NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn’t happen this week
A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:
CLAIM: A photo from this week shows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi huddled with other members of Congress and none are wearing masks.
THE FACTS: Social media users making the false claim shared a December photo from The Associated Press to suggest Pelosi and other members of Congress are not following current guidelines for wearing masks and social distancing when meeting. “This photo is from this week. They are in private and don’t know they are being photographed. SOMETHING IS MISSING. WHAT IS IT??( And ask yourself WHY?),” stated posts being shared Wednesday on Facebook. A Twitter account that supports QAnon, a conspiracy theory centered on the baseless belief that President Donald Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the ‘deep state,’ first made the false claim, which was shared as a screenshot and posted on Facebook. The AP photo being misrepresented was taken on Dec. 18, 2019, and shows Pelosi speaking to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal in a private room after the House voted to impeach Trump. AP photographer Andrew Harnik captured the photo of the four huddled in conversation reflected in a mirror. “Do as I say, not as I do,” said one Facebook page sharing the photo with the false caption. The photo was shot months before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March and before China had reported its first death from COVID-19 in January. Pelosi and House members have since been photographed wearing masks.
CLAIM: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that “only 0.02%” of children will die when returning to school during the pandemic.
THE FACTS: DeVos did not say that students would die if they return to school. A spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Education confirmed to the AP that the statement was falsely attributed to DeVos, who supports the reopening of schools and the return of children to classrooms. “So, Betsy Devos today said “only” .02% of kids are likely to die when they go back to school. That’s 14,740 children. Welcome back!,” a Twitter user posted on July 11. “Betsy DeVos says that ‘only’ 0.02% of children will probably die as a result of schools re-opening. That’s 14,740 children. That’s about 40 times the number of school shooting victims from the last 10 years,” another Twitter user falsely stated on July 12, garnering nearly 70,000 retweets. The false claim was also posted on Facebook and was shared over 5,000 times. “The Secretary has never and would never say such a thing,” Angela Morabito, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, confirmed to the AP in an email. “This is a total lie,” she said. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 mortality rate for children under four is 0.2 percent, and 0.1 for people from five to 17. With a little more than a month before U.S. school children are scheduled to begin returning to the classroom, President Donald Trump is pushing for schools to reopen for classes despite coronavirus worries. On July 7, Trump demanded schools reopen, arguing that some places are keeping schools closed not because of the risks from the pandemic but for political reasons, the AP reported. DeVos has urged schools to provide full-time, in-person learning amid the pandemic. She called plans by some schools to hold classes only a few days a week unacceptable. “There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous,” she told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” on July 12. Last week, Dr. Robert Redfield, CDC director, said officials don’t have evidence that children are driving COVID-19 infections. But Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus coordinator, also noted that kids under 10 are the least tested age group. The CDC has drafted guidelines for students to return to the classroom. According to documents obtained by the AP, the agency says there are steps for schools to safely reopen but it “cannot provide one-size-fits-all criteria for opening and closing schools or changing the way schools are run.”
CLAIM: Photo shows a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report with many claims about face masks, including that cloth masks trap exhaled carbon dioxide and collect mildew within 30 minutes, risking your health.
THE FACTS: The document in the photo is fake and falsely attributed to the CDC, the agency told the AP. The CDC recommends the use of cloth face coverings in public settings to slow the spread of the coronavirus. On July 13, a photo allegedly showing a CDC report began to gain traction on Facebook. “Look CDC stated this case closed,” the caption read. It also featured the hashtag #maskoff. The document in the photo, which racked up more than 200,000 views in two days on Facebook, is made to look as though it was printed from a CDC webpage, but the CDC told the AP it is not real. “CDC typically does not issue guidance or recommendations to the public in such a format,” said Jasmine Reed, a public affairs specialist with the agency. A closer look at a circled section of the text on the fake report shows its guidance does not match the CDC’s legitimate guidance on masks. “CLOTH MASK: (DO NOT FILTER ANYTHING),” the text reads. “As you exhale, you are ridding your lung of contaminants and carbon dioxide. CLOTH MASKS trap this carbon dioxide the best. It actually risks your HEALTH, rather than protect it. The moisture caught in these masks will become mildew ridden in 30 minutes. Dry coughing, enhanced allergies, sore throat are all symptoms of a micro-mold in your mask.” The AP has previously debunked posts that claim without evidence that wearing a face mask causes hypercapnia, a condition where too much carbon dioxide enters the bloodstream. While experts recommend users wash their cloth masks frequently, there’s no evidence that wearing one for 30 minutes poses a risk of harmful mildew or mold build-up. The CDC says wearing a cloth face covering may help prevent the wearer from spreading the virus to others.
CLAIM: A photo of a Dallas Cowboys branded backpack sold on Amazon shows there is a child inside the backpack.
THE FACTS: The backpack is empty. A magazine cover featuring a woman’s face was digitally placed inside the backpack to make it appear the bag had contents. On July 14, a Facebook user claimed that a photo of a sling bag sold on Amazon by the sports gear retailer the Northwest Company showed a child peering out from inside the backpack. “Whaaaaaaat the hell is going on??” the user wrote. “This backpack listing on Amazon has a CHILD inside?? My husband reported the listing, but I can’t shake these cold chills.” The post, which featured screenshots of the Amazon listing, was viewed more than 77,000 times on Facebook. Photos of the bag also gained traction on Twitter, where users claimed it was proof the company was trafficking children. In the photo, the inside of the bag does look like it shows a set of eyes, part of a nose and a piece of silver tape where the mouth would go. But research into the image’s origins reveals it does not show a child, nor any evidence of trafficking. Instead, it is an editorial image of a woman on the cover of a 2011 issue of a Chinese magazine called Vision. Ross Auerbach, chief executive officer of the Northwest Company, explained that his company had purchased images of bags from another company, Concept One Accessories, which had digitally placed the magazine inside the backpacks to give the illusion of contents inside. “When we did the acquisition, we just thought it looked weird,” Auerbach told the AP. “We blacked out the insides.” The company got rid of the strange-looking magazine image in most of its backpack photos, but missed a few, Auerbach said. In a statement of apology, Auerbach said the company is now working on removing the magazine image from the rest of its photos. “We strongly and unequivocally condemn human trafficking in any form,” he said.
CLAIM: Niraj Shah, chief executive officer of the furniture company Wayfair, has resigned amid child sex trafficking allegations against the company.
THE FACTS: Shah has not stepped down, according to a Wayfair spokesperson, and claims that the company is involved in child trafficking are part of an unfounded conspiracy theory. On Monday, false posts circulating on social media alleged that Shah, the CEO and co-founder of the online furniture retailer Wayfair, had left the company. “Breaking News: Wayfair’s CEO just stepped down amid child trafficking allegations,” wrote one Facebook user, in a post that racked up more than 250,000 views in two days. “WAYFAIR CEO STEPS DOWN If you haven’t heard about Wayfair go to Twitter NOW,” read another post, on a Facebook page claiming to be a community for yoga hobbyists. Wayfair set the record straight in an email to the AP: Shah has not stepped down. The false claim comes as conspiracy theories have swirled around Wayfair in recent days, with social media users claiming without evidence that the company’s high prices for cabinets and other products indicate it is embroiled in child sex trafficking. A company spokesperson flatly denied these allegations.
CLAIM: Video of a six-year-old girl being instructed to show her hands and profile before jumping on a couch where she plays with a doll and talks about prices on Wayfair is evidence the online retailer is involved in human trafficking.
THE FACTS: The video is an audition tape for a Wayfair commercial that was uploaded by the girl’s mother, London-based Alphabet Agency confirmed to the AP. Social media users are circulating the audition video, which captures the London girl dressed in a green shirt and overalls from various angles, as evidence to support a conspiracy theory that Wayfair is trafficking young children through its website. In the video, the girl says she is 6 years old and with Alphabet Kids. A woman shooting the video then has the girl show her hands and side profile before the girl jumps on the couch to play with a doll. The video ends with the woman saying the low price of the couch she is sitting on can’t possibly be correct, and the girl responds by saying: “With Wayfair it is!” Alphabet Kids is a reference to Alphabet Agency, a talent agency registered for business in London. The video was recorded as an audition for a Wayfair commercial, and was taken from a YouTube channel created by the young girl’s mother, Carleen McCarthy, a senior agent for Alphabet Management, told the AP in an email. Copies of the video were uploaded in posts even after the video was made private by the mother, McCarthy said. A 2019 Wayfair commercial features vignettes of families and friends gathering around a couch, including children playing on a couch or in a living room, in a manner similar to the audition tape.
CLAIM: Photo shows Ghislaine Maxwell with the president of operations at Wayfair.
THE FACTS: The 2003 photo shows Maxwell, a British socialite and longtime confidante of Jeffrey Epstein, with George Bamford, founder Bamford Watch Department. Wayfair, a company that sells furniture and home goods online, currently does not have a president of operations. On July 11, a photo circulated on Twitter with false claims that it showed Maxwell with Bill Hutcherson, Wayfair’s president of operations. “Ghislaine Maxwell with the President of Operations at Wayfair, Bill Hutcherson. Damn, she really was rubbing elbows with just about everybody, huh,” the false tweet states. The bogus claim also circulated on Facebook. The photo was taken on Dec. 8, 2003, as Maxwell and Bamford, whose business customizes luxury watches, attended the opening of the Asprey Flagship Store on Fifth Avenue in New York. Photographer Mark Mainz captured the photo for Getty Images. Maxwell, 58, was arrested July 2 at a New Hampshire estate before being moved to New York City to face federal charges accusing her of helping Epstein sexually exploit young women and girls. She has been detained at a jail in Brooklyn without bail, according to AP reporting. There is no “president of operations” listed on the Wayfair website. There is no employee named Bill Hutcherson on Wayfair’s executive team. On July 10, a conspiracy theory went viral claiming Wayfair was selling overpriced furniture as a front for child sex trafficking. Social media users posted photos of Wayfair selling mundane home items, such as throw pillows and cabinets for more than $10,000 a piece. The product listings sparked far-out theories due to the high prices and because they labeled with names that matched those of missing children. The theory linking Wayfair to sex trafficking has since been debunked. “There is, of course, no truth to these claims,” Wayfair said in a statement. “The products in question are industrial grade cabinets that are accurately priced.”
CLAIM: Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan, is the niece of billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros.
THE FACTS: This claim is “absolutely false,” according to Chelsea Lewis, deputy press secretary for Whitmer’s office. An old conspiracy theory claiming a familial connection between Soros and Whitmer circulated anew over the weekend, with one false tweet racking up more than 700 retweets. “How many of you are aware that the female governor of Michigan is the niece of George Soros?” the post read. But this claim, which has been debunked by several fact-checking websites, is not true. A look at the family lineages of each of these public figures provides further confirmation. George Soros’ only brother, Paul Soros, died in 2013. According to obituaries published at the time of his death, Paul Soros had just two surviving children, Peter and Jeffrey. His two other children, Linda and Steven, both died as young children, according to The New York Times. Wedding announcements published in The New York Times show Jeffrey Soros married Catherine Cosover in 1995 and Peter Soros married Flora Fraser in 1997. Since George Soros has only two surviving nephews, Peter and Jeffrey, and neither married Gretchen Whitmer, it’s not possible Whitmer is George Soros’ niece. On Whitmer’s side, she is the daughter of the late Sharon Whitmer, a former lawyer, and Richard Whitmer, also a lawyer and the former head of the health insurance association Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Whitmer is married to Marc Mallory, a Michigan dentist. She was formerly married to Gary Shrewsbury. False claims have been shared widely on social media about both Soros and Whitmer amid the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Whitmer, criticized for her strict stay-at-home measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been falsely accused of hypocrisy in following those orders. Soros, the wealthy Democratic donor who has long been a target of bizarre conspiracy theories, has been attacked recently with a bevy of false claims, including that he paid people to protest after the death of George Floyd.
This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.
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