Even though social media companies are fighting to contain misinformation about the covid-19 pandemic, there are inevitably some and unfortunate and alarming messages that manage to circulate far and wide on the platforms. The latest viral rumor states that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expected to recommend that Americans begin to wear masks in everyday life in a number of days. It is not true.
The message was published to Twitter on Saturday by Dr. Matt McCarthy, an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell and a staff physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. In the tweet, McCarthy stated that the CDC would be changing its guidance on face masks and expand it to include the entire population. The CDC currently only recommends that people who are sick or caring for sick individuals wear face masks, in addition to healthcare workers.
A couple of hours later, the CDC replied directly to McCarthy on Twitter and told him that it had no plans to do what he suggested. It also pointed him to a link to its current guidance on face masks.
“CDC does not have updated guidance scheduled to come out on this topic,” the agency replied.
Nonetheless, the damage was done. As of Sunday afternoon, McCarthy’s tweet was still on the platform and it had been retweeted more than 20,000 times and liked more than 50,000 times. The CDC’s reply, in comparison, had only been retweeted about 2,100 times and liked 6,500 times.
Several people on Twitter, including Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, told McCarthy to take down the tweet given that the CDC said it wasn’t true.
“Now that CDC has denied this report, please delete your tweet to avoid a rush on masks that will further jeopardize the lives of medical professionals,” Shaub wrote.
Twitter told Gizmodo that it had reviewed McCarthy’s tweet and that it did not violate its policies against covid-19 misinformation.
This decision is confusing, especially given that Twitter’s policy around covid-19 content states that it would require people to remove “specific and unverified claims that incite people to action and cause widespread panic, social unrest or large-scale disorder,” among others.
I don’t know, saying that the CDC is going to advise everyone to wear face masks sure sounds like a way of inciting a whole lot of people to buy face masks. It also isn’t hard to imagine that this message could cause “widespread panic” if people believe it and can’t get their hands on face masks.
Considering that there’s a shortage of face masks in the U.S., with some doctors saying that they’ve only been given one mask to use indefinitely, the idea of people going out to buy the few that may remain is worrying.
This isn’t the first questionable decision that Twitter has made about covid-19 content on its platform. Earlier this month, it declined to remove Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s tweet that claimed that children are “essentially immune” to covid-19, which is not true. Although a recent study found that most children develop mild or moderate covid-19 symptoms, it stated that some can become seriously ill.
Update Monday, April 6: Reversing its earlier guidance, the CDC now recommends that everyone wear “cloth face coverings in public.” The change follows a number of recent students that found “that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms.”