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:
Nashville explosion was caused by a bomb, not a missile
CLAIM: Video shows that Nashville explosion was caused by a missile or some kind of directed energy weapon.
THE FACTS: The explosion was caused by a bomb inside a parked recreational vehicle in downtown Nashville. Social media users shared grainy surveillance video from the Dec. 25 explosion, and pointed to a streak of smoke to falsely claim that the blast was caused by a bomb or a directed energy weapon. “Looking like a missile strike now. Video proof. Explains why the airspace was locked down,” wrote one Twitter user on Dec. 26. Similar false claims circulated widely on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Parler. Police were responding to a report of shots fired when they encountered the RV blaring a recorded warning that a bomb would detonate in 15 minutes. Police have identified Anthony Quinn Warner, 63, who was killed in the explosion, as the person responsible for the blast. A motive has not been determined. Surveillance video from a Metro Nashville Police Department camera at the intersection of 2nd Avenue North and Commerce Street captured the explosion and offers proof that the blast came from the parked recreational vehicle. Social media users were sharing a different grainy, black-and-white surveillance video from a local business that showed the explosion from a distance. WKRN-TV, a Nashville television station, aired the footage. Posts pointed to what appears to be a streak of smoke captured in the video, falsely asserting it was a “missile trail” from a strike in the area. Other posts said a directed energy weapon caused the damage. A frame-by-frame review of the video revealed the smoke was ascending from the source of the blast. “That is not a missile strike. Missiles don’t leave smoke trails as they come back down,” Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies told The Associated Press in an email. The explosion outside an AT&T building in downtown Nashville, interfered with communications in several Southern states, damaged dozens of buildings and injured three people, the AP reported. Some posts falsely alleged a missile targeted AT&T because the company got a contract to do a forensic audit of Dominion Voting Systems machines and those machines were recently moved to the AT&T building in Nashville that was damaged in the explosion.
— The Associated Press
AT&T not conducting voting machine audit near Nashville explosion site
CLAIM: AT&T got a contract to do a forensic audit of Dominion Voting Systems machines and those machines were recently moved to Nashville, Tennessee — to the same AT&T building that was damaged in a Christmas morning explosion.
THE FACTS: AT&T did not have a contract to audit Dominion machines and was not holding Dominion machines in its Nashville building, both companies confirmed to The Associated Press. But as federal officials work to piece together a motive for the Christmas morning blast that rattled downtown Nashville, including damage to an AT&T-owned building, social media users have made baseless claims connecting the explosion to voting machines used in the Nov. 3 election. “AT&T got a contract to do forensic audit on Dominion voting machines and those machines were being moved to Nashville this past week,” read one post. “So, the explosion ‘just happened’ to be at the AT&T location where they ‘just so happen’ to control the cooling system for the super computer and house the dominion voting machines and drives for forensic audit…” Another groundless post reads: “Wait, the bombing in Nashville was at the AT&T data center right after they got the contract to audit the Dominion voting machines? That’s an interesting coincidence.” Spokespeople for AT&T and Dominion confirmed to the AP that AT&T had no contract to audit Dominion machines, and no Dominion machines were to be sent to Nashville. Some of the posts attempted to further link AT&T to Dominion by claiming a former owner of the AT&T building was a board member of a firm that owns Dominion. Cerberus Capital Management, the firm named in the posts, does not own Dominion, nor does it own the company that does own Dominion, Staple Street Capital. “Dominion has no connection to AT&T, the building, Nashville, family members of the Bidens or the Clintons, and Staple Street is not owned by Cerberus,” said Tony Fratto, a partner at the public relations firm Hamilton Place Strategies who emailed the AP on behalf of Dominion. “These are conspiracies manufactured out of whole cloth.” Dominion has been the target of a wide range of false posts since American voters chose Joe Biden as their next president, despite no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities in the 2020 election.
— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson reported from Seattle.
Brother of Georgia SOS is not a Chinese tech firm executive
CLAIM: Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has a brother, Ron, who works for a Chinese tech firm, Huawei.
THE FACTS: Social media posts and a fictitious story circulating online falsely claim that the top election official in Georgia has a brother named Ron, who works as an executive for the Chinese tech giant Huawei. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger does not have a brother named Ron, his office confirmed Wednesday. He has three sisters and a brother, his office said. A 2018 family obituary the AP reviewed also confirms his brother is not named Ron. Social media posts making the false claim suggest Raffensperger should be investigated because of his brother’s Huawei connection. The company has been at the center of rising tensions between the U.S. and Chinese over technology security. President Donald Trump’s administration has imposed restrictions on the Chinese company, cutting off its access to U.S. components and technology. Trump also tweeted out the false claim about Raffensperger’s brother on Tuesday night. “Now it turns out that Brad R’s brother works for China and they definitely don’t want ‘Trump’. So disgusting!” Trump said in his inaccurate tweet. Raffensperger, who oversees Georgia’s elections, has been the target of death threats and misinformation since President Donald Trump’s presidential race loss in Georgia by more than 11,000 votes. A spokesman for Huawei did not immediately respond to AP’s request for comment.
— Associated Press writer Amanda Seitz reported from Chicago.
Posts misrepresent study examining household coronavirus transmission
CLAIM: University of Florida researchers found “no asymptomatic or presymptomatic spread of Covid” in a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
THE FACTS: Social media users are misrepresenting a recent study, leading to the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. A false post that was shared on Dec. 27 reads: “University of Florida researchers have found no asymptomatic or presymptomatic spread of Covid. The study was published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association. This could change everything.” The post had amassed more than 35,000 retweets a day later, and was also shared widely on Facebook. Social media users shared the false post to justify arguments that shutting down businesses and schools during the pandemic was unnecessary. But a spokesperson for the network of journals published by the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed to The Associated Press that no study with such conclusions had been published by the network. “Numerous reports support transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by individuals who are asymptomatic,” Deanna Bellandi, media relations manager for JAMA Network wrote in an email. “Claims that any JAMA Network journal has published evidence to the contrary is incorrect and misleading.” The false claims follow the release of a study by University of Florida researchers that was published on Dec. 14 on the website of JAMA Network Open, one of the journals in the JAMA network. The study analyzed data from 54 previous studies about household spread of SARS-CoV-2, and found rates of transmission to other household members was higher if the infected person had symptoms rather than was asymptomatic. The analysis also found transmission was higher between adults rather than children, and between spouses rather than other family contacts. The study did not conclude there is no asymptomatic or presymptomatic spread of COVID-19 as social media users claim it does. “No, no we didn’t say that,” said Natalie E. Dean, a co-author of the study and a University of Florida assistant professor of biostatistics “This is a misinterpretation of our message of our scientific findings and conclusions.” Dean said it is important for the public to understand her study was only analyzing household studies and there is limited data at this point. She said “there does seem to be evidence that people who never have symptoms do appear to be less infectious,” but she said that does not mean that people without symptoms cannot transmit the virus that causes COVID-19. “Certainly we are seeing presymptomatic transmissions before they develop symptoms,” Dean said, a point that is also made clearly in the article text. She called presymptomatic transmission “an important feature of this virus” and said “our policies need to reflect that.” People who are infected with COVID-19 but are not experiencing symptoms cannot know whether or not they will develop them. Dean noted that even if it is the case that people who have symptoms and are coughing are more infectious, someone without symptoms could wind up spreading the virus more if they are continuing to interact with other people. The published study says “important questions remain” about household spread, including how infectious asymptomatic, mildly ill and severely ill cases are.
— Associated Press writer Jude Joffe-Block reported from Berkeley, Calif.
There were not more votes than voters in Pennsylvania
CLAIM: There were 205,000 more votes than voters in the 2020 election in Pennsylvania.
THE FACTS: A misleading claim about election results based on incomplete data is circulating widely on social media a week before Congress meets to reaffirm Joe Biden’s decisive presidential win. The claim emerged in a Monday press release from Pennsylvania Republican state lawmakers, including state Rep. Frank Ryan. “A comparison of official county election results to the total number of voters who voted on Nov. 3, 2020, as recorded by the Department of State shows that 6,962,607 total ballots were reported as being cast, while DoS/SURE system records indicate that only 6,760,230 total voters actually voted,” the release said. The claim then spread to several right-wing websites and social media influencers, including Trump, whose tweet claiming Pennsylvania had 205,000 more votes than voters was retweeted more than 117,000 times. However, these claims rely on incomplete data, according to Wanda Murren, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of State, who called the lawmakers’ release “obvious misinformation.” It was not immediately clear where the numbers cited in the release originated and Ryan did not respond to a call seeking comment on Tuesday. However, the apparent reference to SURE (Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors) in Pennsylvania points to state data on the voting history of registered voters, which some large counties have not finished uploading yet. “These counties, which include Philadelphia, Allegheny, Butler and Cambria, would account for a significant number of voters,” Murren told The Associated Press in an emailed statement. “The numbers certified by the counties, not the uploading of voter histories into the SURE system, determines the ultimate certification of an election by the secretary.” The numbers certified by Pennsylvania counties in November show that more than 6.9 million voters cast ballots in the 2020 election, electing Biden the winner by more than 80,000 votes. Social media users in recent weeks have also made similar claims that there were more votes counted than registered voters in battleground states and key cities. Those claims are easily debunked. In Pennsylvania, for example, there were nearly 7 million votes cast. The total number of registered voters in 2020 was just over 9 million. “This obvious misinformation put forth by Rep. Ryan and others is the hallmark of so many of the claims made about this year’s presidential election,” Murren told the AP in an emailed statement. “When exposed to even the simplest examination, courts at every level have found these and similar conspiratorial claims to be wholly without basis.”
— Ali Swenson
Posts falsely claim there are only 133 million registered voters in the US
CLAIM: There are 133 million registered voters in the United States so if President Donald Trump got 74 million votes, President-elect Joe Biden could not have received 81 million votes.
THE FACTS: The number of registered voters in the U.S. is much greater than 133 million. But false claims about the 2020 presidential election persist online, including the bogus allegation that vote tallies in the presidential race don’t add up because they exceed the total number of registered voters in the country. “Donald Trump got 74 million votes and There are 133 million registered voters in the USA,” reads a popular but inaccurate tweet that was shared thousands of times on both Twitter and Facebook. “If every single registered voter went out and voted there would only be 59 million votes left for Biden. How did he get 81 million votes?” The posts are false because they rely on an incorrect number of total registered voters. A survey of election officials from all over the country by the Election Assistance Commission found there were 211 million Americans on voter rolls ahead of the 2018 election. The 133 million figure shared on social media is also far lower than the more than 136 million ballots cast in the 2016 election. “The number of 133 million registered voters is plainly false,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who runs the election data site, U.S. Election Project. While experts all agree the 133 million figure is far too low for 2020, coming up with the precise number of American registered voters at a given moment is not straight forward. Each state manages its own voter rolls, and people are constantly registering, dying and moving to new states, leading to changes in the totals and duplications. Furthermore, states differ in how they manage their rolls. For example, some states have a category of registered voters who are marked as “inactive” and North Dakota does not have voter registration. Jonathan Robinson, lead research scientist at Catalist, which provides voter data and other services to civic and progressive organizations, said it is challenging to pinpoint the number of registered voters in the U.S. “These numbers are ever-evolving, there really isn’t one number,” Robinson said. Robinson estimates the number of registered voters ahead of the Nov. 3 election was somewhere between 195 million and 215 million, depending on how the data is analyzed and which suspected duplicate or ineligible voters were excluded. Brandi Travis, a spokesperson for the voter list vendor Aristotle, told the AP that the company has more than 215 million registered voters in its database. L2, another voter list vendor whose customers include the AP, estimated the number at eligible registrants at 200 million before the Nov. 3 election. Paul Westcott, L2 senior vice president, said that figure accounted for removing duplicate voters, people who have died and people who appeared on the rolls of more than one state due to a recent move. Most election researchers calculate voter turnout based on the number of eligible voters, rather than how many were registered to vote. The U.S. Elections Project estimates 239 million Americans were eligible to vote in the 2020 election based on their age, citizenship and criminal record, and that more than 159 million — or 67.7% — participated. According to Dec. 18 data from the AP, Biden received 81,281,888 votes and Trump received 74,223,251 votes.
— Jude Joffe-Block
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