The common lament that the COVID-19 masking policy was confusing is a settled debate.
New research on Twitter traffic helps explain part of that confusion: influential social media voices failed to provide a clear endorsement of the most effective masking practices.
Social media and health researchers at Ohio University, Stirling University (UK), Sultan Qaboos University (Oman), and Tufts University School of Medicine analyzed a quarter-million Twitter postings (“tweets”) during the height of the pandemic, finding:
-Influencers shape opinion/affect behavior
- N95 masks are effective, but social media messaging about these masks was vague and ineffective
- Medical professionals and health experts tweeted the most about N95 masks, which filter at least 95% of airborne particles
- However, these top posters did not explain the appropriate model or specifications, thus contributing to ambiguity
Masking was a key COVID prevention measure, reducing hospitalizations and fatalities. Areas with higher mask-wearing compliance had lower COVID occurrence.
Although all major health agencies recommended facial coverings, masks became part of the polarized debate about COVID prevention and treatment.
Other research has found that tweets including anti-mask hashtags were significantly more likely to use toxic language.
Anti-maskers had negative attitudes toward vaccinations and their views were more political and ideological rather than related to any adverse health impacts of masks.
By 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) recommended cloth masks -- the opposite of their earlier advice. The CDC has thus been criticized for unclear messaging.
On the day New York Governor Kathy Hochul lifted a statewide mask mandate, the federal agency CDC recommended mask wearing in places of high-risk transmission.
A consensus emerged, supported by federal testing, that N95 masks are effective. However, counterfeit, poor-quality N95 masks were common.Six of 10 N95 masks did not meet quality standards, according to a 2020-2021 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Our data showed that an overwhelming majority of tweets by health influencers mentioning the N95 masks did not provide further details about the correct type of N95 and the vital need to ensure a proper fit for the N95 mask.
Social media, with its brevity and immediacy, can contribute to misinformation and toxic speech. But healthcare influencers can be important social media influencers.
One lesson from COVID, our new research shows, is that health influencers missed the chance to educate the public about N95 masks and differentiate substandard versions.
As I write this summary, a new school year begins nationwide. When my five-year-old son arrived on the first day of school, he was the only student in his class wearing a mask, making him an outlier.
I appreciate the multiple reasons for mask weariness. One of those reasons is the vague endorsement from health authorities about N95 masks in a marketplace flooded with counterfeit versions of these masks.
Laeeq Khan, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and director of the Social Media Analytics Research Team (SMART) Lab at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication in Athens, OH.