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: Michigan sent absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of primaries and the general election. This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue secretary of state.
THE FACTS: Michigan mailed applications for ballots to voters, not the ballots themselves. President Donald Trump, a Republican, on Wednesday falsely claimed on Facebook and Twitter that Michigan’s secretary of state mailed ballots to millions of voters in the state. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, announced Tuesday that the state mailed absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million registered voters ahead of Michigan’s August primary and November election. Benson said mailing the applications cost the state $4.5 million, which was covered with funds from the federal coronavirus relief package. Traditionally, Michigan voters have had to ask their local clerk for an absentee ballot. Benson’s announcement was criticized by some state Republicans who argued that local clerks should handle the requests and the money would have been better spent on protective equipment for polling places and election workers and on machines to more quickly process surging absentee ballots. In 2018, Michigan voters approved a statewide ballot initiative that eased election restrictions, including allowing voters to request an absentee ballot without reason.
CLAIM: Photo shows Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping holding up T-shirts that say “I (Heart) China.”
THE FACTS: The photo was manipulated. On May 12, the official Twitter account for the Trump campaign tweeted an altered photo of Biden and Xi next to each other holding up T-shirts that say “I (Heart) China.” The post, which was also captioned “Biden (Heart) China,” had over 1,900 retweets. In the original photo, Biden is holding up a T-shirt stating “China America two countries friendship everlasting,” in Chinese, while Xi holds a tee that says “Fostering goodwill between America & China,” in English. The photo, captured by photographer Frederic J. Brown for AFP/Getty Images, was taken at the International Studies Learning School in South Gate, California, just outside Los Angeles, on February 17, 2012. (A similar photo can be found in the AP archives, but Xi holds the tee with text in Chinese and Biden holds the one in English.) When the men met, California was seeking to bolster Chinese investment in the state. The Trump campaign has painted Biden as a Washington lifer and has argued that he’s too cozy with China.
CLAIM: The letters in COVID-19 stand for “certificate of vaccination identification” and 19 stands for “AI,” or artificial intelligence.
THE FACTS: COVID-19 stands for “coronavirus disease 2019,” according to the World Health Organization, which named it in February. A Facebook post with more than 21,000 views claims the name “COVID” is an acronym for “certificate of vaccination identification,” a reference to a potential future vaccine for the coronavirus and a digital certificate indicating someone has been vaccinated. The post also suggests the ‘19’ in COVID-19 stands for the first and ninth letters of the alphabet, A and I, representing the words “artificial intelligence.” The post references Bill Gates’ assertions that in the future, there may be digital certificates to track who has been tested or vaccinated for the coronavirus. Gates did say in a March 18 Reddit forum that “eventually we will have some digital certificates” for this purpose. But social media posts have taken this statement out of context and claimed Gates wishes to implant microchips in humans or use digital tools around the coronavirus to increase surveillance of humans. There is no evidence Gates has any interest in using a digital certificate of vaccination to monitor the public. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation told the AP in an email the idea of digital certificates “relates to efforts to create an open source digital platform with the goal of expanding access to safe, home-based testing” for the virus. False claims similar to these have circulated on social media platforms since the WHO introduced the name COVID-19 for the disease caused by the coronavirus earlier this year. Dozens of posts online have falsely claimed the acronym stands for “Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease” or “Certificate of Vaccination Identification by Artificial Intelligence.” There is no evidence for any of these claims.
CLAIM: In Dayton, Ohio, city officials are telling people to wear masks because of coronavirus but just banned criminals from wearing them.
THE FACTS: Dayton commissioners approved an anti-mask law in early March, before state and national health experts began recommending people wear masks in public, to discourage hate groups from holding rallies in the city. Social media users are sharing an outdated article to falsely suggest that while city leaders in Dayton are encouraging people to wear cloth masks, they recently outlawed the facial coverings for criminals. The inaccurate posts sharing the article mock Dayton leaders for passing a nonsensical and contradictory law during the coronavirus pandemic. Other posts have taken a screenshot of the article’s headline, turning it into a meme. “This is literally the idiocracy that is all government,” one Facebook post said. The ordinance, passed by Dayton’s city commission on March 11, prohibits anyone from concealing their identity “during a crime” or while trying to “intimidate another.” The city ordinance was passed, in part, to discourage hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan from holding rallies after a Klan group requested a permit for a gathering this year. The request came after a handful of KKK members showed up in May 2019 at the city’s courthouse, requiring a massive police presence to keep counter protesters and Klan members from clashing. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said she began noticing the March article about Dayton’s anti-mask ordinance was being taken out of context because social media users were tagging her in posts linking to the outdated story. The Dayton television station that originally published the article has since updated their story to clarify the city ordinance was not passed in relation to COVID-19. “We did this before COVID was even happening,” Whaley said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “We had taken this legislation from other cities to deal with hate groups. They don’t like to show their face during hate rallies. It was a way for us to say: ‘OK, you can come but you have to show yourself.’” Other cities and states have anti-mask laws on the books to discourage Klan members from wearing hoods during public rallies and marches. In April, for example, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp temporarily suspended an anti-mask law passed in 1951 that makes it a misdemeanor to wear “a mask, hood” or other face covering to “conceal the identity of the wearer” on public property.
CLAIM: California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been defying his own stay-at-home order and fleeing to Montana.
THE FACTS: The governor has not left the state since the stay-at-home order was issued. Posts claiming the governor fled to Montana date back to at least May 5, with comments shared on Facebook suggesting the governor was seen in Bitterroot Valley without a mask. “Did you and your family enjoy being in Bitterroot Valley Montana last weekend?” one comment stated. “What’s wrong with staying in the state you have locked down.” The falsehood gained traction this week with posts featuring a photo of the governor receiving thousands of likes. “I am Gavin Newsom. I ordered California to stay home, no trips or vacations this summer. I decided to take a family vacation to Montana this weekend. Do as I say, not as I do,” the posts said. The governor’s office confirmed to the AP that he has not left the state throughout his order. “The Governor and his family have been in California for the duration of the pandemic,” Nathan Click, a spokesman for the governor, said in an email. The parents of Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, do own a ranch in Montana. The couple was married there in 2008. A photo provided to the AP shows Newsom and his wife on their wedding day posing on the banks of the Bitterroot River on the ranch. Newsom has held press conferences on May 6, May 14 and May 18 in California. “He wasn’t in Montana to our knowledge,” Erin Loranger, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s press secretary, said in an email. Newsom first issued his stay-home-order on March 19. The governor announced Monday that he would be relaxing the order. He said that counties would need to ask for state approval for restaurants to allow dining in and he suggested that it would be a few weeks before people could get haircuts. “Bottom line is: People can go at their own pace, and we are empowering our local health directors and county officials that understand their local communities and conditions,” Newsom said. It’s not the first time misinformation has swirled around a governor’s whereabouts during the pandemic. False posts also surfaced around Gov. Ralph Northam supposedly escaping to North Carolina in April.
CLAIM: Photo shows Los Angeles County health director looking unwell.
THE FACTS: The photo was manipulated to make the health director appear sickly, her face pale and her eyes ringed by dark circles. The altered photo showing Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, circulated widely on social media with comments that suggested she was in poor health. “The health director of Los Angeles is the most unhealthy looking person I have ever seen,” a Twitter user posted on May 15. The post had over 23,000 retweets. A screenshot of the tweet also circulated on Facebook. Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative commentator, tweeted the altered photo on May 16, saying, “This is the health director of Los Angeles. Any questions?” The post had over 14,000 retweets. He later replied to a Twitter user who pointed out that the photo was false, “Okay, I got carried away with this one. Thanks for calling me on it.” The image was taken from a press briefing Ferrer gave on May 13. In footage from the event, Ferrer appears to be in good health as she delivers COVID-19 updates. In the manipulated image, her eyes were darkened to make it appear she had dark circles and her face was made pale. Ferrer came under fire earlier this month after saying some form of stay-at-home restrictions would likely remain “for the next three months.” She later apologized for inadvertently creating confusion around the issue.
CLAIM: Video shows “COV-19” is inscribed on equipment for 5G wireless towers.
THE FACTS: The circuit board filmed in the video is from a nearly decade-old set top TV box. A representative with Virgin Media, a British telecommunications company confirmed to the AP that the device never had “COV-19” printed on it. Last week, a video circulated on Facebook where a man filmed himself wearing a hard hat and a face mask. He claims he has been installing “5G masts.” He holds up a circuit board with “COV-19” inscribed on the device. “We don’t crack open these kits because we’re explicitly asked not to, but perhaps the best thing is for me to show you,” he says in the video. He goes on to say he is not aware of any company that “produces circuitry like this that has the brand name COV-19…I’ve read all that stuff online about coronavirus and COVID-19.” Several users on Facebook shared the false video. “Must See Worker Exposes Circuit Boards Being Installed in 5G Towers Whats on Them Will Surprise You !!!!” stated one post sharing the video. One part of the video shows that “HannStar J MV-1” is clearly written on the circuit board. HannStar is a Taiwanese company that produces parts for monitors, laptops, and televisions. The circuit board held up by the man in the video is not part of 5G technology, but belongs to an old set top TV box. Virgin Media told The Associated Press in an email that the part is from a 9-year-old TV box. “That is a board from a very old set top TV box, and which never featured any component parts inscribed/stamped/printed or otherwise with COV 19. It has absolutely no relation with any mobile network infrastructure, including that used for 5G,” Simon Dornan, a spokesman for Virgin Media, told the AP. The representative said the hardware looks like the Cisco 4585 HD (non-PVR) set top box, which was supplied to customers in 2011 but was discontinued a few years ago. Virgin Media tracked down some of those parts and sent The Associated Press photos confirming that COV-19 was never inscribed on them. The company said the inscription shown in the video was added to the RF Tuner component part, which is where the coaxial TV cable is connected. In recent months, conspiracy theories falsely linking coronavirus to 5G wireless have circulated widely online.
Rafael Cabrera contributed to this report from Mexico City.
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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