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

·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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Racist Facebook post attributed to Atlanta shooting suspect is fake

THE CLAIM: On Tuesday, hours before police say Robert Aaron Long killed eight people at three Atlanta-area massage businesses, he posted on Facebook that China was engaged in a “COVID coverup” and “AMERICANS NEED TO FIGHT BACK AGAINST CHINA, NOW.”

THE FACTS: The post is not authentic. The fictitious image began circulating Tuesday night after Long was identified as a suspect in the mass shootings that took place at the Atlanta-area massage businesses. The image is designed to look like a Facebook post made by Long. It uses a picture of him, which was circulating widely in media reports Tuesday night, next to what looks like a Facebook update that accuses China of a “COVID coverup” and calls the country “THE GREATEST EVIL OF OUR TIME.” In an email, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the platform was removing the post. “We’ve confirmed that these screenshots are fake and we’re removing them from the platform for violating our policies,” Stone said in a statement. Still, the manipulated image continues to be shared by some on Twitter and Facebook. The falsified screenshot was also being picked up by outlets that serve the Korean American community, and news sites in South Korea, in their coverage of the shootings. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry earlier said that its diplomats in Atlanta have confirmed that four of the victims who died were of Korean descent. Tuesday’s mass shooting has raised further fear amid a surge in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.

— Associated Press writer Amanda Seitz in Chicago contributed this report.

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Claim that 9,000 border crossers were apprehended in 2020 is false

CLAIM: In all of 2020, there were only 9,000 immigrants caught at the border without legal status. So far in 2021, 108,000 entered the country.

THE FACTS: A popular Facebook post is spreading false statistics about the number of migrants apprehended at the southern border since President Joe Biden took office compared to the last year of the Trump administration. “SLEEPY JOE NOW SAYING HE INHERITED ‘A MESS’ AT THE BORDER. FACT: 9,000 ILLEGALS ALL OF 2020. SO FAR IN 2021 108,000 ENTERED U.S,” says the post, which has been shared thousands of times on Facebook. But those numbers are not correct. U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not document the number of individuals who were stopped but rather the number of encounters, which can reflect the same person attempting to cross more than once. Monthly statistics from CBP show that from January 1 to December, 31, 2020, the last full year of Trump’s presidency, border officials had 547,816 encounters with people trying to cross the Southwest border. Biden took office on Jan. 20. In the first two months of 2021, there were 178,883 encounters, according to CBP numbers. It is unclear where the incorrect statistics shared on social media came from. Data from CBP show that more than 70 per cent of encounters at the border in February resulted in immediate expulsions.

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

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Video of Biden with reporters was not digitally altered

CLAIM: Video of President Joe Biden was digitally altered to make it appear that he spoke to the press on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on March 16, and a blurry microphone in the shot proves the video was manipulated.

THE FACTS: The interaction between Biden and reporters was documented by multiple cameras, including an Associated Press photographer, and the video in question was not altered. False claims circulated on Twitter and TikTok stating that a video of Biden talking to reporters before boarding Marine One had been doctored to make it appear that he took questions from the press. The bogus claim is the latest to be spread by conspiracy theorists who say Biden is not the president or that he is incapable of speaking to the press. Biden was on his way to Chester, Pennsylvania, to argue that his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package can help boost small businesses, when he stopped briefly to answer reporters' questions. In the uploaded video, a boom mic appears blurry, and multiple Twitter users claimed that the mic had been digitally edited into the video because of how Biden’s hand appeared to reach over the mic. Some social media posts, including a TikTok post with 2.4 million views, claimed Biden was standing in front of a green screen. “Look at Biden’s hands and the reporter’s fuzzy microphones in the foreground at 0:10. This footage has been digitally altered,” one Twitter post falsely stated. “Biden Fakes Interview, Green Screen Fails,” a YouTube video with more than 370,000 views falsely claimed. But the interaction captured in the video was real and both the scene and the microphone in question were documented by multiple media outlets, including an AP photo. The video discussed online is a lower resolution version of the original video shot by a White House pool videographer. The same video at higher resolution shows the microphone in the foreground was much clearer than it appeared in social media uploads. “There is no sign of manipulation or green-screening,” said Hany Farid, a professor who focuses on digital forensics at the University of California, Berkeley. “In this higher resolution version, I see where the strange movement of the one mic comes from, but I think all that is happening is the mic is coming from below and President Biden reaches over it.”

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

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US and EU COVID vaccines don’t contain aluminum

CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines contain aluminum, a toxic ingredient that enters the brain and causes disease.

THE FACTS: The COVID-19 vaccines that have been authorized for emergency use in the United States do not contain any aluminum, according to their ingredient lists. Nor do the AstraZeneca or Sputnik V vaccines. Some Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, as well as some vaccines used against other diseases, do use tiny amounts of aluminum to help boost the immune response. This method is safe and the quantity of aluminum is trivial compared to what humans encounter elsewhere in everyday life, experts say. Aluminum has been used in vaccines since the 1930s as an adjuvant, or immune booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The amount of aluminum in a shot is minimal — similar to the amount of aluminum found in a litre of baby formula, the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains. Posts circulating widely on social media this week weaponized long-held misconceptions about the safety of aluminum in vaccines to stoke fears in the population about getting a COVID-19 shot, even though most coronavirus vaccines that are currently in use don’t contain the ingredient. A video viewed more than 200,000 times on Instagram featured footage from a February 2020 committee hearing in the Connecticut General Assembly in which a doctor testified that the aluminum in vaccines is dangerous. It’s false to suggest that the aluminum in vaccines is the cause of significant health problems, according to Dr. Christopher Gill, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. The safety of aluminum adjuvants “has been researched extensively, and there are no harmful effects detectable,” Gill told The Associated Press in an email. The amount of aluminum in a typical vaccine is about a thousand times less than the recommended safe dose for aluminum exposure, Gill said. It’s also far less than the amount of aluminum we expose ourselves to from things we eat, drink and touch on a daily basis, according to Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician and director of the Vaccine Education Center. Social media users commenting on the Instagram post also interpreted it to refer to the COVID-19 vaccines that have become more widely available in recent months. That's misleading as most COVID-19 vaccines currently in use contain no aluminum. Some Chinese COVID-19 vaccines do use aluminum adjuvants, according to their ingredient lists. Other immunizations that use aluminum adjuvants include vaccines against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, human papillomavirus and the DTaP vaccine, which protects children against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. "In all cases, vaccines containing adjuvants are tested for safety and effectiveness in clinical trials before they are licensed for use in the United States, and they are continuously monitored by CDC and FDA once they are approved,” the CDC says on its website .

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

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Under Biden, US still expels many migrants at border

CLAIM: President Joe Biden is not screening immigrants for COVID-19 at the border and is allowing “everyone in no matter what.”

THE FACTS: Social media users are falsely claiming that all border crossers are being let in at the border without any COVID-19 screening. One widely shared Facebook post uses a popular meme of the rapper Drake to suggest when it comes to the policy of “Screen immigrants for COVID on the border,” Biden disapproves. But when it comes to the policy of “Allow everyone in no matter what,” he approves. In fact, February data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows the Biden administration has continued to use an existing public health rule to immediately expel more than 70 per cent of asylum seekers and border crossers stopped at the border. The rule, known as Title 42, was first invoked by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic a year ago. “First of all, let’s be clear, the border is not open,” Troy Miller, the acting CBP commissioner, told reporters on March 10. One change under Biden is that border agents are no longer expelling unaccompanied migrant children who cross the border without parents or guardians. U.S. Border Patrol is also releasing some families into the country with immigration court dates rather than expelling them since certain sites in Mexico have limited the number of returned families they will accept. On Wednesday, at a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayoraks said in those cases, “We place those families in immigration proceedings. And if in fact they do not have a claim for relief under the law, they are to be, and will be, returned.” COVID-19 testing protocols at the border have been uneven and have been changing quickly, but the claim that there is no screening is misleading. Since the Biden administration began processing asylum seekers last month who had been previously been forced to wait in Mexico, those asylum seekers must take rapid antigen COVID-19 tests before they can enter the United States. In contrast, other kinds of migrants in CBP custody were screened, and those with suspected COVID cases were referred for testing, according to a March 12 statement from the agency. At Wednesday's hearing, Mayorkas said his agency has updated its testing policy to work with community-based organizations, local entities and states to test and quarantine migrants. “When those three options are not available, we are now retaining a vendor to test individuals who are in CBP custody, and if in fact they test positive, we transport them to ICE facilities for quarantine before release,” Mayorkas said.

— Jude Joffe-Block

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Getting COVID-19 vaccine does not affect life insurance payouts

CLAIM: If you receive the COVID-19 vaccine and die, insurance companies will not pay out on the policy because the vaccine is experimental.

THE FACTS: Life insurance policies have not changed because of the COVID-19 vaccination and getting the shot will not impact whether a policy pays out in the event of death, according to the American Council of Life Insurers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given emergency use authorization to three COVID-19 vaccines after finding them safe and effective following three phases of clinical trials involving thousands of people. Since the posts began surfacing last week, the American Council of Life Insurers has received a flood of calls asking about the false claim. The ACLI released a news release debunking the erroneous information, explaining that the vaccine does not change whether a policyholder receives their benefit. Life insurance policies outline when death benefits are paid and the payments are made regardless of the cause of death, said Jan Graeber, a senior health actuary at ACLI. “Life insurance is pretty straight forward,” she said. “It pays from death.” Posts making the false claim about death benefits were shared across Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. “I just spoke with my insurance company, because I was curious, that if I got the vaccine for COVID and passed away from complications, would my life insurance policy be valid. Well. Guess what?? They confirmed they would not pay out my policy, because the vaccine is experimental. Wake up!!!,” one Facebook post said. Another TikTok video encouraged social media users to contact their life insurance company to ask about how the vaccine would affect their policies. Experts say getting the shot could have an impact, just not the one mentioned in the post. Getting the vaccine would help to limit any life insurance premium increases related to COVID-19, said W. Bruce Vogel, an associate professor in the Division of Health Outcomes and Implementation Science at the University of Florida. “Only if the vaccine itself increased mortality would you expect it to increase life insurance premiums, and there is no evidence of that so far,” Vogel said in an email. “The fact that the vaccine is being given so widely suggests at least an implicit finding by the FDA that the potential rewards outweigh the risks.”

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

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The Associated Press