Face mask political debate becomes public flashpoint propelled by social media

Americans have taken to social media to voice frustrations and post divisive exchanges surrounding facial coverings, worn to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urging people to wear masks, the topic remains a contentious issue.

Twitter has been used to highlight the stark differences between those who do wear masks and those who don’t.

Civil rights activist Danielle Muscato took to Twitter Saturday to address a heated encounter she experienced while shopping at a Kroger in Louisville, Ken.

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“I was just threatened w/assault at @kroger in Louisville because I asked another customer to wear a mask, and she refused,” Muscato tweeted Friday. “I reported it to a manager, who found her and talked to her, but refused to do anything more.”

The Kroger Co. could not be reached for comment to verify the story that received over 6,000 retweets and comments.

Her story was further shared and criticized on Twitter by Glenn Greenwald, a founding editor of The Intercept, a news outlet that launched in 2014, who claimed she was using social media to “humiliate” the Kroger manager.

“Using social platforms to expose and humiliate hourly supermarket workers in the middle of a pandemic for absolutely no reason other than sadism, a need for attention, and a complete lack of empathy,” Greenwald wrote.

These social media spats surrounding face masks have been a common occurrence since the lockdowns started in March.

Celebrities, politicians, health care officials along with the other 48 million Americans on Twitter, have taken to the platform to voice their support in favor of or against wearing a mask.

Former Major League Baseball player Aubrey Huff posted a video to Twitter in mid-June after California mandated wearing masks inside grocery stores, and said that he “would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a damn mask.”

Hashtags showing whether or not someone supports wearing a face mask are now used on Twitter under the #antimask or #facemask, but the phrase that was trending highest on Twitter Saturday for coronavirus news was #TrumpsCovidCoverup.

Trump took to Twitter in late July to say that masks are “patriotic” after months of refusing to wear one in public – even though other GOP members urged him to do so.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., urged the president to wear a mask as coronavirus cases were spiking in the Sunbelt states.

“Unfortunately, this simple lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask. If you’re against Trump, you do,” Alexander said during a hearing in late June.

“That is why I have suggested the president should occasionally wear a mask even though there are not many occasions when it is necessary for him to do so. The president has millions of admirers. They would follow his lead,” he added.

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Trump gave another mask endorsement while interviewing with Fox News Chris Wallace.

“I'm a believer in masks. I think masks are good," Trump said. "But I leave it up to the governors. Many of the governors are changing. They're more mask into — they like the concept of masks, but some of them don't agree."

But Trump has gone back and forth on his stance on masks, defending a crowd of supporters who attended a conference in New Jersey Friday, without donning masks.

“You said that the pandemic is disappearing, but we lost 6,000 Americans this week and just in this room you have dozens of people who are not following the guidelines in New Jersey,” a reporter asked the president as the crowd booed him.

"You're wrong about that because it's a political activity," Trump argued. "And it's also a peaceful protest. To me they all look like they pretty much all have masks on."

The exchange was shared on Twitter with responses in favor of the president’s rhetoric as well as against.

People have come to rely on Twitter to vent their frustrations or to discuss the importance of mask wearing during the coronavirus pandemic.

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A Pew Research Poll found that about 22 percent of the American population actually use Twitter, compared to the 77 percent of the population who are on at least one form of social media.

The poll also found that Twitter users tend to identify to the more extreme, politically speaking, and that 80 percent of all tweets come from just 10 percent of all Twitter users.

The CDC has suggested the public give themselves breaks from the news and social media platforms to assist with mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.