Facebook’s team of fact-checkers claimed Saturday that The Tennessee Star’s article comparing mask-wearing and infection rates is both “partly false” and “factually inaccurate.” But the social media giant made a judgment based on the content and conclusions of an entirely different article by The Federalist.
The Star based its article on a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Facebook’s fact-checking link led to a “verdict” written by Health Feedback. This organization identifies itself as “a worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in health and medical media coverage.”
Health Feedback included a link to a screen capture – not the original source – of The Federalist’s article. The right-of-center outlet’s article made a different, definitive assessment:
[The CDC report] shows that masks and face coverings are not effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, even for those people who consistently wear them.
Due to this statement, the fact-checker ruled in its “verdict” that The Federalist article and other similar articles are guilty of flawed reasoning.
Health Feedback explained that mask effectiveness can’t be evaluated by the CDC’s data because there are more mask-wearers included in the study than non-mask-wearers.
However, the CDC study pooled from nearly 2,000 individuals who received testing in 11 facilities across 10 different states: California, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Minnesota, Tennessee, Ohio, North Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
The study selected respondents at random from symptomatic individuals that were either positive or negative for COVID-19. Mask-wearing habits weren’t a factor in targeting or selecting respondents. In fact, the randomization and scope suggested a natural majority of mask-wearers and minority of non-mask-wearers.
Thus, Facebook assigned The Star’s article to the “verdict” given to The Federalist article, despite the wide differences in content and conclusions between the two pieces.
“An underlying assumption of [their] claim is that cloth masks are mainly intended to protect the wearer from infection,” stated Health Feedback.
However, The Star’s article never made this assumption. Instead, it included one quote from CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield that face coverings are the most important thing to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19. Furthermore, it made no claims or assessments based on Redfield’s statement.
Instead, The Star’s article based its claims on CDC data that masks may increase the chance of infection with COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses. The CDC’s exact data in the study showed a positive correlation between those who wear masks more often and those who fell ill with either COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses with symptoms similar to COVID-19.
Of those symptomatic individuals who “never” wore masks, 3.9 percent tested positive for COVID-19 and 3.1 percent tested negative. The trend continued upward consistently. “Rarely” accounted for 3.9 percent positive, 3.8 percent negative; “sometimes” accounted for 7.2 percent positive, 4.4 percent negative; “often” accounted for 14.4 percent positive, 14.5 percent negative.
Those who “always” wore masks accounted for 70.6 percent positive and 74.2 percent negative.
On the basis of this information in the CDC report, The Star called into question the possibility of mask-wearing practices impacting the chances of becoming ill with either COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses:
The report didn’t address the possible correlation between face mask hygiene and COVID-19 infection, such as proper handling and disposal of masks.
Mask hygiene implies practices such as inadvertently touching the face to adjust a mask, retaining or reusing dirtied disposable masks, or wearing unwashed reusable masks.
The Star also addressed the lack of information on mask types used for both types of respondents, as well as the individuals they came into contact with.
On the basis of these aspects of the study, The Star’s article called into question the meaning the CDC assigned to the data in their study.
The CDC study explained that those who tested positive for COVID-19 were “twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant” than those who tested negative. Based on this information, the CDC study concluded that dining establishments “might be important risk factors” for COVID-19.
However, the CDC’s conclusion didn’t address the parallel positive correlations between individuals who wear masks more falling ill with either COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses.
Unlike the fact-checkers suggested, the article didn’t dismiss the helpfulness of face masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. It simply begged the question: What caused the positive correlation between frequency of mask-wearing and illness rates?
It is unclear whether the fact-checkers read The Star’s article, since there was no mention of the article or the news network anywhere in its “verdict.”
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