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

·14-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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DNC anti-misinformation push doesn’t involve reading private texts

CLAIM: The Democratic National Committee is working with the Biden administration to monitor private citizens’ SMS communications in a move to crack down on anti-vaccine text messages.

THE FACTS: The DNC has “no ability to access or read people’s private text messages” and is “not working with any government agency (including the White House) to try to see personal text messages,” according to Lucas Acosta, a senior spokesperson for the committee. Conservative lawmakers and social media users this week advanced the false claim that the DNC and other Biden allies were planning to spy on personal text messages in order to identify and dispel vaccine misinformation. “So now the Biden Administration wants to get into people’s text messages … to force vaccine compliance and who knows what else,” Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley tweeted. Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar also picked up the false claim, tweeting, “The Biden Administration in partnership with the DNC, plans to monitor the private text messages of American citizens who question experimental, mRNA, emergency authorized, non-FDA approved vaccines.” The false claim evolved online after Politico reported on Monday that the DNC and other Biden allies were “planning to engage fact-checkers more aggressively and work with SMS carriers to dispel misinformation about vaccines.” Social media users and conservative websites interpreted Politico’s report to mean the DNC would monitor private text messages in order to crack down on misinformation, but one of the reporters of the piece, Politico White House Correspondent Natasha Korecki, clarified on Twitter that this wasn’t true. “No,” Korecki tweeted Monday in response to a question about whether the government would be reading personal texts. “Outside groups are attempting to flag to SMS carriers false information campaigns that are driving misinformation on vaccines.” Acosta explained to The Associated Press that the DNC isn’t infiltrating personal texts, nor is it working with mobile phone carriers like Verizon or T-Mobile to dispel misinformation. Instead, Acosta said, the DNC is simply notifying SMS aggregator companies, like Twilio and Bandwidth, when it believes a political mass text is fraudulent or violates the company’s messaging policies. “The only texts reviewed are those distributed en masse to American citizens through broadcast text platforms and reported to the DNC.” The White House declined to comment on the record.

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in Seattle contributed this report.

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Online reports mislead on vaccination door-knocking efforts

CLAIM: President Joe Biden’s administration introduced a door-to-door campaign to offer COVID-19 vaccines as a way to confiscate guns or Bibles.

THE FACTS: False information is circulating on social media around the Biden administration's plan to drive up COVID-19 vaccination rates with a door-to-door campaign. Despite the delta variant of the coronavirus surging, only 48% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated and many parts of the country are lagging behind. “Now we need to go to community-by-community, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and oftentimes, door-to-door — literally knocking on doors — to get help to the remaining people” who need to be vaccinated, Biden said on July 6. Some posts online falsely claim the campaign would force vaccines on people while others suggest the Biden administration’s initiative has a hidden agenda that will lead to guns or Bibles being confiscated. “The Biden Administration wants to knock on your door to see if you’re vaccinated,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan tweeted. “What’s next? Knocking on your door to see if you own a gun?” North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn echoed such claims during the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. “Think about the mechanisms they would have to build to be able to actually execute that massive of a thing,” Cawthorn said. "They could then go door to door and take your guns. They could go door to door and take your Bibles.” But the vaccine campaign does not involve federal workers, it relies on local officials, private sector workers and volunteers to go into areas where there are lower vaccination rates and provide information on where to access the vaccine. Furthermore, federal law prohibits creating a national gun registry. White House press secretary Jen Psaki countered some of the false claims in a press conference on July 9. “This is grassroots volunteers, this is members of the clergy, these are volunteers who believe that people across the country, especially in low-vaccinated areas, should have accurate information, should have information about where they can get vaccinated, where they can save their own lives and their neighbors’ lives and their family members’ lives,” Psaki said. An example of this approach is playing out in North Carolina. “We are employing numerous outreach strategies – including door knocking – across the state to ensure that people have the information that they need about vaccinations and can easily and conveniently get vaccinated,” Bailey Pennington, a spokesperson with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, told The Associated Press in an email. The grassroots component of the U.S. vaccination campaign has been in operation since April and was funded by Congress in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill passed in March, the AP reported.

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Knocking on doors to promote vaccines doesn’t violate health privacy law

CLAIM: President Joe Biden’s initiative for a door-to-door campaign to encourage vaccination for COVID-19 is a violation of the federal law that restricts the release of medical information.

THE FACTS: Biden pitched a door-knocking campaign as a way to get vaccine information and assistance to more people, not probe Americans about whether they have been vaccinated. But even if officials or volunteers did ask people that question, it wouldn’t be a violation of federal health privacy laws, according to experts. Nevertheless, social media users and political candidates have spread false claims that the campaign infringes on the federal health privacy law known as HIPAA. “How about the government stay the heck out of our business!?” Texas Republican congressional candidate Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez wrote in a Facebook post. “What ever happened to PRIVATE health decisions? Seems like giving these door knockers our vaccination status would a HIPPA violation.” Another Facebook user wrote, “Coming to my door to seek personal medical info is a violation of HIPAA laws & my constitutional rights." In fact, HIPAA doesn’t block anyone from asking another person about their health status, according to Alan Meisel, law professor and bioethics expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “What it does is prohibit certain health care entities from revealing certain health information about patients,” Meisel told the AP in an email. If someone does come to your door to encourage you to get the COVID-19 vaccine, you have no obligation to tell them whether you have been vaccinated, said Kayte Spector-Bagdady, lawyer and associate director for the Center for Bioethics and Social Science in Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. “HIPAA does not apply to public health outreach volunteers, and it doesn’t apply to information you offer to tell,” Spector-Bagdady said in an email to the AP. “If you are uncomfortable, just don’t open the door - or do and just get some information without giving any in return!”

— Ali Swenson

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Pennsylvania did not initiate an election audit

CLAIM: Pennsylvania initiated a full audit of the rigged November 2020 election.

THE FACTS: The state of Pennsylvania did not initiate an election audit. Last Wednesday, Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano said he was launching a “forensic investigation” and issued letters to officials in three counties, requesting sweeping elections-related information. The letters threatened counties with subpoenas if they don’t respond affirmatively by July’s end, according to reporting by The Associated Press. In the wake of Mastriano’s request, social media users took to Facebook and spread misinformation about the source and nature of the request, and about the integrity of Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential elections. One popular social media post said, “Pennsylvania initiated a FULL audit of the RIGGED election.” But the state did not initiate an audit. “The state has not initiated anything,” said Wanda Murren, communications director at the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees the state’s election process. There is also no evidence that the election was improperly administered or poorly managed. Critics say an election audit is duplicative, given the legal requirements for each county and the state to review election results for accuracy and investigate any discrepancies. “Pennsylvania counties, despite a convergence of difficult circumstances, ran a free, fair and accurate election in 2020,” Murren said in a prepared statement last Wednesday. “The majority of Pennsylvanians – and Americans – are satisfied with that truth.”

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

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Posts understate infrastructure funding in American Jobs Plan

CLAIM: Less than 5 cents of every dollar of the $4 trillion “infrastructure” bill actually goes to infrastructure.

THE FACTS: While “infrastructure” can be defined in numerous ways, the claim that Biden’s initial plan is made up of less than 5% true infrastructure funding is decidedly false. The amount of “real” infrastructure funding in Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan has been a topic of political debate for months, with Republicans criticizing the president’s pitch as a Trojan horse for Democratic policies and tax hikes. A conservative-backed nonprofit resurrected the criticism on Facebook this week, falsely claiming in a widely shared video that “less than 5 cents of every dollar of the $4 trillion ‘infrastructure’ bill actually goes to infrastructure.” First, it should be noted that Biden’s $4 trillion plan is actually made up of two distinct bill proposals: the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. The former is a $2.3 trillion package for hard infrastructure items, while the latter is a companion bill of roughly equal size for soft infrastructure items like investments in child care, family tax credits and other domestic programs. Whether or not you count the companion bill as part of Biden’s so-called infrastructure plan, items widely agreed upon to count as infrastructure make up more than 5% of the total, according to Marc Goldwein, senior vice president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Goldwein said looking at just the American Jobs Plan, “somewhere between a third and two-thirds” of the proposal consists of projects squarely in the infrastructure category, such as repairing roads and bridges, replacing water pipes, enhancing the electrical grid, investing in airports and improving coastal ports. Looking at the entire $4 trillion proposal, Goldwein said, infrastructure items would still make up at least one-fifth of the total. “It’s not just roads and waterways,” Goldwein said. “But these are things that we think are pretty indisputably infrastructure.” Critics of the proposal may have come up with a 5% figure by only including improvements on roads and bridges in their definition of infrastructure, according to Garrett Watson, a senior policy analyst at the Tax Foundation. Only about $154 billion in the American Jobs Plan went to those items, he said. Indeed, a caption on the video shared widely on Facebook this week accurately stated that “less than a nickel on every dollar” in Biden’s set of proposals totaling $4 trillion “would go towards filling potholes or repairing bridges.” However, Goldwein said, items like broadband, water systems and other transportation infrastructure are widely considered infrastructure by both Democrats and Republicans, and those items together with repairing roads and bridges make up a larger portion of the plan. Biden’s American Jobs Plan is no longer the prevalent infrastructure proposal in Congress. In June, the president endorsed a scaled-back nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure proposal that supporters hoped would have enough Republican support to pass in the Senate. That bipartisan proposal, which would involve about $579 billion in new spending, allocates about $109 billion — nearly 19% of the total — to roads, bridges and major projects, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Add in other types of transportation infrastructure, such as airports, public transit and ports and waterways, and infrastructure makes up more than half of the bipartisan proposal.

— Ali Swenson

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False claims tie patents to COVID-19 vaccines

CLAIM: People who received COVID-19 vaccines are now legally patented and no longer have human rights. This is because a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. said that if a human genome is modified by mRNA vaccines then the genome can be patented.

THE FACTS: An Instagram post circulating online falsely claims that mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 alter DNA, allowing humans to be patented and have their rights taken away. But COVID-19 vaccines, including those made by Pfizer and Moderna that rely on mRNA technology, do not change a person’s genetic makeup. The false post cites the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. to back up its claim, but the ruling makes no mention of mRNA vaccines. Nor does the ruling say vaccinated humans can be patented. In fact, it has been a longstanding rule that anything found in nature, including people, cannot be patented, said Lara Cartwright-Smith, associate professor in the department of health policy and management at George Washington University. The case before the Supreme Court looked at whether Myriad Genetics, Inc. could patent the sequences of gene mutations that can lead to breast cancer. The company’s test created cDNA, which is a clone or copy of the DNA, to test for the mutations. The Supreme Court ruled that the company could patent synthetically created cDNA because it was not natural, but could not patent the isolated human genes. “Natural DNA is not patentable,” said Cartwright-Smith. “The copy that they made is patentable.” Cartwright-Smith said the post online that cites the court ruling is nonsensical. “The conclusion that it would somehow affect the status of the person is also completely false,” she said.

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

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Solar storm is not heading toward Earth

CLAIM: A solar storm is heading toward Earth and could impact cell phone signals and cause blackouts.

THE FACTS: False claims are swirling about a possible solar storm that could hit this week, but experts are not seeing a storm in sight. Posts online began claiming Tuesday that the storm would cause massive disruption on Earth that would extend into the week. Some posts sharing the false claim referred to the supposed event as “solar storm 2021” and shared pictures of a fiery sun. But Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, told The Associated Press that there is no solar storm predicted for this week. A solar flare, which is a kind of solar storm, did take place on July 3. Solar flares occur when magnetic fields build up on the sun in the form of sunspots. When the magnetic fields get twisted and build up energy, they may violently release that energy in a flash of light, said Alex Young, solar physicist at NASA. The July 3 event was the first big flare of this solar cycle and the brightest in four years. “We typically get 150 of them over an 11 year cycle,” Murtaugh said about solar flares. “Fortunately, we are 93 million miles away from the sun so we have Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere which protects us from the harmful emissions from these eruptions.” The July 3 solar flare did interfere with some high frequency communication, but Young said the impact was less than it could have been. “This was really very slow and it was not fully directed at Earth,” Young said. “We don’t have any expectation of seeing any impact on Earth.”

— Beatrice Dupuy

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