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:


House GOP did not tell Raskin to remove head covering

CLAIM: House Republicans are requiring Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, to remove the headwear he’s donned on the House floor while undergoing chemotherapy.

THE FACTS: Republicans have made no such request and have in fact been nothing but supportive, a spokesperson for Raskin told the AP. Raskin, who announced he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma last year, attended the year’s first House Oversight Committee hearing on Tuesday wearing a bandana. But as the new Republican House majority takes control, confusion over a joke Raskin made about House rules governing headgear fueled a false rumor on social media. “Kevin McCarthy has insisted Jamie Raskin remove the headscarf he is wearing because chemotherapy has caused his hair to fall out,” wrote one Twitter user in a tweet with 34,000 likes, referring to the Republican House speaker. “You would think they would have compassion for a colleague with cancer but they are monsters.” But Republicans have not imposed such a rule, and the false claim grew from a misunderstanding. In a Tuesday tweet, Punchbowl News reporter Heather Caygle wrote that Raskin had received a standing ovation in a House Democratic Caucus meeting after saying he’d push back on Republican efforts to make him remove his headwear. “And I will make them take off their toupees,” Caygle quoted Raskin as saying. Jacob Wilson, a spokesperson for Raskin, told the AP in an email that Raskin “was responding lightheartedly to a hypothetical question from a colleague” at the caucus meeting. According to Caygle’s tweet, he was asked “what he would do if Republicans made him take off his headwear on the House floor.” Caygle clarified in a follow-up tweet that Raskin said no House Republicans have spoken to him about hat rules. Caygle declined further comment when reached by email. Wilson said the Democrat “has received nothing but support and encouragement from all of his colleagues and leaders on both sides of the aisle.” Mark Bednar, a spokesperson for McCarthy, said the House speaker had not told Raskin to remove his head covering. Hats were banned in the lower chamber in 1837.

— Associated Press writer Graph Massara in San Francisco contributed this report with additional reporting from Sophia Tulp in New York.


Experts: Pfizer tests on COVID vaccines, treatment in line with industry standards

CLAIM: Pfizer has acknowledged in a statement it conducted “gain of function” research as part of its development of a vaccine and a separate medical treatment for COVID-19.

THE FACTS: Experts said nothing in a recent statement by the company suggests it’s conducting research designed to make COVID-19 more harmful, as some social media users claim. A statement released Jan. 27 by Pfizer in response to allegations it was conducting risky “gain of function” research triggered another round of false speculation against one of the top makers of COVID vaccines. Gain of function refers to scientific experiments that give an organism a new property or enhances an existing one. In the case of a virus such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, that could involve making it more harmful, or giving it the ability to transmit to other species. But the company said no such things in its statement, stressing that its vaccine-related experiments are undertaken only after a new variant has been identified by public health authorities. “This research provides a way for us to rapidly assess the ability of an existing vaccine to induce antibodies that neutralize a newly identified variant of concern,” the company said. “We then make this data available through peer reviewed scientific journals and use it as one of the steps to determine whether a vaccine update is required.” For research related to its antiviral medication Paxlovid, Pfizer said that “most” of the work is conducted using computer simulations or mutations of a non-infectious part of the virus. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, said nothing in the statement suggests Pfizer is conducting research designed to “weaponize” COVID-19 or “increase its pathogenicity,” as some social media users claim. “They might be undertaking virologic research to test the limits of their technologies knowing that through virus evolution some of these changes may occur naturally,” he wrote in an email. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University, agreed, though he said Pfizer’s statement is “written in a technical way” that could have been “made clearer for non-science readers.” “To be gain of function, the researcher needs to deliberately make a change, knowing that change makes the virus more dangerous, and the change must be something the virus could not reasonably do on its own,” Neuman wrote in an email. “Miss out any part of that definition, and it’s not gain of function. That’s a really high bar, and the last part is the key.” Albert Ko, who chairs the epidemiology department at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, said the online claims amounted to “scare mongering.” “Engineering the virus does not always mean gain of function research,” he said. “Vaccines are made this way, from taking pieces of one virus and placing it into another virus. It does not necessarily mean a high risk of creating a stronger, more dangerous virus.” At the same time, he said, the company should disclose more information about the work, such as its internal approvals process and safety protocols. A spokesperson for Pfizer declined to respond to requests for additional comment. “The statement stands as our comment on the false allegations currently being made about vaccine research at Pfizer,” Amy Rose wrote in an email.

— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in New York contributed this report.


Georgia school form on sudden cardiac arrest risks isn’t new

CLAIM: A “Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Form” is now being issued in Georgia high schools, suggesting a new phenomenon relating to the COVID-19 vaccines.

THE FACTS: That form has been given to families of Georgia students since 2019 in accordance with state law. Social media posts are spreading an image of the educational form provided to Georgia families focused on sudden cardiac arrest — with some users erroneously implying that it is related to COVID-19 vaccines. “Parents are now having to sign a Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Form. But remember the Jab is safe enough to give to babies,” reads one tweet with the image. The document shown in the social media posts is titled “Georgia High School Association Student/Parent Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Form.” But that form predates both the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccines: A version of the same form available online is dated May 2019. Steve Figueroa, a spokesperson for the Georgia High School Association, told the AP that the form has been used since the 2019-2020 school year in response to a state law centered on sudden cardiac arrest prevention. That law, passed in 2019,requires both public and private schools to hold meetings on the symptoms and warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest and to also provide an “information sheet” to parents and guardians. The form details warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest, an abrupt malfunction of the heart. For example, the document instructs parents to consult a doctor if their child faints suddenly or experiences chest pain or shortness of breath during exercise. Flawedclaims and deceptive videos have spread the unfounded theory that the COVID-19 vaccines are behind a wave of young athletes experiencing such cardiac issues. Cardiologists have told the AP there have been instances of athletes experiencing sudden cardiac death and cardiac arrest long before the COVID-19 pandemic and that they have not observed the alleged dramatic increase.

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


False claims of NFL referee investigation started as satire

CLAIM: The NFL is investigating AFC championship referee Ronald Torbert because his son made a large wager on the Kansas City Chiefs before they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

THE FACTS: This claim originated on a parody Twitter account, and elements of the post make it clear that it is fiction. Some Bengals fans weren’t happy with calls made in the AFC championship game, which sent the Chiefs to the Super Bowl. But it’s not true that the NFL is investigating the referee who made the calls, despite a misleading post spreading on social media. A Twitter post making the claim came from a satirical account featuring a character from the comedy film “Anchorman” — details lost on some social media users who shared the post as real. “BREAKING: NFL head ref of the AFC Championship game, Ronald Torbert, commenting on the NFL’s investigation on his family member placing a wager on the game this morning,” the post reads. It then quotes Torbert as saying, “I had no knowledge that my son placed a large wager on the Chiefs until after the game.” The post claims Torbert made the comments on a radio station called “101.4 ‘The Juice,’” which doesn’t exist. An internet search for the station brings up several juices sold in amounts of 101.4 fluid ounces. The account that posted it identifies itself as a “parody/satire sports anchor at KVWN sports news,” referring to a fictional news station in the movie. Still, social media users spread the fake quote without that context on Facebook and Twitter, chalking it up to an explanation for why referees made several calls in Kansas City’s favor on Sunday night. In some cases, the post was shared as a screenshot, lacking the satirical disclaimer on the Twitter account. There’s no evidence any such investigation is taking place. Reached for comment, an NFL spokesman pointed to the fact that the account spreading the claim identified itself as satire.


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