(AP) ALI SWENSON, JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BEATRICE DUPUY and ARIJETA LAJKA
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: Photos in a campaign ad for President Donald Trump show that former Vice President Joe Biden is “alone, hiding, diminished.”
THE FACTS: The photos used to support the claims that appear as the ad opens are not recent and have been altered in an effort to make those points. The ad, which circulated widely on social media, opens by zooming in on Biden’s home in Delaware. “Deep in the heart of Delaware, Joe Biden sits in his basement. Alone. Hiding. Diminished,” a narrator says. The initial footage used in the ad zooms in using an aerial shot of Biden’s home and then cuts to him sitting at a desk in his basement surrounded by camera lights. It is after this that the altered photos are used. As the narration says “alone” and “hiding,” a photo of Biden sitting alone on a floor appears on the screen. In the original photo, Biden is surrounded by people. Photographer Liz Martin for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, took the photo, which shows Biden watching the Holiday Bowl football game last December at the home of Mayor John Lundell in Coralville, Iowa. As the narration says “diminished,” the video cuts to a photo of Biden looking down, touching his forehead with no one around. A microphone he was holding was edited out and the background removed. The original photo by photographer Mark Peterson for Redux Pictures shows that Biden was holding a microphone while speaking at a town hall meeting at the Indian Creek Nature Preserve in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Sept. 20, 2019. Another photo in the ad is misrepresented. It shows Biden with his head down at a point when the ad says Biden is “defeated.” The photo, taken by AP photographer Andrew Harnik on June 1, shows Biden praying at the Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware, during a meeting with Black leaders following the death of George Floyd. The ad blurs details that show Biden is praying in a church. The ad was tweeted by @TeamTrump on Wednesday. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the images in the ad.
CLAIM: COVID-19 is “fading.” A second wave is unlikely because younger and healthy people don’t easily catch or spread it, so the virus “struggles to spread any more.”
THE FACTS: Data show the pandemic is spreading in the United States, not fading. Yet a widely viewed Facebook post titled, “Why is the Epidemic Fading?” makes a series of unsubstantiated claims that are contrary to current scientific consensus, including that younger people and healthy people “don’t easily catch it or spread it.” The post, which was accompanied by a graphic of COVID-19 deaths by state, also claims the virus “exploited the easy vectors … the people who are vulnerable” and “now it struggles to spread any more.” Nicholas G. Reich, an associate professor of biostatistics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said recent national averages of around 60,000 new COVID-19 cases a day “is in my mind far from evidence that this outbreak is fading — it’s evidence that it is raging.” More than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths have been recorded daily in the U.S. in recent days, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project. Reich, who aggregates coronavirus forecasts for the COVID-19 Forecast Hub in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said more than 30 models predict 40 states have a higher than 50 percent chance of seeing higher death rates in the next two weeks than in the previous two weeks. He said 11 of those states have a 75 percent chance of seeing higher death rates. Furthermore, public health experts say the claim that healthy people don’t easily catch or spread the virus is false. “If you are healthier, you’re less likely to get really sick if you do get infected,” said Dr. Art Reingold, a professor of epidemiology at University of California, Berkeley. “It says nothing about whether you’re likely to transmit the virus, or to get infected with the virus.” The post’s broad claim that “younger people” don’t easily catch or spread the coronavirus is also inaccurate, public health experts told the AP. In several states, infections among young adults have been driving new outbreaks over the summer. Scientists are still trying to understand how children respond to the virus. “We don’t really know how effectively the very young spread it,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association told the AP. But he said for “age 10 and above, most of the evidence we have today says they’re just like adults.” As of Friday, the CDC had recorded more than 250,000 COVID-19 cases in the 0-17 age group. Data does not support the premise that most people vulnerable to the virus have already been infected and the virus is struggling to spread. “If you want to re-infect New York City, all you need is one person to go into New York City — a super spreader — and they can get a new explosion,” Benjamin said.
CLAIM: People are getting Legionnaires’ disease from bacteria in masks and the cases are being mistaken for coronavirus, driving the spike in cases.
THE FACTS: Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia that is caused by inhaling tiny water droplets containing Legionella bacteria. It is not spread person to person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Posts being shared on social media brought together two false claims: one, that people were getting Legionnaires’ disease from wearing masks and, two, that the cases were being mistaken for coronavirus, driving a spike in cases. Dr. Jonathan Parsons, a pulmonologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said there is no scientific basis to the idea that wearing a mask could lead to Legionnaires’ disease. “There is no way that the environment that would be produced from a damp mask is going to be suitable for Legionella to grow in any kind of quality to cause Legionnaires’ disease,” he said. The bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease does not live on our bodies or on masks, said Dr. Seth Cohen, who heads the infectious disease clinic at University of Washington Medical Center Northwest. “The science clearly shows that masks both prevent the acquisition of COVID and prevent transmission of COVID to other people,” he said. The post implies that because COVID-19 and Legionnaires’ disease have similar symptoms they are being confused. While they do have similar symptoms, they are two completely different diseases. Unlike coronavirus, Legionnaires’ disease can be treated with antibiotics. Coronavirus cases surged in July in states including Arizona, Texas, California and Florida. Experts blamed the spike on Americans not wearing facial coverings and following social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The post comes after U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas, tested positive for the coronavirus last week and speculated in a Twitter video how he might have caught the virus. “I don’t know about everybody but when I have a mask on, I am moving it to make it comfortable,” he says in the video from July 29. “I can’t help but wonder if that put some germs in the mask.” Parsons said the odds of getting coronavirus from your mask are negligible.
CLAIM: Mail-in ballots are not the same thing as absentee ballots. One can be verified and the other cannot.
THE FACTS: Some states mail ballots to every registered voter, while other states only mail ballots to voters who request them, but both are subject to a series of checks to verify voter identity and prevent fraud. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some politicians have tried to paint a picture of two diverging systems: absentee voting, or requesting a ballot when you can’t vote in person, and mail-in voting, in which states send a ballot to every registered voter. President Donald Trump and others have claimed without evidence that mail-in voting leads to fraudulent and inaccurate results, while absentee voting is perfectly safe. A post viewed more than 48,000 times on Facebook on Wednesday continued in that line of argument, falsely suggesting mail-in ballots cannot be verified, while absentee ballots can. “Mail in ballots are not the same thing as absentee ballots,” the post read. “One can be verified. The other can not. Stop the insanity.” In reality, any ballot mailed to your local election office — whether a voter requested it or not — goes through your state’s uniform vetting process. In either case, only people with current voter registrations can receive a ballot by mail. Each voter can only vote once. Voters must fill out the ballot, sign the envelope, then mail it or drop it off at a designated location by a certain deadline. Different states have different protocols for how to verify mail-in or absentee ballots that are sent to election offices. While some states only require a signature on the envelope, other states have additional precautions, such as comparing that signature to a signature on file, requiring a witness signature or requiring a notarized signature. Whether your vote is technically submitted absentee or through an all-mail election system does not change those protocols. This election year, the coronavirus pandemic led some states to expand mail-in voting. Critics have pointed out anecdotal reports of ballots being lost in the mail, sent to deceased relatives or sent to the wrong address, but those reports are not evidence that actual fraud occurred. Claims that mail-in voting has caused widespread voter fraud in the past are unsubstantiated, according to reporting by The Associated Press.
CLAIM: Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, a freshman congresswoman from Minnesota who is up for re-election this year, vowed to cut Social Security entitlements for seniors if she wins another term.
THE FACTS: There is no evidence Omar ever said this. The article being shared on social media this week matches the text of an older, satirical article. Just over a week before Omar will defend her congressional seat in Minnesota’s primary election, a fake article that misrepresents her campaign platform has been circulating widely on Facebook. The article attributes the following quote to Omar: “These old people haven’t earned these entitlements! We need more funding for our infrastructure and education centers and the biggest government expense is social security entitlements for senior citizens. We will have these phased out completely by 2024. We need to look toward the future generations and provide them welfare benefits, not the past of these older generations. Their time is over. They ruined the economy and must be made to pay!” An internet search for this quote reveals it was previously published in a fictitious article on the website Bustatroll.com. That site labels its articles as satire and includes a disclaimer that “everything on this website is fiction.” Contrary to that fake message, Omar has voiced support for Medicare for All, a single-payer health care model that would aim to insure most Americans and be a departure from the current private insurance system in the U.S. Omar has also tweeted in support of expanding welfare benefits during the coronavirus pandemic. The congresswoman is seeking a second term in Minnesota’s 5th District, and will appear on a primary ballot against four Democratic challengers on Aug. 11.
CLAIM: Footage from the Beirut explosion shows a missile striking the site just before the blast.
THE FACTS: The video, which was circulating on YouTube and Twitter, has been manipulated to add what appears to be a cartoon missile. There is no evidence Tuesday’s explosion was an attack of any kind. Posts sharing the video, which spread rapidly on social media on Thursday, claimed it showed a missile striking the seaport of Beirut moments before the blast, but a closer look reveals that the large missile was superimposed onto the video. In the manipulated video, a negative film effect was used to invert the colors, supposedly revealing a missile striking the seaport of Beirut. But when viewing the video frame by frame, the missile appears bent in the middle and has a cartoonish appearance. As the missile moves closer to the target, its size and the angle doesn’t change. About 8 seconds into the video, the missile disappears before getting close to striking anything. Hany Farid, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who focuses on digital forensics, confirmed to The Associated Press in an email that the missile was “obviously fake.” He explained “the missile looks far too large to be physically plausible and there is no motion blur on the missile as would be expected given the speed at which it would have been traveling.” One YouTube account that posted the video, which was viewed more than 348,000 times in less than a day before the user who uploaded it closed the account, suggested the explosion resulted from an attack. “The closest explosion angles available online,” the video’s caption read. “You still believe that was an accident!!??” The video was also downloaded and shared on Facebook and Twitter, where it was retweeted more than 8,000 times. Dozens of Twitter users thought the manipulated video was authentic. “It’s basically a cartoon missile that doesn’t look anything like a real missile striking a target,” Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California confirmed to the AP. Tuesday’s explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital city, killed at least 150 people and wounded thousands. Experts believe fireworks and the highly explosive chemical ammonium nitrate fueled the blast, the AP has reported.
CLAIM: Documents reveal former Ohio health director Dr. Amy Acton, who was among the first in the nation to propose strict stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus, is going to work for billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates in her new job.
THE FACTS: Acton is going to work at The Columbus Foundation, which is not run by Gates, nor has it received funding from his foundation. Social media users are circulating documents that they claim show Acton is headed to work for a nonprofit organization that is run by Microsoft founder Gates, and received funding from his foundation. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced last month that Acton would be leaving to take a job with her previous employer, The Columbus Foundation in Ohio. The false social media posts suggest that Gates will be Acton’s boss in her new job there. The Columbus Foundation, a nonprofit organization, has no affiliation with the Gates or its foundation. It has never received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, according to the nonprofit’s online database. Gates is not listed as a staffer nor does he serve on the board, a fact confirmed by the foundation through Natalie Parscher, the vice president of communications. Gates has been at the center of several coronavirus conspiracy theories circulating online, including unsupported claims that he wants to use the pandemic to force microchips or vaccinations on people around the globe. Acton, meanwhile, has been at the center of internet backlash, including anti-semitic memes, for her guidance to DeWine that Ohio should close schools and businesses to slow the spread of the virus. To support their inaccurate claim that Acton and Gates are in cahoots, social media users are posting documents that show the Gates Foundation donated to a group called KidsOhio.org. The Columbus Foundation also donated to the same group, the documents show. The two donations are unrelated to one another. KidsOhio.org, a now-defunct nonprofit, got a one-time grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006, according to the Gates Foundation’s online database. The nonprofit was run by Abigail Wexner, the wife of billionaire Les Wexner, and shuttered in 2016. The Columbus Foundation did not oversee or work directly with KidsOhio.org. The Columbus Foundation, which gives thousands of grants totaling millions of dollars every year, gave two grants to KidsOhio.org in 2016.
Reporter Amanda Seitz in Chicago contributed this item.