This Might Be the Scariest Far-Right Mask Trend Yet

·15 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos by Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos by Getty

In passing, the Natural and Ultra face masks might seem like just a couple more unremarkable reusable cloths in the sea of facial coverings that have come to define pandemic life. But photos and product reviews of the masks show that, when viewed up close, pores become visible all across them. Reviewers have described the materials as sort of like a fine mesh, a structure experts say likely offers little protection against the coronavirus.

Rather than some kind of bug or limitation, however, the dissonance between the masks’ look from afar and up close is at the heart of the appeal of UnMask, the niche brand behind these and a few more face mask designs. They offer the appearance—but not necessarily the efficacy, experts say—of well-made conventional cloth masks. And they seem to be growing more visible just as the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which has started to inundate hospitals nationwide, makes effective masks and masking more vital than ever.

UnMask’s materials have outwardly claimed their masks are designed to help prevent the spread of coronavirus—and to comply with masking guidelines and mandates—without sacrificing comfort. (The UnMask site boasts their masks “won’t fog glasses, muffle your speech, or trap excessive heat and moisture.”) But dig into their ads, listings, and social media posts, and you’ll notice anti-mask signals and talking points, ranging from subtle nods to movement slogans to outright repetitions of trite misinformation soundbites about the supposed dangers of masking.

“Face masks, especially when worn for great lengths of time, can substantially reduce airflow, and for some people exacerbates their underlying health issues like asthma,” claims one blog post on the site, without offering evidence. (Masks do not limit oxygen, and while some health issues make it hard to wear masks, asthma experts actually say masking can help with the condition.) Elsewhere, UnMask dubiously insinuates that this supposed oxygen deprivation could stunt children’s development. The company says their breathable designs (which they claim without offering evidence offer “up to 95 percent more airflow” than regular masks) can help people mitigate these so-called risks—all while avoiding any hassle from regulators.

UnMask also frequently bashes mask mandates as “ridiculous” and “tyrannical” measures. One recent social media post presents a satirical fake interview with Anthony Fauci about a so-called Wheel of Science” that he and his colleagues supposedly use to issue arbitrary rules. (“The last time it was spun, they unleashed the new Omicron variant.”) When “asked” for his thoughts on UnMask, their Fake Fauci explains that mask mandates and wider coronavirus control measures are meant “to inflict the maximum amount of fear, pain, and suffering on the American people,” and thus he opposes their masks. (The brand is offering 25 percent off site-wide until Jan. 17 with the code “FAKEFAUCI.”)

While they market their masks to general consumers with promises of comfort and quality, the brand seems most invested in serving “free thinking, freedom loving people everywhere,” common code for anti-maskers. Notably, they seem to acknowledge—by citing customers’ accounts of coming under scrutiny in schools and airplanesthat most of their products don’t actually pass muster with stringent regulations, or at least the officials enforcing them. So they advise customers to consider buying their Natural or Ultra designs, as they offer “a more compliant look,” which they explain will help them avoid regulatory scrutiny.

In materials marketing their masks to air travelers specifically, they go so far as to promise that they will “go unquestioned, even by the most ‘woke’ sky ‘Karens.’” They add that, “The UnMask has become legendary and a dirty little secret for those who fly.”

In practice, experts say, the company offers the illusion of masking compliance—the ability to work and travel while wearing a face covering that may not comply with the letter or spirit of masking mandates—at the worst possible time.

“This is absolute bullshit,” Jeffrey Klausner, a USC epidemiologist and former CDC official (and occasional Daily Beast contributor), said in an interview. “They make it easier for people to thwart safety requirements. It’s like a company selling guns that evade metal detectors.”

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Product reviews posted on the company’s Facebook page indicate that many users clearly see them as tools for deception. “Perfect for virtue signaling,” reads one. “Masks are just for show. Get one you can breathe through,” reads another. “You can’t tell it’s as porous as it is unless you really examine it—which most mask Nazis aren’t going to do,” reads a third.

It’s hard to tell how popular UnMask is, or how many people actively use its masks to evade compliance with masking regulations. After The Daily Beast reached out several times via phone and email with a series of questions, including several about their sales and users, UnMask co-founder Jeff O’Shea replied in a brief note that neither he nor his business partner, Michael “Mick” Sakakeeny, “have the bandwidth to thoughtfully answer your questions.”

However, their own public materials claim they started to develop a cult following in the spring of 2021, and by the summer had already sold well over 100,000 masks. They come up repeatedly in conversations about how to deal with mask mandates on far-right digital forums. And they recently got a large visibility boost by sponsoring two articles on The Babylon Bee, a conservative Christian take on The Onion that’s grown popular in fringe circles: one ridiculing the science behind masking as a pandemic mitigation strategy, and one making light of the spread of the Omicron variant.

The niche yet apparently expanding popularity of UnMask is worrying to many public health experts—and not just because their masks seem to directly undermine the potential efficacy of mandates. They may also project a false sense of security among their users, and those around them, that could lead some individuals to take pandemic risks they wouldn’t if they were unmasked, or around openly anti- and un-masked individuals. Plus, the company spreads mask misinformation left and right, further undermining public health. All of this is especially troubling in light of the renewed importance of stringent masking practices as a tool to control the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

“This is a fundamental betrayal of the trust of others,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a researcher who tracks and responds to pandemic misinformation online, told The Daily Beast. “It’s endangering people.”

Every misinformation researcher The Daily Beast spoke to for this article said that they’d never encountered anything quite like UnMask’s peculiar approach to promoting anti-mask ideology. However, they all noted that this venture does seem like a natural evolution of trends in the anti-mask space, and issues with popular understanding and official enforcement of masking best practices.

Notably, as masks grew increasingly politicized over the summer of 2020, anti-maskers started buying flimsy, “breathable,” and overall clearly ineffective masks, often made out of mesh, on marketplaces like Etsy, and wearing them as a clear sign of protest. Initially, they coopted “fashion masks,” made as non-functional accessories for festivals, raves, and similar events. But soon, anti-maskers started to make their own masks, often emblazoned with phrases like “placebo” and sold with trollish disclaimers stating that they wouldn’t limit the spread of coronavirus—and neither would any other mask. (The ever-growing preponderance of evidence shows that proper masks and masking practices do help reduce the spread of the virus, although most experts stress that masking is only one useful mitigation tool among many.)

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there wasn’t any real clarity in mask guidelines about what materials or designs worked better than others, or how to properly wear a mask,” Jamieson said.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>UnMask's Natural and Ultra collection masks</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">getunmask.com</div>

UnMask's Natural and Ultra collection masks

getunmask.com

Some anti-maskers used this confusion, and lack of regulatory specificity, to freely waltz into facilities that just required face coverings but failed to put firm limitations on what that term meant, while wearing their mesh-or-worse porous, thin, ineffective masks. Many of them took these stunts as proof that mandates were all about state control, not public health.

Between the summer and fall of 2020, best masking practices grew clearer, popular awareness of them spread, and institutions updated their masking guidelines. In many cases, revised guidelines explicitly banned the obviously porous and insubstantial masks skeptics had been using to sail past checkpoints on technicalities in acts of clear dissent, and at times contempt. Gradually, it got a lot harder for people using visibly “breathable” masks to navigate through the world.

Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines—which set the tone for most state and private masking regulations across the nation—say that reusable cloth masks ought to be made of at least two layers of fabric, have a nose wire, and fit snugly on a person’s face. They don’t prohibit any materials (though they advise against the use of absolutely non-breathable fabrics like vinyl), but they stress that masks should be woven tightly enough that there are no holes or gaps visible to the eye, and that they block light when held up to the sun.

But mask manufacturing and sales still aren’t strictly regulated, and while some dubious masks are easy to spot thanks to large vents or other clear and gaping breaks in their material, it’s often hard to tell how well any given mask adheres to guidelines without a thorough examination. This has created the space for companies to make and sell dubiously effective masks of all sorts, according to Matthew DeVerna, a pandemic misinformation monitor—including more covert protest and trolling masks. Perhaps most prominently, at the end of 2020, an Ohio-based company called Fake Mask USA started selling the Incognito, which layered a sheet of perforated polyester on top of a sheet of nylon and spandex mesh to create what looks like a solid black face mask until it’s held up to light. They marketed it—like UnMask’s Natural and Ultra designs—as a tool for anti-maskers to sneak around regulatory barriers.

However, Fake Mask’s primary focus is open protest and confrontation. They also sell “The Offensively Fake Mask,” a sheer face covering, along with other far-right-friendly merch. (“Rittenhouse Walks” T-shirts. A “Let’s Go Brandon” magnet. A bottle opener that reads “Proper Pronouns Dude/Bro/Guy.”) They openly state that their masks (and, they claim, all others) don’t do anything to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and market their dissent aggressively, even flying small aircraft with banners bearing their website address and slogans like “Cancel Deez Nuts” over cities in the Midwest. As such, they and their products are easy to spot and carry a clear taint to them.

UnMask also started up in late 2020, in response to “airlines, schools and other workplaces… cracking down on masks they viewed as not good enough.” Like Fake Mask, they use a layer of polyester and a layer of nylon and spandex (per information provided in their product listings) to create the impression of compliance with updated guidelines while still making a porous mask akin to early pandemic “breathable” offerings. But unlike Fake Mask, instead of leaning fully into open protest, they adopted an ambiguous posture, projecting a veneer of mainstream regulatory compliance while simultaneously perpetuating and updating anti-mask protest and evasion tactics.

Far-right trolling and regulatory evasion notwithstanding, taking some kind of pandemic safety measure—or just the appearance of one—is arguably preferable to the alternative.

“Any mask or facial covering does mitigate the risk of transmitting coronavirus to some degree,” Albert Rizzo, the chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, told The Daily Beast.

It’s impossible to tell exactly how effective these or any other masks are without doing a full filtration test, according to Steven Rogak, a mechanical engineer who studies and evaluates mask materials. Generally, we know what materials work well in masks, and which don’t, and that tight weaves are often ideal.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images</div>
Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

But, Rogak pointed out, mask efficacy ultimately depends on a complex interplay of fiber type, thickness, weave style, layering approach, and fit on an individual's face. A porous material like gauze, for example, can be oddly effective at filtering out droplets—if it’s layered such that it creates a dense maze of fibers for virus-containing droplets to navigate. And a snugly fit cloth mask may end up providing more protection than a high-grade but entirely loose surgical mask.

However, every expert on mask materials The Daily Beast consulted for this article noted that synthetic fibers like polyester usually do the worst job of filtering out particles, and that visible pores and minimal layering usually do not augur well for efficacy. One product photo UnMask posted on its Facebook page shows one of its masks stretched out between a man's hands. Not only does light show through its pores, the individual's face is clearly visible straight through the center of the mask’s mesh-like material.

So, Rogak posited that, at best, UnMasks may perform as well as a basic homemade mask.

“I’d sure stay away from them,” he added.

As for their key comfort selling point, Rogak also seriously doubts that the UnMask’s mesh-like synthetic fiber layers actually provide as much breathability as something like an N95.

Notably, UnMask doesn’t clearly acknowledge any limitations to its products’ potential efficacy. It markets its masks like any other cloth mask—just one that's supposedly less harmful to the person wearing it, and more breathable. This, Georgetown University health-law expert and Daily Beast contributor Lawrence Gostin suggested, may lead unsuspecting everyday buyers to think they’re getting more protection than they actually are, “and thus to take unnecessary risks” that might expose them to the virus.

The company also appears to be engaging in deception on multiple levels. It doesn’t just attempt to make its masks look solid and regulation-compliant from a distance; in light of the fact that some institutions have supposedly started to recognize and ban their masks specifically for non-compliance, it’s endorsed cutting off branding tags to make it harder for people to figure out what they’re wearing and respond. As O'Shea wrote in a blog post on the UnMask site in October, “Unfortunately, the brand has attracted the attention of some of the same people that are intent on taking our freedoms away and demanding that we comply with their freedom sucking, tyrannical mandates”

"The only thing that makes an UnMask identifiable is the tag,” he added. “In some circumstances, where there is the potential for high scrutiny, it may be wise to cut out your tag to continue to fly under the radar.'"

All of this makes it difficult for regular people viewing these masks to recognize the risks that may be associated with them.

“It’s important to be able to identify if someone around you is protected, and as protective as you’d like them to be, in order to engage with them,” Jamieson said, either as an institution or an individual. By creating an illusion of protection, rather than any open acknowledgment or signal of its products’ limitations, UnMask denies people this vital health knowledge and agency, experts said.

What’s more, some of the company’s materials still openly claim that their masks are compliant with most masking guidelines. This too, could deceive people into believing that they’re as protected and protective as they need to be in a mask-required space, when in fact they aren’t.

“UnMask will cause preventable infections and hospitalizations,” Gostin argued.

Rebecca Tushnet, an expert on advertising law at the Harvard Law School, said that UnMask’s apparent advocacy for and enablement of regulatory deception is clearly worrying. But thanks to the legal complexities of actually prosecuting someone for that, that’s not what officials are likely to take issue with in UnMask’s activities.

Instead, she pointed out that the FTC recently received special powers to go after misinformation and fraud related to the pandemic. So, she wouldn’t be surprised if they investigate and potentially take action against UnMask for its patently false claims about the supposed risks associated with wearing mainstream masks.

“Someone just has to bring it to their attention,” she said.

A representative for the FTC told The Daily Beast that they do not comment on whether or not they are aware of or investigating any particular companies, or on individual companies’ claims or products.

However, UnMask is just one small link in a chain of apparent anti-mask activity. Even if it does get stung for misinformation in its materials, another, even more refined anti-mask mask maker will likely crop up to serve the same market. And it may well learn from UnMask’s mistakes, getting savvier about how it brands and positions itself to avoid culpability, while affording regulatory invisibility to individuals hellbent on flouting the details or the spirit of masking rules.

To Gostin, UnMask just shows that we “should more tightly regulate masks and marketing.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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