A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Union’s Search for Face Masks Gets Twisted Online


Quick Take

A meme falsely claims that a health care workers’ union was “caught hiding 39 million N95 masks,” and other posts cast suspicion on the union’s motives. In reality, the union had called medical suppliers nationwide in an effort to find masks — and it never had or hid them.


Full Story

A California health care workers’ union launched a nationwide search on March 21 for face masks and other protective gear that have been in short supply since the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the U.S. On March 26, the union announced that it had found a supplier with 39 million masks.

Within just a few days, that announcement had become a target of misinformation and suspicion.

First, some partisan websites suggested there was a connection between the union — Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West — and an announcement from Attorney General William Barr the same week. Barr warned that the Justice Department would pursue cases against those who are hoarding essential medical supplies.

There’s no evidence that the union’s announcement and Barr’s announcement are related. The SEIU-UHW began looking for the equipment on March 21, days before Barr’s March 24 announcement, and it never actually had possession of the masks.

Regardless, the suggestion was condensed into a meme from the conservative organization Turning Point USA that said: “Coincidence?? Just 3 days after A.G. Barr announced they’re going after hoarders… SEIU union in California suddenly found a mysterious stash of 39 million face masks.”

It’s been shared more than 11,000 times from Turning Point USA’s Facebook page and nearly 2,000 times from Iowa Rep. Steve King’s page, as well as other political pages.

Andrew Kolvet, spokesman for Turning Point USA, told us by email, “[N]othing definitive is stated in the meme, just asking the question, is this a coincidence? It doesn’t actually claim anything illicit or unethical, it just notes the timing is potentially suspicious. It also doesn’t say that the SEIU had the masks, but that ‘they found them’ in this case from a supplier.”

The more nuanced parts of that message weren’t clear to many of Turning Point USA’s social media followers, though. The group’s post garnered comments like this: “I just want to know how you FIND 39 million face masks and why in the HELL did they have them to begin with?”

Another meme went further, claiming: “SEIU was CAUGHT HIDING 39 MILLION N95 MASKS The SEIU only ‘found’ the much-needed masks after Atty. Gen. Barr threatened to file charges against them. People suspect SEIU was hiding the masks to cause a shortage / hurt Trump’s re-election.”

None of that is true.

The SEIU-UHW never had the masks. Rather, in an effort to answer the concerns of the health care workers the union represents, the SEIU-UHW started calling suppliers and distributors to locate equipment, according to the union’s announcement.

“We just started cold-calling potential suppliers because of the desperate need among the 97,000 healthcare workers we represent in CA and their co-workers, first responders, etc., and hit one who says he can get the masks,” the union’s spokesman, Steve Trossman, told us by email.

“To be clear, we are not selling masks, have never had possession of any masks, and have no financial interest in this,” Trossman wrote. “We are simply connecting hospitals and other entities that need [personal protective equipment] with suppliers we have found who say they have supplies.”

The U.S. has faced a shortage of face masks since COVID-19 began sickening Americans, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both recommend that, outside of health care settings, only those who are sick or caring for someone who is sick need to wear a mask. However, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, who is also on the White House task force dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, recently said data that could suggest wider use of masks may help prevent the spread of the virus “is being aggressively reviewed.” The CDC has said that it currently has no plans to issue new guidance.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Service Employees International Union – United Healthcare Workers West. “Union Locates Massive Supply of N95 Masks.” SEIU-UHW.org. 26 Mar 2020

Barr, William. Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing. Whitehouse.gov. 24 Mar 2020.

Trossman, Steve. Spokesman, Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West. Email response. 30 Mar 2020.

Kolvet, Andrew. Spokesman, Turning Point USA. Email response. 30 Mar 2020.