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:


Posts misrepresented a report from Israel on shingles cases

CLAIM: Herpes, shingles may be a side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine.

THE FACTS: Social media posts misrepresented a report from doctors in Israel. The report from researchers at the Tel Aviv Medical Center and Carmel Medical Center describes six mostly mild cases of shingles, also known as herpes zoster, that occurred shortly after vaccination with one or two doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The six cases were from among 491 women with rheumatoid arthritis or related disorders who received the vaccine. The report did not establish a definite link between shingles and the vaccine. Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox in people who had the childhood disease. The chickenpox virus, varicella-zoster, is one of several herpes viruses. A different herpes virus causes cold sores and herpes. The report was published two weeks ago in the journal Rheumatology. Social media users subsequently posted misleading claims that the COVID-19 vaccine may cause herpes, a sexually transmitted infection. “Wow, what’s next? Now they given people Herpes?” an Instagram user falsely wrote. In their report, the researchers said the report wasn’t designed to determine if the vaccine was triggering shingles — the numbers were too small, and people with rheumatoid arthritis who hadn’t been vaccinated weren’t included. Further monitoring is warranted, they wrote. “Our report does not establish any causality or definite link but draws the attention to a possible association between mrna COVID-19 vaccine and herpes zoster,” Dr. Victoria Furer, lead author of the report and rheumatologist at the Tel Aviv Medical Center, told the AP in an email. Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, said U.S. reporting on vaccine side effects hasn’t shown an increase in shingles among people who’ve gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. “Change can happen, but at the moment,” U.S. surveillance systems “do not indicate that shingles is occurring more frequently in the vaccinated than in the unvaccinated population,” he said. Older people and those with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for shingles, Schaffner explained. While shingles can occur at any age, chances increase after age 50. The six cases were ages 36 to 61. “We have been emphasizing the vaccination of older adults,” Schaffner said. “That’s the very population in which shingles is the most common, and so you would expect some cases of shingles to occur after vaccination … because it’s going to occur anyway.”

— Associated Press writer Arijeta Lajka in New York contributed this report


Study lacks evidence on masks, isn’t linked to Stanford

CLAIM: A Stanford University study published on the National Institutes of Health website proves face masks are absolutely worthless against COVID-19.

THE FACTS: Websites and social media users ranging from political candidates to health influencers are falsely claiming a study published on a digital research repository came from Stanford University and proves face masks are ineffective. In reality, the study is not affiliated with Stanford, nor is the author. The study is based on debunked claims about face masks, including the false notion that wearing a face covering decreases oxygen levels and increases carbon dioxide levels. “Stanford peer review study on masks says they basically do not work for C-19,” the local North Dakota TV show POVNow posted on Facebook on April 19. “A recent Stanford study released by the NCBI, which is under the National Institutes of Health, showed that masks do absolutely nothing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and their use is even harmful,” read a story on the conservative website The Gateway Pundit. The story was shared widely on Facebook and Twitter last week, including by Josh Mandel, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Ohio. The study, titled “Facemasks in the COVID-19 era: A health hypothesis,” makes a variety of claims about negative health impacts of masks, including the false claim that wearing a face mask restricts breathing, leading to the conditions hypoxemia and hypercapnia. Many doctors have taken to social media to debunk claims about oxygen levels and masks, and The Associated Press also has previously debunked false claims about health risks. The study also claims there is a lack of evidence for the effectiveness of face masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19. In fact, a recent study added strong evidence that statewide mask mandates slow the spread of the coronavirus. Research shows masks block virus particles from spreading from infected people who wear them, and can even provide some protection to uninfected people who wear them. The study circulating online last week was first published in November in the journal “Medical Hypotheses,” which writes that its purpose is to “publish interesting theoretical papers.” Articles submitted to the journal are not meant to prove findings using primary data, but instead to advance hypotheses. The journal has a “long history of publishing fringe science and hypotheses,” according to David Gorski, a surgical oncologist who blogs about medical misinformation. The study’s author, Baruch Vainshelboim, is listed in the study as being affiliated with the cardiology division at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System/Stanford University. However, a representative for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System told the AP in an email that Vainshelboim does not work there. “I can confirm this person is not one of our physicians,” wrote Michael Hill-Jackson, a public affairs specialist with the system. “I do not see him in our system and our Cardiology team has never heard of him.” Vainshelboim also does not work for Stanford, according to Julie Greicius, senior director of external communications for the university’s medical school. “Stanford University has never employed Baruch Vainshelboim,” Greicius wrote in an email to the AP. “Several years ago (2015), he was a visiting scholar at Stanford for a year, on matters unrelated to this paper.” Vainshelboim, who lists himself on LinkedIn as a clinical exercise physiologist and does not list any current employment, did not respond to a request for comment.

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in Seattle contributed this report.


Vaccinated people can participate in Red Cross blood drives

CLAIM: The Red Cross won’t accept plasma donations from people who have had a COVID-19 vaccine.

THE FACTS: The American Red Cross is accepting blood and plasma donations from those who have received COVID-19 vaccines. The Red Cross states that in most cases there is no need for donors to wait to give blood, which includes plasma, after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine as long as a donor is symptom free and feeling well. Blood donors should, however, be able to provide the name of the manufacturer of the vaccine they received when donating. Yet as more and more Americans receive COVID-19 vaccines, posts online are falsely claiming that vaccinated Americans can no longer donate plasma. The posts are part of a larger misinformation effort to falsely suggest the vaccines are dangerous. “The red cross won’t accept plasma donations from people who have had the covid-19 vaccine,” say posts that were shared on Facebook and Twitter. “You’re willing to put something in your body that is so untested that the FDA and Red Cross don’t know if you can donate Plasma, yet me not wanting to take it makes me irresponsible?” In fact, the posts are misstating new eligibility directives for donating convalescent plasma, which is plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients used to treat others with the illness. The Red Cross once had a dedicated program collecting convalescent plasma, but that program ended on March 26. The change happened after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated guidance to ensure that donations from vaccinated people would contain the antibodies needed for the convalescent plasma to be useful in treating COVID-19 patients. “The Red Cross acknowledges that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did update its guidance regarding convalescent plasma donor eligibility related to those who receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” the Red Cross says on their website. “We are evaluating the feasibility and timeline to implement this complex update, alongside the evolving hospital needs for COVID-19 patients.” The Red Cross, however, continues to accept blood donations from people regardless of their vaccine status. All blood collected through those donations is tested for COVID-19 antibodies in case it can be used for convalescent plasma to treat patients. Due to the pandemic, the Red Cross has reported a decline in blood drives, which has created more demand for blood donations.

— Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed this report.


Photo manipulated to make Bill Clinton appear ill

CLAIM: Photo shows former President Bill Clinton looking frail and sick, showing “what happens when you sell your soul.”

THE FACTS: A Facebook post shared thousands of times this week compares an official White House photo of Clinton in 1993 to a more recent photo that has been edited to make the skin around his eyes red and his irises brown. “This is what happens when you sell your soul,” text on the post reads. Commenters on the post likened the 74-year-old former president to “Satan” and speculated that he had been using drugs. A reverse-image search reveals the photo in which Clinton looks ill is not genuine. It’s an edited version of a 2014 photo that appears on Getty Images, taken by photographer John Lamparski. Clinton was photographed at a Christmas benefit event in New York, according to the original photo’s caption. In the original photo, Clinton’s eyes are bright blue and the skin under his eyes is not red. Internet users have previously edited this image of Clinton to make him look like he is suffering from a debilitating disease. The manipulated images have circulated so often that the online meme dictionary Know Your Meme identifies it as a common “photoshop meme” that it dubs “AIDS Bill Clinton” or “Terminally Bill.”

— Ali Swenson


Vaccine not related to Danish health official’s collapse on camera

CLAIM: Video shows Denmark’s top health official fainting from her COVID-19 vaccine.

THE FACTS: One of Denmark’s top health officials, Tanja Erichsen, collapsed during an April 14 press conference to discuss the country’s decision to discontinue use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but it was not related to the vaccine. She had not yet been vaccinated against the disease when she fell. The video showing the collapse of Erichsen, acting director of pharmacovigilance at the Danish Medicines Agency, is being misrepresented by anti-vaccine proponents to falsely claim that she fainted as a result of receiving the AstraZeneca shot. Her fall received international press coverage that day, but footage from the video was picked up and circulated online with the false description of what happened. “Literally Denmark’s top health official fainting from the COVID-19 shot,” claimed one Instagram post that shared the video. Shortly after Erichsen’s fall, Danish Health Authority Director General Soeren Brostroem told reporters at the conference that she was OK. He said she blacked out from overwork and standing too long. A spokesperson for the Danish Medicines Agency, Kim Voigt Østrøm, told the AP that Erichsen had yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine despite what the posts online say. Erichsen tweeted on April 19 to say that she was feeling well and to thank everyone for their concern. Denmark has primarily relied on vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna and will continue to use those vaccines rather than AstraZeneca. The decision to discontinue AstraZeneca came after reports of rare blood clots in some recipients.

— Beatrice Dupuy


Photo shows art piece, not lion’s mane mushrooms

CLAIM: Photo shows lion’s mane mushrooms growing in a swamp.

THE FACTS: An image viewed more than 150,000 times on Facebook last week claims to show “Lion’s Mane mushrooms growing from a swamp” — but it actually shows a work of art. Lion’s mane mushrooms — also known as bearded tooth fungus — are white with long, hanging spines, similar to the figure in the picture. They are typically about the size of a football, according to British conservation charity The Woodland Trust. A reverse-image search finds the viral image shows no fungus. Instead, it’s an art piece made and first exhibited in 2013 by the artist Susi Brister. The work titled “613 Silky Straight in Swamp” shows a “platinum blonde swamp creature slowly moving through a swampy habitat,” Brister told the AP in an email. To create the image, a human model posed inside a suit created from about 100 custom-made platinum blonde hair extensions, Brister wrote. The piece is part of a larger series called “Fantastic Habitat,” Brister wrote, “in which I create and photograph sculptural coverings worn by models in the landscape that highlight both the strange confluence and disconnection between nature and artificial nature.” The work was first exhibited at Lawndale Art Center in Houston. It later appeared in other galleries in Houston and Austin, Texas. “It is in no way depicting a mushroom,” Brister wrote. “In fact, I’ve never even heard of a lion’s mane mushroom before, but happy to have learned something new!”

— Ali Swenson


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