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:


Vaccinated people do not carry more coronavirus than the unvaccinated

CLAIM: People who are vaccinated against COVID-19 carry a “heavier viral load” if infected with the disease than those who are unvaccinated.

THE FACTS: Scientists have found that vaccinated people who get so-called breakthrough infections can carry about the same amount of coronavirus as those who did not receive the shots, not more. Social media users are misrepresenting comments made by Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner, to make the false claim. One widely circulating post falsely states, “Dr. Leana Wen, one of the MSM’s biggest lap dogs, is confirming what has been said by us all along. The vaccinated carry a heavier viral load.” In the image, a syringe is used rather than the word “vaccinated.” The post supports the false claim using a short clip from a 25-minute interview Wen did with the news program “Democracy Now!” In the segment, she discusses the delta variant and the new issues surrounding it. “We know that a person infected with the delta variant carries a thousand times the viral load than someone infected with the previous variant,” Wen said in the full clip. “What that means is the person can transmit a lot more virus.” But the post leaves that information out, using only a portion of the video where Wen discusses how the vaccinated can also spread the disease. “Those who are vaccinated, we now know based on the CDC, are now able with the delta variant, because they carry so much more virus, they could transmit it to their unvaccinated family members,” Wen said in the edited clip. “I, for example, even though I’m fully vaccinated, my children are not because they’re too young to be vaccinated. So I need to be careful for my children because of all the unvaccinated people around us.” Previously, vaccinated people who got infected were thought to have low levels of virus and to be unlikely to pass it to others. But, according to AP reporting, more recent data shows that is not the case with the delta variant. In July, after the delta variant began spreading more widely, the CDC highlighted a study that found that the vaccinated can carry as much of the coronavirus as the unvaccinated. According to the CDC, the greatest risk of coronavirus transmission is among the unvaccinated, who are much more likely to get infected, and therefore transmit the virus.

— Associated Press writer Terrence Fraser in New York contributed this report.


No truth to claims that 86K voters ‘don’t appear to exist’ in Arizona

CLAIM: A cybersecurity firm hired by Arizona’s Republican-controlled Senate to review 2020 election results in the state’s largest county was unable to identify 86,391 voters, showing that these voters don’t appear to exist.

THE FACTS: A Sept. 24 report that spun falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County reverberated online this week, as social media users took the report’s claims out of context to spread false claims of their own. In one section of the report, Cyber Ninjas explained that it checked voter information in the county’s Final Voted File against a private commercial identity database called Personator, by the company Melissa. It said reviewers could not find the identity records of 86,391 voters in Personator, but acknowledged that this didn’t prove any of the voters were not real. “It is expected that most if not all of these individuals are in fact real people with a limited public record and commercial presence,” the report said. Conservative websites stretched the claim further, holding up that report section to suggest thousands of votes were cast by fake people. “AZ Audit Could Not Find the Identity of 86,391 Voters – They Don’t Appear to Exist,” read one widely shared headline. The claim misrepresents the information in the Personator data tool, which is private, doesn’t belong to the government and does not include all voters, according to Greg Brown, Melissa’s vice president of global marketing. Brown said the company estimates its database includes about 80% of U.S. adults. It is “continually edited” with opt-out requests from law enforcement officials and others, he said. “Being absent from the Personator data tool is not an indicator that an individual does not exist,” Brown said. The AP has debunked several other erroneous claims relating to the review that spread on social media, including the false claim that the “verified and approved” stamp that is supposed to be used after signatures are verified on mailed ballot envelopes was actually “pre-printed” on the envelopes. County election officials and an election services firm that works with the county explained that the scans of the envelopes being referenced were captured in binary format to prevent the file from being too large, which makes it appear that the stamp is behind an arrow pointing to the signature box in the scanned image, when it is not.

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report, with additional reporting from Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia.


Mileage tax study, not actual mileage tax, proposed in infrastructure bill

CLAIM: President Joe Biden has called for a “driving tax” that is estimated to be 8 cents per mile.

THE FACTS: Biden has not proposed that tax. As members of Congress mull a bipartisan, $1 trillion infrastructure bill that was approved by the Senate in August, social media users are misrepresenting one aspect of the massive legislation. An image repeatedly shared on Facebook shows a screenshot of a Newsmax report on “Biden tax increases” that refers to a “driving tax.” The screenshot shows bullets saying “per-mile user fee,” “estimated to be 8 cents per mile,” and “amounts vary depending on vehicles.” Text above the screenshot reads: “Just to put this in perspective, if you drive 26,000 miles X 0.08 per mile = $2,080.00. (now get mad).” But the Biden administration has not proposed such a mileage tax, as the image falsely suggests. What has been proposed is a pilot program that would study the mechanics of such a tax, said Andy Winkler, director of infrastructure projects at the Bipartisan Policy Center. That program — a “National motor vehicle per-mile user fee pilot” — is included in the infrastructure package still before Congress. “It is not a tax, it is not on everybody and it is voluntary,” Winkler said. The idea, he said, is that volunteers with passenger and commercial vehicles across the country would participate in the program that would provide insights into how such a per-mile fee could be collected. Such a tax has been weighed as a potential replacement for the gas tax, he said. Likewise, Ulrik Boesen, a senior policy analyst at the Tax Foundation, said in an email the “purpose of this program is to study (vehicle miles traveled) taxes to understand how they could work.” The proposal for the pilot program also does not include an “8 cents per mile” rate, or any rate for that matter, Boesen said. It’s unclear why that specific rate was referenced. An inquiry to Newsmax about its report was not returned.

— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia contributed this report.


Walmart is not requiring customers to be vaccinated

CLAIM: Walmart recently announced it will require customers in its stores to be vaccinated for COVID-19 starting Nov. 1.

THE FACTS: TikTok videos and a fake press release image circulated online this week with the false claim that Walmart was planning a vaccine requirement for its in-store customers. “So Walmart came out and said the other day that by November 1, anybody who is not vaccinated will not be allowed to shop in a Walmart supermarket,” a man told the camera in one widely shared TikTok video. Social media users across platforms also shared a fake press release from “Walmart of Canada,” which featured the Walmart logo alongside the message “Proof of Vaccination Required.” Walmart spokesperson Charles Crowson told the AP, “That claim is false.” Walmart Canada also confirmed the claims are false with a statement posted in multiple social media comments. “This information is not true,” the statement read. “Customers do not have to show proof of vaccination to shop at our stores. We continue to work with governments across the country and are following required restrictions.” A search of Walmart’s public social media accounts and news releases found the company has not announced any requirement for customers to get vaccinated.

— Ali Swenson


Michael Baden did not perform Gabby Petito autopsy

CLAIM: Dr. Michael Baden was the medical examiner for Gabby Petito’s autopsy and also served in the same role for President John F. Kennedy, George Floyd, Jeffrey Epstein, Martin Luther King Jr. and Phil Spector.

THE FACTS: Baden, a former New York City chief medical examiner and forensic pathologist known for investigating prominent and controversial cases, did not perform the autopsy of Petito, a 22-year-old woman who was killed while on a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend, nor did he serve as the medical examiner for the other cases. In the weeks since Petito was reported missing, a number of theories surrounding her disappearance and death have circulated online. Social media posts falsely alleging her autopsy was performed by Baden gained popularity after he spoke about Petito’s case on Fox News on Sept. 21. Some social media users sharing the claim have baselessly suggested Baden has been involved in coverup schemes, including in the deaths of Kennedy, King and Epstein. However, Baden did not perform those autopsies, nor did he perform Petito’s. In his Fox News appearance, Baden described how autopsies are performed and explained that insects present on Petito’s body could help investigators determine her time and place of death. Baden did not suggest he was involved with the proceedings. Brent Blue, the coroner in Teton County, Wyoming, identified Petito’s remains and determined she was a homicide victim. Blue has not disclosed a cause of death pending final autopsy results. Petito’s body was found Sept. 18 near an undeveloped camping area in remote northern Wyoming along the border of Grand Teton National Park. Authorities are still searching for her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, who has been named a person of interest in the case and charged with unauthorized use of a debit card. The incorrect assertion that Baden performed Epstein’s autopsy has been circulating since 2019, but he just attended it as an independent observer at the request of Epstein’s lawyers. Early in his career, Baden was top pathologist for a congressional committee probing the Kennedy and King killings, though he didn’t perform those autopsies either. He made a name for himself testifying in high-profile cases, including for the defense in O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial, and for record producer Phil Spector in his first murder trial in the 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson. But different medical examiners were tasked with performing the official autopsies for the murder victims in those cases. More recently, Baden performed private autopsies in the police killings of Michael Brown and George Floyd.

— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed this report.


Canadian health official’s remarks about COVID-19 misrepresented online

CLAIM: Alberta’s top doctor said that if you’re feeling unwell and you don’t have a COVID-19 test, you’re still counted as a positive case.

THE FACTS: Posts online are misrepresenting comments made by Alberta’s chief medical officer for health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. During a Sept. 23 news conference, Hinshaw was answering questions around how to manage outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools. Hinshaw was asked by a reporter to explain “why parents don’t have the right to know if there are COVID cases in their child’s school.” Hinshaw responded that because the current framework in schools does not require mandatory quarantine or close contact tracing for respiratory illnesses, disclosure of a student’s positive COVID-19 test would violate privacy rules. She said schools are using the same outbreak protocols for all cases of respiratory illnesses, regardless of whether there is a known COVID-19 diagnosis. “If individuals choose to not get tested for COVID but are home with an illness, they are now counted in the list as now being part of that outbreak. It is less dependent on needing a test to be a part of identifying where there is an issue,” she said in the clip being shared online. “We are working with education to determine if there are any adjustments that need to be made to this framework.” Some social media users shared the brief clip without making it clear that she was referring to school protocols for tracking respiratory illness in general, not official COVID-19 case counts. Posts online falsely claimed the clip showed Alberta would now count anyone who feels unwell as a positive COVID-19 case. “That report is false,” Tom McMillan, assistant director of communications for Alberta Health, said in an email. “Dr. Hinshaw was simply referring to outbreak management protocols in school settings, where all respiratory viruses are treated similarly by the current protocols in place, which helps reduce the chance of onward spread.” McMillan said those staying home from school are not counted automatically as positive COVID-19 cases. “All cases reported in the province are those that are confirmed COVID-19 cases or those who’ve been tested and are awaiting results,” he said. The posts online are a part of a broader conspiracy theory that claims that COVID-19 case numbers are being inflated around the globe, which experts have repeatedly debunked.

— Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed this report.


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