Medicine Database” with 70,000 followers and a version translated into Russian (not labelled false) by an account promoting a range of conspiracy theories.

Much of the the anti-mask content comes in the form of memes making fun of them, which are widely shared on social media.

One viral example compares the hazmat-style clothing worn by virologists working in a lab to protect against viruses with the face coverings that members of the public might be making at home.

“Don’t worry, your bandana works too,” it says.

The earliest version appeared on a Q-Anon – a pro-Trump conspiracy theory – account and has also been posted by Donald Trump Jr generating more than 100,000 likes and shares.

But the US Centers for Disease Control does actually recommend bandanas and other cloth face coverings which can help stop the spread of the virus in a public setting.

‘Doctor’s confession’ video

A video titled, A doctor’s confession, suggesting coronavirus cases are being inflated has been viewed 1.5m times on TikTok, the video-sharing platform.

It’s claimed the reason coronavirus case numbers are so high is because anyone who walks into hospital – be it with a broken leg or bullet wound – is “written up as Covid positive”.

The man in the video is Darrell Wolfe who’s based in Canada. He says he works in “natural medicine”.

The clip was originally uploaded to Facebook (where it has had 265,000 views) and describes the situation in a local hospital which he claims comes “straight from a doctor”.

It’s not clear which hospital he’s referring to. We asked for more details, but have had no response.

The clip posted by a TikTok account did not name the person speaking. Many of the thousands of people who’ve commented clearly believe he’s describing the situation in the US.

But there’s no evidence we’ve seen to support this claim about counting coronavirus cases – whether applied to the US or Canada.

There are clear criteria for reporting coronavirus cases in both countries, and people who enter hospital with an unrelated illness or injury aren’t counted as a coronavirus case.

Unfounded ‘deep state’ theories

A video viewed 750,000 times on YouTube calls the pandemic a “mass media disinformation campaign” and a “political hoax”.

It contains various unsubstantiated claims blaming the “deep state” for manufacturing the pandemic in an election year.

The opening credits have a foreboding air, using World War Two footage and images of stormy skies in a homemade attempt at a Netflix documentary.

The description of the video urges people to “ditch the masks”.

The narrator suggests Democratic politicians intentionally put the public in harm’s way to increase the number of coronavirus fatalities and to stoke fear around the pandemic.

Additional reporting by Jake Horton, Olga Robinson and Shayan Sardarizadeh.

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