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:
No truth to alleged ‘evidence’ that Capitol rioters were antifa activists
CLAIM: Photos prove that some of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday were antifa activists, not Trump supporters.
THE FACTS: There’s no credible evidence to date that rioters who breached the Capitol in an effort to stop certification of U.S. presidential election results were supporters of antifa — a shortened form of “anti-fascists” that’s used as an umbrella term for far-left leaning militant groups. Steven D’Antuono, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, told reporters Friday there’s “no indication” at this time that antifa activists were disguised as Trump supporters in Wednesday’s riot. One of several false claims circulating online highlights photos of a bearded man in a yellow sweatshirt who appeared in several images taken inside the Capitol after it was stormed. Social media users compared those photos to an image of a bearded man on the website PhillyAntifa.org. “Indisputable photographic evidence that antifa violently broke into Congress today to inflict harm & do damage,” pro-Trump attorney L. Lin Wood Jr. tweeted on Wednesday. “NOT @realDonaldTrump supporters.” However, a visit to PhillyAntifa.org shows the bearded man was featured on the website to expose him as a “longtime neo-Nazi.” Also, the bearded man at the Capitol riot on Wednesday and the man in the PhillyAntifa.org photo do not appear to be the same person, according to an analysis of images and the body ink on the two men. Either way, the context of the photo on PhillyAntifa.org shows this alleged “evidence” of antifa activists at the Capitol is baseless. Other posts focused on a shirtless, tattooed man inside the Capitol who was wearing a fur hat with horns and red, white and blue face paint. “FYI These are NOT Trump supporters....Antifa THUGS” read a widely shared post on Facebook that shared a photo with an arrow pointing to the man. In fact, that man is Jake Angeli, a regular at pro-Trump events and a known follower of QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory based on the idea that Trump is secretly fighting deep state enemies and a cabal of child sex traffickers. Some social media posters pointed to a cropped photo of Angeli from a previous protest to claim it was evidence he was part of the Black Lives Matter movement. It showed Angeli in the foreground and a crowd with an anti-police sign in the background. Social media users seized upon the photo to claim it proved Angeli and others inside the Capitol were left-wing infiltrators. But Brett Lewis, who had first shared the photo on Twitter, clarified to the AP that he had observed Angeli disrupting a Black Lives Matter event in June, not participating in it. An uncropped photo from the June event shows Angeli’s sign read, “Q SENT ME,” a reference to QAnon. There is photo evidence, however, proving Angeli has attended pro-Trump events for some time. His distinctive tattoos and unique headwear can be seen in a Nov. 7 Associated Press photo at a rally of Trump supporters protesting election results outside of the Maricopa County election center in Phoenix. In that photo, Angeli held a sign that read, “HOLD THE LINE PATRIOTS GOD WINS.” Angeli also expressed his support for the president in an interview with the AP that day. The AP reached out to Angeli on one of his social media accounts for this story but did not hear back. Another claim circulated in a now-corrected story by The Washington Times falsely suggesting a facial recognition company called XRVision had identified protesters at the Capitol as antifa activists. A founder of XRVision said in a statement that the company identified some individuals at the Capitol as affiliates of “known Nazi organizations,” but not as antifa activists.
— Associated Press writers Ali Swenson in Semora, North Carolina, and Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix reported this item.
NPR headline not written before Trump supporters stormed Capitol
CLAIM: An NPR story headlined “Trump Supporters Storm U.S. Capitol, Clash With Police” was published on Wednesday at 9:33 a.m., before the insurrection, proof that the violence was staged.
THE FACTS: NPR did not publish news about the insurrection before it occurred. The story provided a running account of developments around protests at the Capitol as Congress met to certify electoral votes in the presidential election. The story was initially published at 9:33 a.m. The link shows the original headline referenced the electoral college tallying votes. President Donald Trump called on followers to gather in Washington on Wednesday to demonstrate against the certification of the vote electing Joe Biden president. In addressing the protesters Trump repeated numerous unfounded claims of election fraud and then encouraged demonstrators to go to the Capitol as lawmakers debated the electoral votes. The demonstration turned violent as thousands stormed the Capitol, breaching security and rampaging through the building, where lawmakers had to be evacuated. Following the violence, posts circulated on social media showing a screenshot of an NPR headline along with a time stamp from hours before the events occurred to falsely claim that the rioting was staged. The posts were used as part of a false narrative that suggests the rioters who stormed the nation’s capital were left-wing activists, not Trump supporters. “Seriously, how’d they know? STAGED,” said a Twitter post shared Thursday morning with a screenshot of the article with the 9:33 a.m. time stamp. If social media users had read the article before sharing the screenshot, they would have seen that the article was updated at 3:08 p.m. Wednesday, about two hours after Trump supporters headed to the Capitol following Trump’s rally. A spokesman for NPR confirmed to the AP that the original story was posted at 9:33 a.m. and that the text was updated throughout the day. “I can confirm that NPR is neither clairvoyant nor were we a part of a conspiracy of people who staged the events yesterday,” Ben Fishel, a media relations spokesman, said in an email.
— Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy in New York reported this item.
Photo shows Pelosi’s son-in-law reporting at Capitol riot
CLAIM: Nancy Pelosi’s son-in-law helped rioters access the U.S. Capitol.
THE FACTS: The false claim stems from a photo of Pelosi’s son-in-law, a Dutch American journalist, while he was reporting outside the Capitol on Wednesday. Michiel Vos, who is married to Pelosi’s daughter, was reporting on the insurrection for the Dutch television channel RTL 4’s talk show Jinek. The image shows Vos outside the Capitol with a rioter who was also photographed storming the building. The protester, Jake Angeli, wore a furry hat with horns. The photo of the two was shared on social media to promote the false theory that the riot had somehow been staged and Vos had helped. “How come this guy in the buffalo costume walked straight into the chamber for a photo op? Did he have a special pass? NO! He is friends with Pelosis’ son pictured here,” read one false post that was widely shared on Facebook. The photo was also used in posts that made the baseless claim that antifa was behind the insurrection. “Antifa capitol stormer allegedly with Nancy pelosi’s son in law. .Vos. Is that how they got in?” a Facebook user wrote. The post has since been deleted. There is no evidence Angeli, a known Trump supporter, is an antifa activist, or that he was assisted by Vos. In an email, Vos told the AP, “I was in DC covering the events outside the Capitol.” In a phone interview with the Dutch TV program, Vos said that Pelosi, his wife and son had to take shelter inside the building, while he reported from outside the building.
—Associated Press writer Arijeta Lajka in New York reported this item.
Photo does not show shredded ballots in Georgia
CLAIM: Photo shows shredded ballots found in Dell boxes in Georgia as election workers count the vote.
THE FACTS: The photos being shared online do not show shredded ballots. As election workers counted votes for Georgia’s Senate runoffs Tuesday night, posts online began suggesting that votes were being stolen or that fraud was taking place. One tweet that was retweeted more than 23,000 times included a photo taken at the Georgia World Congress Center in Fulton County, claiming it showed shredded ballots. A screenshot of the tweet was widely shared across social media. In the photo, shredded paper can be seen next to boxes. Amy Coello, who describes herself as a motivational speaker, tweeted the photos on Tuesday. She could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday. “Our team is in Georgia. They took a little walk. They found shredded ballots in Dell boxes. Police came as well. They wanted to confiscate phones with evidence. Here is just the first few photos,” her post said. Fulton County election officials confirmed to the AP that the photos being shared online did not show shredded ballots. A large number of voters opted to use absentee ballots, which come in two envelopes that are opened and counted, said Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez, a spokeswoman for Fulton County. “We have tens of thousands of ballots to open and use envelope opening equipment to do so,” Corbitt-Dominguez said in an email. “As a result of the process of opening thousands of envelopes, paper waste is left behind.” The photos shared online showed waste left behind when envelopes are opened, not the ballots themselves. The county used a cutter that cuts the tops off the secondary envelopes used with absentee ballots. “That is what was “discovered,’” Corbitt-Dominguez said of the tweet. “This was explained to the individuals onsite.” Corbitt-Dominguez added that election monitors are advised not to use their cellphones outside of the public observation area per state law. It was not immediately clear whether election monitors took the photos that were shared online. President Donald Trump suggested that ballots from the Nov. 3 general election were being shredded in the state during a Jan. 2 phone call with Georgia’s secretary of state about the general election. Gabriel Sterling, a top official with the Georgia secretary of state’s office, held a press conference on Monday debunking Trump’s claims. Sterling said, “there is no shredding of ballots.” “That’s not real,” Sterling said. “It’s not happening.”
Photos show emergency ballots, not fake ballots, in Georgia warehouse
CLAIM: Photos show dozens of boxes of counterfeit ballots at a warehouse in Fulton County, Georgia.
THE FACTS: The photos show legitimate emergency ballots, not fake ballots, according to Gabriel Sterling, a top official with the Georgia secretary of state’s office. Every county in the state is required to print a certain number of emergency ballots in case voting machines are down or another problem arises. In the lead-up to Georgia’s Senate runoff election on Jan. 5, social media users were widely sharing misinformation about emergency ballots photographed in an Atlanta warehouse. The false claims gained traction the week before the runoff election, with a series of tweets from Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com, who resigned in 2019 after commenting about the “Deep State” in a bizarre company statement. “BIG NEWS: COUNTERFEIT FULTON COUNTY GEORGIA BALLOTS,” read the first tweet, which by Monday had amassed more than 24,000 shares. “On a tip, our operative entered the Fulton County (Atlanta) Warehouse and took this series of photos: THESE ARE FAKE BALLOTS (note the quantity).” The thread continued with several photos, some showing stacks of papers that looked like ballots and others showing boxes labeled with “Fulton” and “Nov 2020 General Election Day.” Sterling tweeted to address the false claims and further commented in a press conference. “These are the emergency ballots that have been sitting in that warehouse since before the November election very much in plain view of everybody to see,” Sterling said on Monday. “They are not fake ballots, they are real ballots, they are unused ballots.” The Georgia state election board requires counties to print enough emergency ballots for at least 10% of registered voters in case voting machines are unavailable or other problems should arise. Sterling explained that a COVID-19 outbreak among warehouse staff before they had a chance to test equipment for the November election prompted Fulton County to take additional precautions. The county printed 100% of the ballots it would need to conduct the election entirely with paper ballots if necessary. The ballots were not needed. On Monday, Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron confirmed in a digital press conference that the ballots in the photos were emergency ballots. “They’re still there,” Barron said. “They are sitting there on the pallets out in the warehouse as they should.”
— Ali Swenson
No evidence COVID-19 vaccines lead to autoimmune disease
CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines that rely on messenger RNA technology will teach the body to attack itself, leading to autoimmune disease.
THE FACTS: There is no evidence that the so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna cause autoimmune disease. In a 12-minute video that has been viewed more than 350,000 times on Facebook, a nurse practitioner warns people against getting the COVID-19 vaccines based on mRNA technology, falsely claiming that it will teach the body to attack itself and lead to autoimmune disease. Tamika Morrow, a registered nurse practitioner in Michigan who posted the video to Facebook Dec. 16, provides a faulty account of how the mRNA vaccines work. “So you mean to tell me they want people to get a vaccine that has never been used on human beings before that will send messages to your body to produce the coronavirus spike protein in your body that may cause autoimmune conditions that will be lifelong all to prevent a virus that will last 2-3 weeks,” she says. “They are allowing this whole virus thing to take off the way it is with the intent of getting everybody this vaccine. Stay away from the vaccine.” Experts say the claim is false and misrepresents how the mRNA vaccines work. The mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 contain a genetic code that trains the immune system to recognize the spike protein on the surface of the virus to generate an immune response and fight it. Morrow goes on to claim in the video that scientists with Pfizer and Moderna who have researched the vaccines found that there is a possibility that the vaccines cause autoimmune disease. She presents no evidence of this in the video and autoimmune disease was not described as an adverse reaction in any of the findings for the two vaccines. Autoimmune diseases, which include rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, occur when the immune system attacks itself and is unable to distinguish normal cells from foreign cells. The Associated Press reached out to Morrow, who defended her claim and questioned how determinations could be made about whether the vaccines are safe since long-term complications would not yet be apparent. In an email, Morrow provided the AP with an article referring to a 2018 journal review on mRNA vaccines that listed autoimmunity among possible adverse reactions. The article was co-authored by Dr. Drew Weissman, who has studied mRNA for decades and participated in groundbreaking research on the molecule. But when reached by the AP, Weissman said such concerns weren’t applicable with the COVID-19 vaccines because they use a new kind modified RNA. Modified mRNA vaccines have been given to people for five years now. “There is no data that says an mRNA vaccine can cause an autoimmune disease,” he said in an email. “I have not seen or heard of a single report that mRNA vaccines cause autoimmunity.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found no specific safety concerns or serious side effects before concluding the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines could be used on an emergency basis. The most common side effects for both vaccines were injection site pain, which is typical of vaccines. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that people with autoimmune disease can take the mRNA vaccines. “However, they should be aware that no data are currently available on the safety of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines for them,” the CDC has said. A lack of understanding around how mRNA vaccines work has led to a flurry of misinformation around the vaccines. For example, posts have falsely claimed that the mRNA vaccines alter DNA, which is not true.
— Beatrice Dupuy