In March 2021, anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiments emerged inside Let Them Breathe, a private Facebook group that describes itself as "pro-science." An open forum for misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic now thrives among its members. Kim, who said she is a mother, recently promoted in a post that she bought her kids "fake masks" for school to comply with local regulations. She was referring to ineffective masks — those purposely marketed with the word "fake" that don’t block transmission of disease — that otherwise look legitimate. Valerie, who also said she was a mom, replied, "where can I get the fake masks?" Kim responded with a link to an online store. The website, Fake Mask USA, said on its homepage, "these masks do nothing at all." Valerie replied, "hahahaha love it," and included a screenshot of the website, where it read, "100% of proceeds go toward trolling the left lol."
Facebook has allowed people who potentially lean toward anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiments to come into contact with others who agree with them inside groups, further entrenching them in anti-science values. These parents, many of whom have connected from across state lines, likely would never have met otherwise.
Using fake masks potentially endangers the lives of other children, teachers, and staff in learning institutions across the country that are following the advice of medical professionals. To be clear, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published studies that showed masks are an effective measure in reducing the spread of COVID-19.
Facebook is the largest social media platform in the world with 2.8 billion users worldwide, and the fake mask discussions aren't just happening in the Let Them Breathe Facebook group. We found numerous other groups doing the same, including Reopen California Schools, Parents Against Masks, Moms Against Masks, and others, totaling thousands of members.
In August, we reached out to Facebook's press team for comment on the post between Kim and Valerie for a previous story about how little the company appeared to be doing to stem COVID-19 denialism. Facebook did not respond to our questions about "fake masks," and the post is still available. This inaction, and the existence of other groups and posts that we uncovered, show that Facebook is allowing the discussion and promotion of websites that sell fake masks for children in schools to thrive. We eventually received a response to a subsequent email sent to Facebook, but our specific questions mostly went unanswered. We also reached out to Fake Mask USA, perhaps the most mentioned website in these groups. The company responded with hostility. More on that later.
Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin is the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. We asked her about the importance of parents looking to science and not conspiracy theories as children head back to school. "As pediatricians, we always try to make our recommendations evidence-based and rooted in solid science," she said. "We try to guide our patients and their parents to do the same."
While many parents in these Facebook groups could be considered COVID-19 deniers, some of them may simply not want their children to wear a mask due to other factors. For example, one parent cited "comfort" as a reason not to mask a child.
However, COVID-19 cases among children in the U.S. are skyrocketing during a crucial time: Schools are reopening for the new school year. Outbreaks have also been seen in child care facilities. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reported that 251,781 child COVID-19 cases were reported between Aug. 26 and Sept. 2 alone. As of Sept. 10, the AAP reported that "more than one in four new COVID-19 cases are now in children."
Over the last 30 days, young children have died of COVID-19 in California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, among other states. Education Week has also chronicled the "teachers, principals, coaches, counselors, and other staff members" in schools who have died of COVID-19. Hundreds of those who were lost were identified as "active teachers."
Despite what some parents may say on Facebook, research has shown that vaccines and masks are effective — especially for children. The CDC has recommended that "everyone 12 years and older should get a COVID-19 vaccination to help protect against COVID-19." Health officials have also said that "children between the ages of 2 and 12 should wear a mask in public spaces and around people they don’t live with." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised that children under 12 should not yet be vaccinated, but that "they hoped a vaccine for younger children would be authorized in coming months." On Sept. 20, Pfizer announced it would seek authorization for a vaccine intended for children ages 5 to 11.
In our comprehensive investigation, we found parents continued to promote online stores like Fake Mask USA to other parents weeks after we first contacted Facebook's press team. Meanwhile, schools across the country have opened their doors for a new school year.
The 'Fake Mask' Online Store
The Fake Mask USA website was mentioned numerous times on Facebook, either inside or outside of groups. Christina, who said she was a mother, posted in a California group, "Have to send your kids to school in a mask? Try these." In the post, she linked to the website. A user named Shane also posted the website to his personal Facebook feed, saying "get your kids masks here." Videos from the website claimed that the company had fulfilled orders for at least hundreds of thousands of fake masks.
Fake Mask USA links were shared on Facebook despite the very real dangers posed by wearing an ineffective mask during a worldwide pandemic that has already claimed the lives of more than 670,000 Americans and millions of people worldwide.
While the website did sell a see-through mask that was obviously fake and ineffective, it also sold a "Double Incognito Fake Mask." This mask was black and might appear to others to be an effective face covering to stop the spread of a deadly virus. However, the website said of all its products: "These masks do nothing at all." The website's FAQ mentioned nylon and polyester as some of the key materials used to make the masks. It also said: "Our masks do not stop the spread of COVID-19 and will not protect you from it either."
We contacted Fake Mask USA with several questions about the company's sales, products, and past. We also included information on the record-breaking rise in child cases, as well as the recent deaths of young children in many states.
In response, on Sept. 15, the company sent the following statement by email: "Fake Mask USA is a law abiding, veteran owned small business. We are the champions of American freedom -- we believe in the rights & freedom of the American people, that we have served & continue to serve as veterans. We (Fake Mask USA), ask that you (& all political elites) politely fuck off, & allow us to operate our business in peace -- UNCENCORED -- on American soil. We will never apologize for helping Americans breathe."
Fake Mask USA is based in Ohio. We reached out to Dan Tierney, press secretary for Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, with questions about the company's products. In response, he told us: "CDC guidance is clear that effective mask use outside of medical settings recommends use of disposable surgical masks or cloth masks made of two or more layers of breathable fabric."
On the day after we received Fake Mask USA's response, News 5 Cleveland reported that cases among children had "skyrocketed in recent weeks" in the state. "August had a daily case count of 106,247, the highest in a month since January. There have already been 86,551 cases reported among children in September. Cleveland 19 News also published on the same day that "hospitalizations include children of nearly every age." Doctor Robyn Strosaker, the chief operating officer of University Hospitals – Cleveland Medical Center, told WOIO reporter Michelle Nicks: “We’re seeing COVID in all age children from infants to teenagers, we are seeing children in the ICU, and we are seeing children on ventilators.”
In our investigation, we also reached out to vendors and social media companies with ties to Fake Mask USA. A spokesperson for Paypal told us over the phone that the company permanently suspended the Fake Mask USA account sometime earlier in 2021. It had been providing services for the purchase of the products.
The website's Facebook page and Vimeo account were both removed prior to our investigation. We contacted Facebook with questions about the removal of the page, as well as its Instagram account, which was still active. One photo on the Instagram page was a screenshot that showed the account had been flagged at least twice for community guidelines violations. A recent post also showed two young children wearing fake masks for school.
We asked Facebook why the mask company's Facebook page was removed, and whether the social network has guidelines regarding links to websites like Fake Mask USA. We also asked if the social network allows groups that promote fake masks because it wants to retain users on the platform.
A Facebook company spokesperson told us this: "We apply a range of policies to claims about mask wearing and COVID-19 misinformation and we’ve removed both the [...] Facebook Page and the [...] commerce listing for violating them. We continue to monitor groups on our platform and will take action against them if they break our rules."
Near the beginning of the pandemic, Facebook added labels to posts that lead to the company's COVID-19 Information Center. This section includes information that provides credible data from leading health organizations. However, it’s unknown if the simple act of placing labels on Facebook has the ability to make an impact on users who might have been led astray after years of consuming untrustworthy content on the very same platform.
In an email to Google, we inquired about paid advertising that was appearing on the search engine for Fake Mask USA. One of the ads read: "Masks That Do Nothing At All." We also asked about Google's COVID-19 policies.
In response, a Google spokesperson told us the ads would no longer be allowed: "Since the beginning of COVID-19, we have prioritized consumer safety and have mirrored our advertising policies on the latest guidelines from leading health authorities. We removed these ads under our policies which prohibit the promotion of harmful health claims that contradict scientific consensus."
We also reached out to TikTok about its COVID-19 policies in relation to the promotion of "fake" masks. In response, the company removed the company's TikTok channel, and said: "The account you shared has been removed for violating our policies around misinformation."
Tucows was the parent company of the domain registrar for the Fake Mask USA website. We contacted Tucows by email to ask about its COVID-19 content policies. In response, a company spokesperson told us that it "took action and suspended the fakemaskusa.com domain for posing a threat to human life." The website later came back to life on a different domain, this time registered with Domain.com. Fake Mask USA's domain registration information also showed name servers for BigCommerce.com. Neither Domain.com nor BigCommerce.com returned our correspondence.
Fake Mask USA appeared to use the Reddit alien mascot named Snoo in its branding. According to Reddit's website, "all commercial use is reserved for Reddit and its licensed partners." We asked Reddit if Fake Mask USA licensed the mascot's use to the website. In response, Reddit Legal told us: "No, we did not authorize this use."
Social media posts from Fake Mask USA often referred to the company being impacted by what's known as cancel culture. However, that popular modern term did not seem to apply in this case. Proper mask-wearing during this global pandemic is not a matter of opinion or someone being offended, but rather a matter of life and death.
Let Them Breathe Facebook Group
In the private Facebook group Let Them Breathe, which has tens of thousands of members, a majority of the posts appeared to be from people who held anti-mask and anti-vaccine beliefs. The group's leadership claimed to be pro-science, but posts made by members told a very different story.
We found countless instances of parents asking for advice with other parents responding with links to Fake Mask USA. To restate, these weren't simply the kinds of see-through masks that look like a joke. Fake Mask USA also sells fake masks that look like they might be effective, even though they are not.
A group member named Allison posted a link so other parents could buy fake masks for their children for school. She included in her post that "you can't tell they are fake." A group member named Edina commented, "I got these and agree, you can’t tell at all." Allison then answered questions, helping a user named Amy figure out which fake masks to purchase for her kids for class.
In another post, a user named Melissa said: "My son's new masks came in for school! #twocanplaythatgame #mommabear #idareyou." However, the odd inclusion of "mommabear" goes against the reality that real mother bears with cubs protect their young from danger.
In the Let Them Breathe private Facebook group, we also found around 100 comments that compared masks to Nazi Germany. Under the Nazis, of course, millions of Jews, Soviet civilians, Soviet prisoners of war, non-Jewish Polish civilians, and people of multiple other backgrounds were murdered in acts of genocide (mass extermination), whether by gunfire, starvation, gas chambers, ovens, disease, mutilation, or other means.
The group's administrators appeared to take no action in response to the remarks.
Aside from the posts, we also found organized events and rallies that took place outside of Facebook, including at school board meetings. Such school board meetings have become contentious in recent weeks, with some vocal parents not wanting to adhere to research that shows masks are effective.
Reopen California Schools
In another Facebook group, Reopen California Schools, a user named Rebecca asked for help to find an exemption letter for her children: "Anyone have a dr willing to sign mask exemption?" She received 63 answers. One of those answers advised her to join the Let Them Breathe Facebook group. Another person linked to Fake Mask USA.
In the very same post, a commenter named Malissa asked: "Anyone know where to get a fake vaccine card?"
Several other parents also shared links to Fake Mask USA. They used Facebook as a meeting place to find ways to prepare their children for school with ineffective masks, potentially endangering the lives of everyone at their respective learning institutions. Facebook took no action on their posts, nor did the group's leadership.
Parents Against Masks Facebook Group
In another private Facebook group, Parents Against Masks, which recently changed its name to People Against Mandates, a user named Angela asked for mask advice for her children in school. A user named Stephanie replied with a link to Fake Mask USA.
A user named Brandi also advertised Fake Mask USA in Parents Against Masks to several users who appeared to be mothers. She said of her child, "I'm much more concerned about him wearing something like this on his face for 8 hours than I am a virus that the mask is useless against."
Fathers were also present in the groups, including Adam, who appeared to be a dad from the Midwest. "We ordered ours today," Adam said, linking to Fake Mask USA. A handful of parents liked and commented on the post. As with all of the groups covered in this story, these were just a small sampling of posts in which parents advised each other about where to buy fake masks.
Moms Against Masks Facebook Group
In the private Facebook group Moms Against Masks, more users claiming to be mothers from across the country joined to find others who agreed with them.
Amy, who appeared to be a mom of two young kids, asked for mask advice for sending her children to school. Commenters responded with two websites that sold fake masks. She later thanked the people who offered suggestions and said that she bought masks from one of the websites.
In another post in the group, a user named April claimed that a video showing real doctors standing outside of a hospital actually showed "crisis actors." However, this was false. PolitiFact reported about another claim involving the same video.
On Sept. 4, an admin for the group said: "Facebook has put a restriction on this page until October 2nd requiring Admin approval for posts. It is noted that future violations may shutdown the page." She then advised members to consider using "code words or abbreviations such as M for *ask or C for *ovid or V for *accinated to avoid Facebook algorithms."
These four Facebook groups were just a sampling of the parents who have connected and organized on the social media platform.
In our correspondence with Ameenuddin, who also serves as an assistant professor with Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, she mentioned the task of finding facts in a time where uneducated opinions seem to dominate the social media landscape. "We also know that it’s very challenging to sort out good information from misinformation, especially these days when the Internet presents all options to people without any sort of quality filter," she said. "This problem is compounded when social media algorithms and online contacts favor inflammatory or inaccurate information sources and help propagate misinformation without any scientific or medical vetting."
Ameenuddin told us that she "would encourage any parents who have questions about what they have seen online about COVID-19, vaccines, masks, and any other questions related to their child’s health to talk to their pediatrician, with whom they have a trusted relationship and who knows their child."