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NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn’t happen this week

December 4, 2020 GMT
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FILE - This Nov. 12, 2020 selfie photo provided by the Renown Regional Medical Center shows Dr. Jacob Keeperman, the Renown Transfer and Operations Center medical director who made the photo on the opening day of the Renown Regional Medical Center's alternative care site located in a parking garage. On Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting this photo at an auxiliary care site for COVID-19 patients proves that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax. The photo, which shows empty hospital beds, was taken the day the site was opened, and patients had yet to arrive. (Jacob Keeperman/Renown Regional Medical Center via AP)
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FILE - This Nov. 12, 2020 selfie photo provided by the Renown Regional Medical Center shows Dr. Jacob Keeperman, the Renown Transfer and Operations Center medical director who made the photo on the opening day of the Renown Regional Medical Center's alternative care site located in a parking garage. On Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting this photo at an auxiliary care site for COVID-19 patients proves that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax. The photo, which shows empty hospital beds, was taken the day the site was opened, and patients had yet to arrive. (Jacob Keeperman/Renown Regional Medical Center via AP)

A look at false and misleading claims and videos circulating one month after the 2020 election and as COVID-19 cases surge. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:

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Nevada doctor’s selfie used to claim COVID-19 is a hoax

CLAIM: Photo of a doctor standing in front of empty hospital beds at a Reno, Nevada, auxiliary care site for COVID-19 patients proves that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax.

THE FACTS: A photo of a hospital’s alternative care site in Reno is being misrepresented on social media to fuel the false narrative that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax, even as cases surge in the state. Renown Regional Medical Center opened an alternative care site with two floors of supplemental hospital beds inside a parking structure on Nov. 12 to accommodate an overflow in COVID-19 cases if needed. Dr. Jacob Keeperman, medical director for Renown’s Transfer and Operations Center, tweeted a photo of himself inside the new facility. The photo, which showed empty hospital beds, was taken the day the alternative care site was opened, and patients had yet to arrive. In recent weeks, social media posts have shared a variety of falsehoods about the hospital’s parking garage site, with some posts saying that visitors went there and found no patients, which they then cited as evidence that the virus is a hoax. President Donald Trump propelled the misinformation Tuesday, retweeting the photo to his more than 80 million followers. “Fake election results in Nevada, also!” he commented on the tweet. According to Renown hospital officials, the alternate care site in the parking structure currently has 22 patients and has served 243 patients since opening in November. The site, which was set up for patients who do not require long-term care, can house more than 1,400 patients. “Here is the fake Nevada parking garage hospital picture that our moron governor tweeted, proving it’s all a scam,” read a post from a Twitter account that shared the photo of Keeperman. “No patients, folded up beds, wrapped up equipment that’s never been used! They spent millions on this scam and never seen a single patient in this fake hospital!” Keeperman told the AP he had shared the photo of himself inside the parking garage facility with the hope of relaying the gravity of the situation at the hospital. “It is really demoralizing to everybody who is out working so hard to have this politicized and polarized so much,” he said. “I am holding patients’ hands when they take their very last breath because their loved ones can’t be with them.” The Nevada Hospital Association reported that a record-high 1,589 patients were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. Because of competing demands, including the flu, 78% of the state’s nearly 6,900 staffed hospital beds are occupied. In northern Nevada, hospitals have experienced an increase of more than 250% in confirmed hospitalized cases in the past month, the association reported. In Washoe County, where Renown is located, supplemental beds have allowed hospitals to remain at 86% capacity. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak fired back at the president, saying that the state has had to deal with the Trump’s nonstop attempts to politicize the virus that has killed more than 270,000 Americans.

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— Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy reported from New York. Sam Metz contributed to this report. Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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Ultracold temperatures protect the potency of COVID-19 vaccine

CLAIM: Any vaccine that needs to be shipped and stored at -80 degrees “isn’t a vaccine” but a “transfection agent” that will infect your cells and transfer genetic material causing “genetic manipulation” on a massive scale.

THE FACTS: This week, a widely shared tweet attempted to cast doubt around COVID-19 vaccines that must be stored at ultracold temperatures. “Any vaccine that needs to be shipped and stored at -80 degrees isn’t a vaccine. It’s a transfection agent, kept alive so it can infect your cells and transfer genetic material. Don’t let them fool you. This is genetic manipulation of humans on a massive scale. Shut it down,” the tweet falsely stated. Two of the leading vaccine candidates are created with messenger RNA, known also as mRNA. The vaccine delivers a piece of mRNA into cells, which causes the cells to temporarily produce a protein that resembles one of the viral proteins that make up SARS-CoV-2. “There is no mechanism by which mRNA molecules introduced into human cells would modify the DNA of those cells, and just as importantly, this has never been observed,” Brent Stockwell, a professor of biological sciences and chemistry at Columbia University, said in an email. According to Deborah Fuller, a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine: “mRNA vaccines can’t integrate into the human genome so there is no possibility of genetic manipulation of humans. mRNA vaccines deliver their code to the cell and once the cell translates that into a vaccine, the mRNA vaccine is degraded and disappears.” One vaccine candidate is from Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech. According to Pfizer, the vaccine is 95% effective and should be stored at an ultracold temperature of -70 degrees Celsius or –94 degrees Fahrenheit. Pfizer said it has developed shipping containers that use dry ice and GPS-enabled sensors will allow the company to track each shipment to ensure it stays cold. Competitor Moderna Inc. also announced that its own COVID-19 vaccine is more than 94.5% effective, and is stable at standard freezer temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius or 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 days. Posts claiming that the vaccines are not real vaccines due to being stored in cold temperatures are “completely untrue,” said Julie Swann, a professor at North Carolina State University, who heads the department of industrial and systems engineering. Swann’s research has focused on how health systems operate. “The reason it has to be stored at such a cold temperature is because of the technology used for this particular vaccine, and that they cannot guarantee it keeps its potency if it is warmer for longer periods,” Swann told The Associated Press in an email. Many vaccines are stored and transported in frozen temperatures, including the Ebola vaccine which is stored at temperatures as low as -80 degrees Celsius.

— Associated Press writer Arijeta Lajka reported from New York.

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Video doesn’t show an election tech manipulating votes in Georgia

CLAIM: A video shot in Gwinnett County, Georgia, shows a representative of election technology firm Dominion Voting Systems committing election fraud by downloading ballot tabulation data onto a USB thumb drive, manipulating it on a separate laptop and secretly taking the thumb drive out of the room.

THE FACTS: The video shows a contract employee with Dominion transferring a report on batches from an Election Management Server to a county computer so he could read it, according to Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office. A Dominion spokesman has said it would be physically impossible to upload foreign material to the company’s servers. State officials said the Dominion contractor received death threats after the video of him doing his job was shared on social media with false claims it showed election fraud. “There’s a noose out there with his name on it. That’s not right,” Sterling said in a press conference on Tuesday. He added that the contractor, a young person in his 20s, wasn’t seeking the spotlight by taking a high-profile position or running for office. “This kid took a job. He just took a job,” Sterling said. The video shows a man wearing a badge around his neck sitting at a desktop computer. He looks for a pen and paper, then stands up and walks over to a laptop in the corner of the room. He clicks to view something on the laptop, removes what appears to be a thumb drive from the laptop and walks out of the room. The man is filmed from a distance, and the files on the laptop are blurry and unreadable. Voices in the background of the video speculate about his actions, suggesting without evidence he is doing something he isn’t supposed to be doing. The video was posted to YouTube and Twitter on Tuesday morning and quickly spread to other platforms. By Wednesday, it had hundreds of thousands of views on Facebook. But claims it shows fraud or ballot manipulation are false, according to state and county officials. Dominion servers are not equipped with Excel software, and counties are not allowed to install hardware or software onto the systems, Gwinnett County Communications Director Joe Sorenson told The Associated Press in an email. The contractor used a county laptop to view a data report and “filter requested information,” not manipulate it, he said. A Dominion spokeswoman declined to comment to the AP for this story. Georgia certified its election results on Nov. 20, naming Joe Biden the winner of the presidential race over President Donald Trump after a statewide hand tally of votes affirmed Biden’s lead.

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson reported from Seattle.

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Truck in Georgia parking lot was not destroying election equipment

CLAIM: An electronics recycling truck photographed in a parking lot outside the Gwinnett County Voter Registrations and Elections Office in Georgia was shredding computer hard drives in order to destroy evidence related to the Nov. 3 election.

THE FACTS: Photos that circulated widely on social media this week show a truck labeled “Premier Surplus, Inc Electronic Recycling” in a suburban Atlanta parking lot, with the county’s elections office behind it. Social media users shared the photos with claims the truck was a “hard-drive shredder” being used to destroy machines with evidence of election fraud. Neither is true. The truck was not equipped for shredding, but was instead “a traditional box truck” similar to a moving truck, according to Phillip Kennedy, vice president of Premier Surplus, Inc. The company was scheduled to pick up “traditional county surplus” items that needed to be recycled or resold, Kennedy told the AP in a phone interview. These did not include election equipment. When posts began spreading on social media falsely claiming the truck was destroying election materials, Kennedy contacted the county and canceled the pickup for the day, he said. The truck was onsite to pick up surplus equipment from the county’s Information Technology Services department as part of a project to replace desktop computers with laptop computers, according to Joe Sorenson, communications director for Gwinnett County. “The project is unrelated to the election and the area being used does not have access to the elections facilities,” Sorenson told The Associated Press in an email. Sorenson said county ITS crews were harassed and followed “by a group of citizen monitors” on Tuesday, prompting the county to release a statement on social media about the project. “This CARES Act-funded project has been underway since October and will enhance employees’ ability to telecommute during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement said. “The warehouse where new equipment is brought in to be prepared for deployment and old equipment is broken down to go to surplus or be returned to the manufacturer is located within the same building as the Gwinnett Voter Registrations and Elections Headquarters, the Beauty P. Baldwin Building. However, there is no access to elections activity from the warehouse.” Kennedy said he had received dozens of inquiries and some death threats amid the false allegations. “Everyone’s super on edge right now,” Kennedy said. “Be vocal, but just don’t fly off the hinges. There’s always more to the picture.”

— Ali Swenson

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Family of Hugo Chavez does not own Dominion Voting Systems

CLAIM: The family of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez owns 28% of the election technology company Dominion Voting Systems.

THE FACTS: A video circulating widely on Facebook this week made false claims that attempted to link an election technology firm used in the 2020 election to Venezuelan politicians. In the video, an Arizona man said he watched a Monday meeting held by President Donald Trump’s lawyers in Phoenix. Citing statements from the meeting, the man in the video claimed Hugo Chavez’s family owns 28% of Dominion, whose equipment is used for voting and vote tabulation in more than 30 states. “Hugo Chavez is dead, but his family owns this,” the man said. “It was his business. Dominion was started by him. The software company was started by him.” That’s false. Dominion was founded in Canada, not Venezuela. Since 2018, it has had the same majority owner: Staple Street Capital. Dominion is privately held and does not disclose its financials. But in an April letter responding to a request by the House Committee on Administration, Poulos said Dominion is 75.2% owned by the New York-based private equity firm Staple Street Capital and that he, a Canadian citizen, holds a 12% stake. No other investor owns more than a 5% stake, he said. Election security experts and Dominion spokespeople confirm the company has no ties to Venezuela, nor to the family of Chavez, who died in 2013. The man in the video made further dubious claims about the integrity of the election in Arizona, stating, for example, that election officials “did not signature verify 1.9 million Maricopa County ballots.” The Maricopa County Elections Department refuted that claim in an email to The Associated Press, saying, “1.9 million voters cast an early ballot, and in doing so had to be signature verified.” A three-tier process for signature verification of ballots is embedded in Arizona’s state law and election procedures, and took place in the 2020 election, Communications Director Megan Gilbertson said.

— Ali Swenson

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U.S. Special Forces did not raid a CIA facility in Germany and seize server

CLAIM: American soldiers died during an operation to retrieve a server from a CIA facility in Frankfurt, Germany, that was hiding election data that proves fraud in the presidential election.

THE FACTS: Since early November, a conspiracy theory has been spreading that U.S. Army forces seized a server in Frankfurt storing data from the U.S. presidential election. In the original version of the fictitious story, which The Associated Press debunked last month, the alleged server was owned by the election software company Scytl. Both the Army and Scytl confirmed that story was false. In the latest iteration, the claim is that the CIA was part of a scheme to change votes for President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden, and maintained a server with election data in a CIA facility in Frankfurt. A U.S. special forces unit allegedly raided the facility to seize the server from the CIA, and some soldiers died in the operation. Lt. General Thomas McInerney, who left the U.S. Air Force in 1994, made the claim during a phone interview with the online program Worldview Weekend. “The U.S. Army, the U.S. Special Forces Command, seized a server farm in Frankfurt, Germany because they were sending this data from those five states, or six states, through the internet to Spain and then into Frankfurt, Germany,” McInerney said in his remarks. He went on to claim there may have been casualties in the alleged raid. “I’ve heard that it didn’t go down without incident. I haven’t been able to verify it. I want to be careful in that. It’s just coming out. But I understand my initial report is that there were U.S. soldiers killed in that operation,” he said. McInerney suggested that when attorney Sidney Powell announced she had evidence of fraud in the election and vowed to “release the Kraken” she was referring to the 305th Military Intelligence Battalion “because that’s the nickname.” He said that Army unit was his source of information and suggested they were selected “because the president could trust them.” When asked about McInerney’s claims about an operation to seize servers from the CIA in Germany, a spokesperson for U.S. Army Special Operations Command and a spokesperson for the Army both told the AP, “The allegations are false.” The 305th Military Intelligence Battalion that McInerney cited is a unit based at Fort Huachuca in Arizona for new soldiers receiving entry-level training in military intelligence. In the days after McInerney’s interview aired, other false claims spread online. One said that five U.S. Army soldiers who died in a helicopter crash during a peacekeeping mission in Sinai, Egypt, on Nov. 12 were actually killed in Germany seizing the server. Others claimed that CIA Director Gina Haspel was injured or killed trying to guard the server at the CIA facility in Germany. The CIA confirmed the claims are false are false. “Well…this is the most absurd inquiry I’ve ever addressed, but I’m happy to tell you that Director Haspel is alive and well and at the office,” a CIA spokesperson told the AP in an email.

— Associated Press writer Jude Joffe-Block reported from Phoenix.

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Pennsylvania did not have hundreds of thousands of ‘phantom’ absentee ballots

CLAIM: Pennsylvania election officials mailed out 1.8 million ballots but counted votes from more than 2.5 mailed ballots.

THE FACTS: The false statistic combines data from Pennsylvania’s June primary election, in which 1.8 million voters requested vote-by-mail ballots, and data from the general election, in which voters mailed back more than 2.6 million ballots that were counted. Figures about Pennsylvania’s mailed ballots were distorted at a legislative hearing in Gettysburg on Nov. 25 as President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani tried to argue there was fraud in the state’s election. “Now this is the part that is a mystery,” Giuliani said during the hearing. “Mailed ballots sent out, 1,823,148. But when you go to the count of the final count of the vote, there were 2,589,242 mail-in-ballots. What happened? How do you account for the 700,000 mail in ballots that appeared from nowhere?” But there is no mystery. Giuliani mixed two different statistics in his claim. State data show the 1,823,148 figure is actually the number of voters who requested a vote-by-mail ballot in the state’s June primary -- not in the general election. In fact, more than 3 million Pennsylvania voters requested vote-by-mail ballots, and mailed back more than 2.6 million ballots that were counted. Even though the error was pointed out on social media by journalists, the false claim continued to spread on social media. Pennsylvania Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano shared a similar version of the claim on Twitter that also confused primary data and data from the general election. Mastriano did not return a request for comment from The Associated Press. His tweet was later shared by Trump. The president and his legal team have failed to get traction in court on their claims of fraud. Pennsylvania’s election results were certified on Nov. 24.

— Jude Joffe-Block

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The state is in the process of completing another machine recount at Trump’s request.