FactCheck Social Media

Reheated news clip obscures up-to-date advice on masks

2021-07-09 14:15:59

The Statement

Social media users in Australia are pointing to a Nine News story as evidence that face masks are not effective against the spread of COVID-19.

A two-minute video of the news segment begins with an anchor saying: “Healthy West Australians are being warned against using face masks to protect themselves against coronavirus.”

The report goes on to say the state government’s advice was in line with that from the World Health Organisation (WHO) – that only those with COVID-19 symptoms should wear masks.

The item features Western Australia Health Minister Roger Cook, who says wearing a face mask “as a fit and healthy person in the street is not going to provide you with any greater level of protection”.

It also includes an appearance from a Curtin University academic, Ben Mullins, who tells viewers face masks will “soak up moisture very easily and can easily infect someone wearing them”.

A video of the news segment was posted on June 30, 2021 to an Instagram account for Jamie McIntyre, who has previously shared various misinformation about COVID-19 (see here, here and here), with the caption: “Channel 9 admitting masks shouldn’t be used”.

Another Australia-based Instagram user posted the same news segment on July 1, 2021 adding a subtitle to the video saying: “Masks do NOTHING. Mainstream lamestream catches up 2yrs later…”

Several other social media users have shared the video with similar comments (see here, here and here).

The Instagram post
 Social media users are sharing a Nine News item about masking to prevent COVID-19. 

The Analysis

The Nine News segment is real but it was broadcast more than a year ago, in April 2020 – a key piece of information not mentioned in the social media posts.

It also deals primarily with the usefulness of masks in protecting the wearer from COVID-19, rather than their ability to halt the spread of the virus from the infected to others.

Since the segment was broadcast, the advice on masks has evolved. The West Australian government has long recommended that face masks be worn to combat COVID-19.

During the state’s five-day lockdown beginning on January 31, 2021, the WA government made masks mandatory for all residents when outside their homes. Masks have also been mandated during subsequent snap lockdowns affecting the Perth and Peel regions of WA (see here and here).

WA Premier Mark McGowan has also advocated for the use of masks during COVID-19 outbreaks in the state, telling a news conference on May 2, 2021: “We can avoid a lockdown purely based on the restrictions we have had in place over the past week and the requirement that people had to wear masks; it has significantly reduced the risk of transmission in our community.” (video mark 6min 6sec)

On May 6, Mr McGowan said: “Obviously, masks can be annoying but they do help protect us.”

At the time of writing, everyone in Western Australia is required to wear a mask at airports, while travelling on aircraft, or when transporting a person who is subject to a quarantine direction. The Australian government’s infection experts have also identified that masks are most effective for source control – to prevent those with COVID-19 from infecting others.

Curtin University professor Ben Mullins, the expert in aerosols featured in the Nine broadcast, told AAP FactCheck he was not suggesting in the interview that all face masks were ineffective.

“The comments I made are still valid, however I was by no means suggesting they do not work,” Prof Mullins said in an email.

“I was mainly referring to poor-quality homemade masks here that are worn too long – especially in wet/winter conditions. The interview was at a time when all and sundry were trying to make/sell masks.

“Commercially made masks and good quality cloth masks incorporate a hydrophobic (water repellent) barrier to help limit transmission of accumulated droplets between the inside and outside.”

Prof Mullins added that since the interview was aired multiple epidemiological studies have been released showing that masks are effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The WHO has also updated its advice on masks since the Nine story was broadcast. As previously explained by AAP FactCheck, WHO officials initially said there was no evidence to suggest the wearing of masks by the general population was of benefit.

However, by June 2020 the WHO advised that masks should be worn in public where social distancing was not possible as the roles of asymptomatic and aerosol spread of the virus became clearer. The WHO has since consistently advocated for the use of masks to slow the spread of the virus.

A sign about mandatory masks
 The WA government introduced its first mask mandate in January. 

The Verdict

While the Nine News video featured in the posts includes advice against the use of face masks to protect wearers from COVID-19, the footage is more than a year old – information omitted from the posts – and does not deal with masks’ utility in stopping those who have the virus from infecting others.

Since the item was broadcast, official advice on mask-wearing has been updated and studies have been released indicating the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of the virus.

Missing Context –  The content may mislead without additional context.

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