Face mask haters often don’t trust the federal government, whether it’s top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that hasn’t stopped some of them from pretending to be part of the same system.
A fake CDC notice, complete with a photoshopped CDC letterhead, is the latest anti-masking hoax making the rounds on social media. The forgery, which often takes the form of a picture of a printed-out CDC bulletin, falsely claims that the agency does not recommend people wear N95 respirator masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. The hoax comes after months of politicized debate over masks, with some opponents faking health issues or citing non-existent legal guidelines in order to avoid wearing personal protective equipment.
The fake CDC document, the earliest iterations of which appear to have been uploaded this month, has spread across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and more specialized websites like a hunting forum. Many of the meme's largest audiences came from already-fringe circles, like a podcast that traffics in conspiracy theories and Twitter users who believe in QAnon.
In some instances, QAnon accounts with thousands of followers shared the image, claiming it came from the CDC. (In one case, an account with more than 10,000 followers shared it during an argument with an actual nurse, falsely claiming the feds contradicted her medical advice.)
Like previous hoaxes that have proliferated across the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic, the post falsely claims that face masks are actually harmful for wearers’ health, despite repeated guidelines from medical officials, who say the masks help stop the virus’s spread.
But unlike other hoaxes, like the conspiracy film Plandemic, which featured a discredited researcher trying to cast doubt on medical authorities, this forgery poses as the CDC itself.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirator mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus (COVID-19),” the forgery falsely claims, under a letterhead ripped from real CDC documents.
The letter then goes on to make multiple false claims about other forms of masks, like cloth masks, incorrectly claiming they increase the wearer’s disease risk. (This claim has been repeatedly debunked.)
Some previous COVID-19 hoaxes have impersonated the CDC, but for other purposes. In March, the FBI issued a warning about a phishing campaign, in which hackers posed as the CDC and sent emails with links that appeared to contain information about the virus. When readers clicked links or downloaded attachments, their computers became infected. Other scams involved posing as the CDC and asking readers to “verify” their information, turning over their personal details to the imposters.
The CDC confirmed that the anti-N95 document was a hoax.
“CDC typically does not issue guidance or recommendations to the public in such a format,” an agency spokesperson told The Daily Beast, noting that the most popular version of the meme showed a printed-out notice. “CDC’s guidance and recommendations are distributed on the agency’s website, officials social media accounts, and through news media.”
Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at left-leaning watchdog Media Matters for America, has monitored anti-masking rhetoric—which has centered on the far right—throughout the pandemic. He said he’s worried that current suspicion over the CDC “plays into a vaccine when one is eventually manufactured.”
“People including Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, who have audiences of millions of people, are really priming their audiences to disbelieve anything public health officials say,” Gertz told The Daily Beast. “Given the need for widespread use of a vaccine in order to get herd immunity, that's setting us up for perhaps a very dangerous and painful future situation."
Some people should not wear masks, the CDC spokesperson acknowledged, but those categories are highly limited and include children younger than 2 “or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”
Regular masking by the rest of the population can help protect people who cannot wear masks.
For the majority of people, contrary to the hoax, “CDC’s face covering recommendation has not changed,” the spokesperson said.