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

The Associated Press
·12-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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House members were not given bonuses in $1.9T COVID bill

CLAIM: The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill awards a $25 million bonus to members of the House of Representatives.

THE FACTS: The “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021,” as the bill is titled, contains no allocation for bonuses or raises for House or Senate members. A Facebook post that circulated around the approval of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Wednesday promoted the false information, stating: “Did you know? Line 17 of the $1.9 TRILLION CV #Stimulus awards a $25 MILLION BONUS to House Reps?” It is not clear what “Line 17” means in the post since there’s a line 17 on nearly every page of the 628-page bill. There are several passages that cite $25 million in funding, but no mention of congressional pay raises or bonuses. The sweeping package, approved by a 220-211 party-line vote, would give most Americans $1,400 checks and billions of dollars would be directed to schools, state and local governments and businesses. “That claim is false. In fact, there is no funding for the House of Representatives or Senate in the bill at all,” Evan Hollander, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, confirmed to The Associated Press in an email. The AP knocked down a similar false claim in March 2020 when a $2.2 trillion rescue package was passed.

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

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Social media posts misrepresent bill expanding background checks for firearms

CLAIM: Proposed federal gun legislation expanding background checks for firearms would create a “national registration of firearms” and put gun owners in jail for transferring or handing their gun to someone, even if they are in a dangerous situation.

THE FACTS: The bill, HR 8, prohibits using the legislation to establish a national firearms registry and includes exceptions that allow temporary transfers of firearms between family members, transfers between people for self-defense and for use at a shooting range. The bill, requiring background checks on all gun sales, passed the House this week after stalling in the Senate about two years ago. Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of California, who chairs the congressional task force on gun violence prevention, is the primary sponsor of the bill. Advocates say the legislation is intended to curb gun violence and keep guns out of the hands of people who are barred from owning firearms. Background checks are in place preventing people with criminal records from purchasing a firearm, but there are loopholes where people can buy guns through private sales, often called a “gun show loophole,” said Jake Charles, executive director at the Center for Firearms Law at the Duke University School of Law. Multiple social media posts described the legislation inaccurately, calling it a gun registration bill. Charles said that description is “completely false.” Not only does federal law prohibit a national gun registry, the bill clearly states: “Nothing in this Act, or any amendment made by this Act, shall be construed to authorize the establishment, directly or indirectly, of a national firearms registry.” One false Facebook post claims: “If enforced to the letter, H.R. 8 could put millions of gun owners in prison by outlawing the transfer of any firearm without a proper Brady Check. The term ‘transfer’ is nowhere defined, but it’s clear from the bill that handing your gun to a neighbor for as little as even one second counts as a ‘transfer.' The bill claims to offer some so-called ‘exceptions,’” the post continues, “but these will be practically useless to gun owners. For example, if you hand (or ‘transfer’) a firearm to a friend because you hear a noise in your house in the middle of the night — and it turns out to be a false alarm — you’re a criminal. Under H.R. 8, since every gun transfer will go through a dealer, every gun owner will have a 4473, setting the stage for a national gun registry.” Alex Macfarlane, a spokesperson for Thompson, said several issues raised in the post were incorrect. “H.R. 8 does NOT require background checks to be conducted when a firearm is transferred to a family member,” Macfarlane said in an email. “The bill also includes a number of exemptions that would allow the temporary transfer of a gun under a variety of circumstances and purposes including: preventing imminent death or great bodily harm, or activities like hunting, going to a shooting range, or while in the presence of the gun owner.”

— Arijeta Lajka

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Posts misrepresent CDC study on mask mandates

CLAIM: A new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that mask mandates have a negligible impact on coronavirus numbers.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: The study found that mask mandates were associated with statistically significant decreases in county-level daily COVID-19 case and death growth rates. Social media users and conservative websites this week shared a recent report from the CDC with false claims that it shows mask mandates don’t stem the spread of the coronavirus. “Here is your proof from the CDC itself that masks don’t work,” one Facebook user wrote. “Study released on Friday says masks resulted in only 1-2% spread reduction over 100 days. Basically useless.” The conservative television network One America News reported that the study showed masks have “negligible impact” and mask mandates “do not make any statistical difference.” Those claims distort the findings, according to CDC scientist Gery Guy Jr., the study's lead author. While the changes in daily COVID-19 case and death growth rates in the report may seem small, they were statistically significant, he said. The CDC researchers examined U.S. counties placed under state-issued mask mandates, looking at data from March through December of last year. They found that within the first 20 days of implementation, mask mandates were associated with a 0.5 percentage point decrease in daily COVID-19 case growth rates. As time went on, reductions in growth rates increased to nearly 2 percentage points. Those changes in daily growth rates may sound small, but their magnitude adds up quickly, Guy said. “Each day that growth rate is going down, the cumulative effect — in terms of cases and deaths — adds up to be quite substantial,” Guy told the AP in a previous report. Several social media posts also claimed that the results of the study were “inside the margin for statistical error” and therefore not significant. That’s false, according to Guy. He said those social media users may have misunderstood a sentence in the study that read, “Daily case and death growth rates before implementation of mask mandates were not statistically different from the reference period.” The sentence refers to the period before mask mandates were implemented, not after. Guy said the research team examined this period to help rule out that there was not already a trend in place before mask mandates began.

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

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Apes in San Diego received COVID-19 animal vaccine, not human doses

CLAIM: Great apes at the San Diego Zoo are taking doses of the coronavirus vaccine that could have been used for veterans and senior citizens.

THE FACTS: The apes received an experimental animal vaccine and did not take any doses meant for humans. As the United States attempts to inoculate its population against the coronavirus as quickly as possible, social media users are falsely claiming the government prioritized apes over humans for coveted vaccine doses. “Great Apes in San Diego are getting the China Virus vaccine while veterans and senior citizens who want it aren’t,” wrote Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, in a Friday tweet. “Is this what Joe Biden means when he says he has a ‘plan’ to manage vaccine rollout?” However, while many Americans who are eligible for a coronavirus vaccine are still waiting to get one amid delays and confusing requirements, no immunization that could have gone to humans went to a gorilla at the zoo. After a COVID-19 outbreak at the San Diego Zoo infected eight gorillas in January, zoo officials used an experimental animal vaccine to inoculate four orangutans and five bonobos. Three bonobos and a gorilla also were expected to receive the vaccine, which is experimental. The vaccine was developed by Zoetis Inc., a U.S. firm that produces medicine for animals.

— Ali Swenson

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Article makes false claims about mRNA vaccines and cancer

CLAIM: A study by scientists at Sloan Kettering discovered Messenger RNA inactivates tumor suppressing proteins, meaning that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines can cause cancer.

THE FACTS: The 2018 study has no relevance to the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center confirmed the claim is false and misrepresents the findings of the study. An article in Natural News, which is known for circulating false information about vaccines, is spreading the false claim that COVID-19 vaccines could cause cancer. The claim that vaccines contain cancer causing ingredients has long been pushed by vaccine opponents. The story misrepresents a 2018 study to make the false assertion that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are “cancer-driving inoculations that, once the series is complete, will cause cancer tumors in the vaccinated masses who have all rushed out to get the jab out of fear and propaganda influence.” The false information was picked up by anti-vaccine websites and shared on Facebook and Reddit. “Looks like the “vaccine” is going to give people cancer according to Scientists at Sloan Kettering,” one Reddit user wrote when sharing the article. But the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which conducted the 2018 study, said there is no truth to the claim. “This article circulating is categorically false, misrepresents the findings of our study and draws incorrect conclusions about vaccine risks,” the institute said in a statement. According to the institute, the 2018 study found that changes in certain mRNA molecules can inactivate tumor-suppressing proteins and thereby promote cancer — but there is no connection to the mRNA used in COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s important to note that mRNAs are a normal component of all cells and the specific ones discussed here are not involved in mRNA-based vaccines, like the one developed against SARS-CoV-2,” the institute’s statement said. Natural News did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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

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Maricopa County ballots are secured in a vault, not shredded in trash

CLAIM: Shredded ballots found in a Maricopa County dumpster ahead of a Senate audit appear to be votes from the 2020 election.

THE FACTS: Social media users are falsely suggesting ballots that Arizona state senators asked to audit were shredded in a Maricopa County Elections Department dumpster. The claim follows a legal battle between the state’s Republican-controlled Senate and the Republican-dominated Maricopa County board of supervisors over whether the Senate could access the county’s 2.1 million ballots and election equipment to directly audit the Nov. 3 election results. Last month, a judge ruled the Senate’s subpoena to access the ballots was valid. After winning the ruling, lawyers for the Senate asked that the ballots remain in the county’s possession since the Senate did not have a space for them. On March 6, Staci Burk, an Arizona woman who had previously filed an unsuccessful legal challenge to the election, posted photos of a man searching through a dumpster and a yellow plastic bag stuffed with shredded paper inside the dumpster. She also posted photos that showed the materials at a residence, and shredded papers with candidate names from the 2020 election. “Ballots shredded and in dumpsters behind the Maricopa County Ballot tabulation center. Physical evidence collected,” Burk posted on Facebook. Burk did not return a request for comment. The conservative site Gateway Pundit picked up the claim, suggesting that someone had attempted to shred ballots before the Senate could audit them. “BALLOTS IN ARIZONA COUNTY FOUND SHREDDED IN DUMPSTER, DAYS BEFORE SENATE AUDIT,” said one popular Facebook post. But county election officials say ballots from the election are securely preserved. Megan Gilbertson, the communications director for Maricopa County Elections Department, told The Associated Press that her office readied 2.1 million ballots to transfer to Senate custody and those ballots are still sealed and stored in the county’s vault that is monitored by a surveillance camera. “Maricopa County has not, and would never destroy voted ballots until legally authorized to do so after the 24-month retention period,” Gilbertson told the AP in a statement. “None of the ballots or other General election materials from the vault were in the garbage, and as a matter of business, the county can and does throw out trash.” Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican, told the AP in a statement: “I can say with 100% certainty that the 2.1 million legally voted ballots from the November General Election are safe and accounted for in the Elections Department vault, under 24/7 surveillance.” Richer said his office shreds a variety of non-classified documents, as well as “deceased voter ballots since they could never be legally tabulated.” Those ballots were turned in by the relatives of people who died and were shredded if they were not signed before the voter's death. Gilbertson confirmed to the AP that the Election Department preserves all ballots that were part of the official canvass, including those that were ultimately disqualified.

— Associated Press writer Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix contributed this report.

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