Don’t Buy a Mask or Vaccine ‘Exemption Card’ From Facebook
A scam involving the sale of bogus “exemption cards” for people who don’t want to wear masks or get the Covid-19 vaccine is still being blatantly promoted on Facebook and Twitter, despite promises from both companies to curb health misinformation.
Advertisements for exemption cards claiming “Medical Mask Exemption” and statements such as, “Under the law of informed consent I refuse any and all vaccinations,” were identified across social networks by Media Matters, a left-leaning media watchdog group and nonprofit organization. According to Media Matters researchers Kayla Gogarty and Kellie Levine, “Links to buy these ‘vaccination exemption’ cards have been posted on multiple social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Telegram.”
The New York Times reported on the existence of mask exemption cards last June when they first began appearing. That batch of cards featured emblems for the Justice Department and a fraudulent government agency called the “Freedom to Breathe Agency.” According to the Times, “such cards and fliers were not issued or endorsed by the Justice Department, federal officials said.” CNN discovered that the Freedom to Breathe Agency was actually a Facebook page of more than 5,500 members that aimed to stop mask mandates from “spreading nationwide and globally.” The cards were being sold in boxes of at least 500 for $49.99.
OneZero identified a dozen pages claiming to sell mask exemption cards, many of which were algorithmically recommended by Facebook
Nearly a year has passed and the scam continues to proliferate online, somehow evading numerous declarations by Facebook and Twitter to eradicate Covid-19 misinformation. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. Twitter said it is taking action against Covid-19 misinformation.
“We’ve marked URLs associated with this content as unsafe and required the removal of several Tweets for violation of the Twitter Rules against COVID-19 misinformation related to this content,” a Twitter spokesperson said. “In addition to proactive reviews of this content by our Trust and Safety teams, we continue to rely on dedicated channels with industry peers, local, regional and global public health officials to ensure we’re mitigating misleading information that presents the biggest potential harm to people’s health and well-being.”
As the Times and CNN previously reported, mask exemption cards are generally meaningless. The Justice Department issued a flyer noting that some cards disingenuously cited the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and urged the public “not to rely on the information contained in these postings.” The ADA, which is enforced by the Justice Department, has been inaccurately invoked by anti-mask propagandists, but does not broadly exempt disabled people from wearing a mask. Though it does require them to be “reasonably accommodated” by “employers, public businesses and the government [they] do not allow for simple exemptions from mask-wearing without replacing it with another measure in line with public health requirements,” USA Today reported last July.
Some cards go even further by claiming to exempt a holder from being vaccinated, which has “no legal basis,” Media Matters noted. There is no federal vaccine mandate. “Whether a state, local government, or employer, for example, may require or mandate Covid-19 vaccination is a matter of state or other applicable law,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states. However, though an employer may require employees to get vaccinated — many school districts are strongly urging teachers to get the vaccine, for example — some medical and religious exemptions may be considered.
These cards validate neither medical nor religious exemptions. Instead, some attempt to cite the “law of informed consent,” which requires medical professionals to educate patients about the liabilities and risks involved in a treatment so they may consider that information before consenting. But a card referencing this right does not convey any legal power. “Any individual who attempts to violate my right to consent will be prosecuted under the full extent of the law,” one such card falsely claims.
On Facebook, users have posted links to exemption cards being sold by “Exemption.Cards,” which claims to be a “patriotic family” business in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as an online shop called “Hacking the Headlines.” These cards range from $5 to $20.
More than 4,600 users have followed the Facebook page for Exemption.Cards. OneZero identified a dozen pages claiming to sell mask exemption cards. Some of them were promoted by Facebook’s recommendations algorithm, which suggests related pages that users might like.
Media Matters found that Facebook earned at least $57,000 on more than 130 ads promoting mask exemption cards. “Facebook removed the majority of these ads, but they had already earned millions of impressions,” Media Matters reported. (Some of these posts were also labeled by Facebook as “false information.”) This is notable as Facebook announced last October that it would ban ads discouraging people from getting vaccinated, The Guardian reported. Months later, however, BuzzFeed News identified anti-vax ads still running on the platform, revealing the porosity of Facebook’s health misinformation efforts.
As OneZero has reported, vaccine and Covid-19 misinformation is one of Facebook’s most persistent moderation woes. Throughout every iteration of its pandemic policies, Facebook has struggled with the enormity of health misinformation on its platform.
Exemption cards have been promoted on Twitter as well. This month, Twitter announced that it would be implementing a strike system in regard to “Covid-19 misleading information,” and said it would be labeling such content in the same way it appended labels to election misinformation. Previously, the company required users to remove tweets it deemed in violation of its policies around Covid-19 and vaccines.
This story has been updated with a comment from Twitter.