Anti-mask mandate campaign gets taken down by GoFundMe

A sign about masking requirements at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

An information campaign to challenge Anchorage’s mask mandate has run afoul of the online crowdfunding platform GoFundMe’s terms of service. 

The campaign, called “Truth Unmasked” run by Alaska businesswoman and conservative activist Bernadette Wilson, was removed from the site last week. The story was shared by Wilson on her Facebook page.

Wilson posted the GoFundMe campaign seeking donations to produce videos featuring local doctors questioning the science used to justify Anchorage’s mask mandate. It produced one video featuring Dr. David Paulson, a neurosurgeon in Anchorage. In the video, Paulson pulls off a mask he’s wearing within a few seconds.

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“Like this mask, it has holes in it that are 100 microns, the bacteria we have in our normal flora is one to ten microns. They easily pass through, and coronavirus is .1 to .2 microns,” he says in the video. 

Most medical experts do recommend mask-wearing because they can prevent larger aerosolized droplets from getting out, not the individual viral particles. Numerous studies have linked mask-wearing to lower infection rates. 

Wilson quickly raised $5,000 to create more messages featuring local doctors, as well as radio advertisements. But on the morning of June 30, the video was gone and donors’ money had been returned to them. 

She said she had no advanced warning of the removal. 

“Zero explanation from GoFundMe, other than a generic email that said it violated our terms and conditions. I had reached out to GoFundMe a couple different times now and asked for clarification specification on which aspects of their terms and conditions are violated. And I have heard crickets,” she said. 

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GoFundMe’s terms of service prevent campaigns that are deemed “misleading,” but they also say that the company can take down campaigns for any reason it deems appropriate. A spokesperson for the company declined to elaborate on its policies for COVID-19-related information over email, and wrote merely that the campaign violated its terms of service. To Wilson, it’s a form of censorship. 

“There was critical and important information that needed to be weighed and discussed, yet there was no one giving them a voice or no one listening to them,” she said. 

Courts have ruled that private companies have the right to ban whatever content they want, since the First Amendment only applies to governmental limitations on speech. 

Until a few years ago, companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter largely refrained from blocking content, allowing people or businesses to post whatever they wanted, regardless of its veracity. 

But tech companies have been taking an increasingly active role in policing their content in response to criticisms about disseminating false information during the 2016 election.

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Last year, GoFundMe announced that it wouldn’t host campaigns promoting an anti-vaccination agenda, following similar moves by tech giants like Google and Facebook. That resulted from news that Russian bots had been responsible for spreading anti-vaccination information. At the time, Dr. Anthony Fauci blamed the US’s worst measles outbreak in a quarter-century on anti-vaccination campaigns that were spread in part by bots. 

But with the pandemic, tech platforms became even more active in regulating what is posted. 

On CNN in April, Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki said her company, which is owned by Google, was using World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations as a standard for what it deems “authoritative.”

“Anything that is medically unsubstantiated, so people say like ‘take vitamin C, take turmeric, those will cure you’ – Those are examples of things that would be a violation of our policy. Anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations would be a violation of our policy,” she said. 

President Trump has been at times critical of the CDC and withdrew from the WHO in May. 

YouTube left Wilson’s anti-mask mandate video up on its platform. But the video was removed from the blog where it was posted at the request of Dr. Paulson himself, who said he was getting harassed. YouTube didn’t return an emailed request for clarification. 

All that hasn’t stopped Wilson from trying again. She has a new campaign up on a different platform with the title of “Alaskans deserve better” that it says will “fund production of videos of amazing Alaskan doctors focused on health and safety in these uncertain times!” It’s brought in over $4,800 as of Monday morning.