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

·9-min read

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:

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Posts misrepresent outdated UK guidance on COVID-19 vaccines

CLAIM: A document shows that Pfizer currently recommends against receiving its COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

THE FACTS: The document was published by U.K. health officials in late 2020 upon first authorization of the shot, and the same document has since been revised in line with current recommendations that say the vaccine is safe and recommended for both groups. Social media users misrepresented the outdated regulatory document. “I’m sure it’ll be all over the mainstream news that Pfizer has now declared their COVID vaccines unsafe for pregnancy and breastfeeding after the government coerced and mandated thousands of pregnant women into having one,” one widely shared tweet stated. The post included a screenshot of a document that said, “pregnancy should be excluded before vaccination,” and “COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine BNT162b2 should not be used during breast-feeding.” The photo did not include the document title, date, where it came from or other identifying details. A review shows the information came from a 2020 version of a document called “Regulation 174 Information For UK Healthcare Professionals” that was publicly available when COVID-19 vaccines were first rolled out. Britain authorized Pfizer’s shot for emergency use on Dec. 2, 2020. Regulation 174 allows for the approval of a medicine or vaccine in a public health emergency with sufficient data on safety, quality and effectiveness, according to Chofamba Sithole, a spokesperson for the U.K. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. The document was published by the agency as early as Dec. 8, 2020, an archived version shows. The guidance was updated on Dec. 31, 2020, to offer the vaccine to females of reproductive age without the need to provide a negative pregnancy test, and to high-risk pregnant women, said Dr. Victoria Male, a lecturer in reproductive immunology at Imperial College London. That can be seen in another archived version of the document from Jan. 3, 2021. The recommendation was updated again in April 2021 to allow all pregnant women to get the COVID vaccine. The current version of the document says “animal studies do not indicate direct or indirect harmful effects with respect to pregnancy.” About breastfeeding, it says, “it is unknown whether the COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine BNT162b2 is excreted in human milk.” The updates were made as additional safety data and evidence became available demonstrating the vaccine's safety for such groups. “This was our assessment at the time of approval for the vaccine,” Sithole wrote in an email, referencing the 2020 version of the document. “Since then new data which has come to light (both non-clinical and post-authorisation ‘real world’ data) supports the updated advice on vaccinating those who are pregnant and breastfeeding.” Keanna Ghazvini, a spokesperson for Pfizer, declined to comment on the specific documents being shared on social media but pointed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization guidance that says any of the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines can be administered to pregnant or lactating women. The respective guidelines both state that experts believe COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to pose a risk to pregnant women or fetuses. Sithole said U.K. data also supports international findings. “There is also no current evidence that COVID-19 vaccination while breastfeeding causes any harm to breastfed children or affects the ability to breastfeed,” the spokesperson added.

— Associated Press writers Sophia Tulp in Atlanta and Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia contributed this report.

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Bill Gates owns a lot of American farmland, but not the majority

CLAIM: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates owns the majority of America’s farmland and the investment firm BlackRock holds the majority of single family houses in the country.

THE FACTS: The billionaire tech mogul and philanthropist has amassed nearly 270,000 acres of farmland across the country, but that’s still a relatively small slice of the nation’s nearly 900 million total farm acres. BlackRock also does not own the majority of the country’s 80 million single-family homes. As Elon Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter has grabbed headlines in recent days, some prominent voices have taken to social media to claim that some other significant acquisitions by deep-pocketed individuals and corporations have largely flown under the radar. “Bill Gates is buying up the majority of American farmland and BlackRock is buying the majority of single family houses but I’m supposed to believe the biggest threat to us is Elon Musk buying Twitter?” read one representative tweet that’s been liked or shared on the platform more than 250,000 times. The Microsoft co-founder is considered the largest private owner of farmland in the country with some 269,000 acres across dozens of states, according to last year’s edition of the Land Report 100, an annual survey of the nation’s largest landowners. But a Gates spokesperson said in a statement that the claim that he’s bought the majority of the nation’s farmland is false, pointing to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report from February that showed there were more than 895 million total acres of farmland in the country last year. That means Gates, whose net worth is estimated at some $134 billion according to Forbes’ annual ranking of the richest people in the country, owns less than one percent of the nation’s total farmland. So while the tech mogul certainly owns a large constellation of farms, it’s nowhere close to the majority nationwide. Gates, in an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit last year, said his “investment group” was behind the purchases, and suggested it was linked to seed and biofuel development. BlackRock, meanwhile, is not the owner of the majority of single family houses in the country. There are more than 85 million single-family homes in the country, and only around 15 million of those are rentals, according to the latest American Housing Survey by the Census Bureau. Of those rentals, less than a third are owned by non-individual investors, according to a 2022 report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In emails, BlackRock spokesman Christopher Beattie told The Associated Press that the firm primarily invests in retail, office buildings, hotels and apartment complexes, rather than single-family homes, but he declined to provide a breakdown. The company also posted on Twitter to reject the false narrative. “We’ve never been one of the big institutional buyers of single family homes,” BlackRock said in response to one tweet. The firm is a shareholder in Dallas-based Invitation Homes, which owns nearly 80,000 single-family rentals nationwide. That makes Invitation Homes the largest operator of single-family rental homes in the country, but still represents a tiny fraction of all such homes. BlackRock also suggested it was being confused for the similarly-named investment management firm Blackstone, which until recently owned Invitation Homes. Adding to the confusion, Blackstone was once a major investor in BlackRock, but sold off its stake in the 1990s.

— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in Boston contributed this report.

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Video shows tanks being moved for military exercise in Finland

CLAIM: Video shows Finland moving military equipment toward its eastern border with Russia.

THE FACTS: The video shows a train in Finland transporting tanks from the city of Tampere to the village of Niinisalo for a two-week military exercise called “ Arrow 22,” the Finnish Army confirmed to The Associated Press. Multiple social media users on Wednesday shared the video of tanks being moved by rail, incorrectly stating that the video showed Finland shifting the equipment closer to the Russian border. The two countries share a border that stretches about 830 miles (1,336 kilometers.) “Media reports that Finland has begun an active transfer of equipment to the borders with Russia,” a Facebook user sharing the video falsely stated. The video circulated widely on Twitter, Facebook and Telegram with the false information. But the train was on its way to Niinisalo, which is in the opposite direction from Russia. A geolocation search confirms that the video was filmed in Tampere. “I can confirm that the video is really about tanks being moved to the exercise Arrow,” Erikka Mannila, chief of public affairs with the Finnish Army confirmed in an email. More than 3,000 people will be part of the biannual military exercise that runs from May 2 to May 13. Visiting forces from the U.K., Latvia, Estonia and the U.S. will also participate. Col. Rainer Kuosmanen, commander of the country’s Armoured Brigade, also shared photos of the tanks on Twitter on May 2. “A video has been circulating online claiming to show tanks being moved to Finland’s borders. This is not true,” Finnish Defense Forces tweeted on Wednesday. “The tanks were being moved to the army mechanised exercise Arrow 22. The exercise takes place in Niinisalo and Säkylä.” Russia’s attack on Ukraine led both Finland and Sweden to send assault rifles and anti-tank weapons to Kyiv, breaking their policy of not providing arms to countries at war, the AP has reported.

— Associated Press writer Arijeta Lajka in New York contributed this report.

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Hong Kong protest video is from 2019, not 2022

CLAIM: Video shows people in Hong Kong “rebelling against the COVID police state by cutting down and destroying security cameras.”

THE FACTS: Despite suggestions that the video is current, it shows protesters, some holding umbrellas, downing a “smart lamppost” in August 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Hong Kong: people are cutting down facial recognition towers,” a widely shared tweet of the video reads. Another tweet sharing the video claims: “Hong Kong is rebelling against the COVID police state by cutting down and destroying security cameras.” Footage of the same events can be seen in 2019 social media posts and in a still image captured by The Associated Press on Aug. 24, 2019. As the AP reported that day, protesters took to the streets to demand the removal of the lampposts over worries that they could contain high-tech cameras and facial recognition software used for surveillance by Chinese authorities. The same video was misrepresented in 2020 posts that claimed protesters were tearing down a 5G pole and falsely implied that 5G was responsible for the coronavirus. It was filmed near a large shopping mall in Hong Kong called MegaBox. In Hong Kong, the rising costs of China’s strict “zero COVID” strategy have sparked a backlash, the AP has reported. Hong Kong reopened beaches and pools and relaxed other pandemic restrictions on Thursday.

— Angelo Fichera

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