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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Dec. 5, 2023

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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:


Conspiracy theories about FEMA’s Oct. 4 emergency alert test spread online

CLAIM: An emergency broadcast system test on Oct. 4 will send a signal to cellphones nationwide in order to activate nanoparticles such as graphene oxide that have been introduced into people’s bodies.

THE FACTS: Next month’s test of the nationwide Emergency Alert System uses the same familiar audio tone that’s been in use since the 1960s to broadcast warnings across the country with no known adverse health effects, according to a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is overseeing the test. The claims about nanoparticles revive long-debunked conspiracy theories about the contents of COVID-19 vaccines, experts say. Nevertheless, social media users are imploring their followers to shut off their cellphones on the day of the test because they believe it’s part of a broader conspiracy to exert control over the population. One popular video shows a woman claiming the test will somehow switch on technology that has been introduced into people’s bodies. “The emergency broadcasting system under FEMA is going to be activated,” the woman explains, speaking directly into the camera. “It’s not a test. It’s going to be sending these high frequency signals into cell phones, radios, TVs. The intention of activating nanoparticles, including graphene oxide.” Stanley Perlman, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said the claims appear to be referring to old myths about the contents of COVID vaccines. These baseless conspiracy theories claim — without evidence — that the vaccines contain various materials, such as graphene oxide or other nanoparticles, that can interact with wireless communications technology and allow governments to control and monitor people. But graphene oxide — a material made by oxidizing graphite — isn’t an ingredient in COVID vaccines, notes Matthew Laurens, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Graphene oxide was used to study vaccine structure only, and is not part of the vaccine formulation,” he wrote in an email Monday. Regardless, the notion that graphene oxide can be “activated” in this way is “nonsense,” wrote Julia Greer, a materials science professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who has used graphene oxide in her research, in an email Monday. “You can’t ‘activate’ graphene oxide,” she wrote. “What does that even mean?” The actual nanoparticles in the vaccines, meanwhile, are lipids, or fats, that are generally used as a coating material. They’re sometimes described as “programmable” because they can be modified and adjusted, depending on the need, experts have said. It does not mean they can be programmed to interact with wireless networks. There’s also nothing nefarious about the routine test FEMA and the Federal Communications Commission are conducting next month. Such tests have been happening with regularity for years now without any reports of adverse health effects from the system signals, said Jeremy Edwards, FEMA’s spokesperson. The two nationwide systems — the Emergency Alert System, or EAS, and Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA — are “critical tools” that save lives and allow people to protect property when natural disasters, acts of terrorism and other threats to public safety strike, Edwards added. Next month’s test is slated to begin on Oct. 4 at around 2:20 p.m. eastern time, but could be postponed to Oct. 11 if there’s severe weather or other significant events, according to FEMA. The process involves two parts: a 30-minute signal sent to radios and televisions as part of EAS, and a similar one sent to all consumer cell phones as part of the WEA system. Federal law requires the systems be tested at least once every three years. The last nationwide test was Aug. 11, 2021. Edwards said the audio signal used for the tests utilizes the same combination of tones familiar to Americans since 1963, when President John F. Kennedy established the original Emergency Broadcast System through an executive order. It’s also the same tone that more than 1,700 local, state, territorial and tribal authorities use to send similar alerts for more localized emergencies.

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


Fabricated video spreads false report that a member of Ukraine’s UN delegation got into a bar fight

CLAIM: A video published by USA Today reports that a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly got into a “drunken brawl” on Sept. 21 at The Campbell, a bar in New York City.

THE FACTS: USA Today confirmed it did not make the video and both the bar and the New York City Police Department say that no such incident occurred. The fabricated video pushing the false story was shared online as the U.N. meeting in New York wrapped up this week, including by a social media account affiliated with the Russian government. The video features the USA Today logo at the top of the screen and different scenes cut together, including footage of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and low quality footage of a fight on the street. “A member of Ukraine’s delegation has staged a drunken brawl in a bar in New York,” reads the text in the video. It goes on to claim that on Sept. 21, a “security officer of the Ukrainian delegation” required customers to shout “Glory to Ukraine” and attacked a bartender, before police detained everyone involved in “the bar fight.” The video was shared by multiple accounts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, including the official account of the Russian Embassy in South Africa. But none of the events claimed in the video actually happened, and it was not published by USA Today. Olivia Meyers, a spokesperson with the Gerber Group, which owns The Campbell, said the incident described in the video did not take place. “The video was fake and no incident took place in or around The Campbell,” Meyers said in an email. The NYPD also confirmed to The Associated Press that there was no report on file matching the information in the video. Additionally, while the clip does show images that match the inside of The Campbell, the footage of an altercation on a street does not match any of the features outside of the venue. Lark-Marie Anton, chief communications officer at Gannett, which owns USA Today, confirmed in a statement to the AP that the video was not published by the outlet. “The video circulating on X (formerly Twitter) using the USA TODAY logo and branding is fake. We have filed a claim on false information with the platform to halt the immediate spread of misinformation,” the statement reads. The outlet also shared its own fact-check on the fabricated video.

— Associated Press writer Karena Phan in Los Angeles contributed this report.


Posts mislead on Mayo Clinic’s hydroxychloroquine webpage

CLAIM: The Mayo Clinic “quietly” updated its website in 2023 to say that hydroxychloroquine can now be used to treat COVID-19.

THE FACTS: A now-deleted informational page about hydroxychloroquine on the hospital system’s website included outdated guidance that the malaria drug “may also be used to treat coronavirus (COVID-19) in certain hospitalized patients.” But archives show the text had been there since at least May 2020, a month before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revoked its emergency approval for using the drug to treat COVID, and the Mayo Clinic clarified this week that it does not endorse the use of hydroxychloroquine for treating the virus. Anti-vaccine advocates have long touted the drug as an effective treatment for COVID-19, even though health officials and experts say that’s not the case. In recent days, many social media users pointed to the Mayo Clinic page to falsely suggest it was recently updated to admit that the drug should be used to treat coronavirus after all. “JUST IN: Mayo Clinic QUIETLY ADMITS on its website that hydroxychloroquine can be used to treat COVID 19,” read one post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, which had more than 24,000 likes. A screenshot in the post shows that that page read, in part: “Hydroxychloroquine may also be used to treat coronavirus (COVID-19) in certain hospitalized patients.” However, archived versions of the Mayo Clinic website show there was nothing new about the language and it had been there since at least May 2020. In June 2020, a line was added lower down on the page saying that the drug should only be used in clinical trials. Hydroxychloroquine had been granted emergency use authorization for COVID-19 in March 2020 for certain hospitalized COVID-19 patients, but the FDA revoked that authorization in June 2020, saying emerging data suggested it was “unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19 for the authorized uses in the EUA.” In a statement on Monday, the Mayo Clinic said the organization was aware of the “inaccurate information” on its website, which it said had come from an outside vendor. The clinic clarified that the drug is not part of its prescribed treatment for COVID-19 and that it does not endorse using it to treat COVID patients. It has now removed the hydroxychloroquine page, and the URL redirects to another page stating explicitly that it is not recommended as a treatment for COVID-19. Medical experts told the AP that the information on the old page was consistent with the FDA’s guidance at the time it was written, but it has been clear since early 2020 that hydroxychloroquine treatments were not likely to help COVID-19 patients. “That Mayo clinic page looks like standard early-COVID medical advice, from before there were any clinically approved antivirals available. Those were desperate times,” Benjamin Neuman, chief virologist at Texas A&M University’s Global Health Research Complex, wrote in an email. “This is interesting as a historical relic, and would not be considered sound medical advice by current standards.” Neuman cited multiple studies published in 2020 and 2021, including one from Brazil, that showed the drug had no effect on COVID-19 patients. He said he wasn’t aware of any clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine that were still ongoing in the U.S. “There is nothing new in the world of COVID and hydroxychloroquine,” said Brian Garibaldi, the director of the Johns Hopkins Special Pathogens Center and Biocontainment Unit.

— Karena Phan


An AI image of Sen. Rand Paul in a bathrobe circulated online after Senate dropped dress code

CLAIM: A photo shows U.S. Sen. Rand Paul sitting on the Capitol steps in a red bathrobe.

THE FACTS: A podcaster and political commentator created the image using artificial intelligence-generated software, he confirmed to The Associated Press. Social media users had shared the image to suggest that Paul, one of the Senate’s most outspoken conservative voices, had donned the very casual attire after the chamber’s dress code was temporarily relaxed. The image purports to show the senator barefoot and wearing a flowing, bright red robe as he sits on the steps of what appears to be the U.S. Capitol building. “BREAKING: Sen. Rand Paul shows up to work at the Capitol barefoot in a red bathrobe after Senate dress code change,” wrote the user who originally posted the image on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. But the image isn’t real, its creator confirms. Jeff Charles, who originally posted the image on X on Sept. 22, said he produced the visual on a generative artificial intelligence program, which can create convincingly real-looking images simply off keyword prompts. “The images are satirical in nature. I created them using AI,” the Texas-based political commentator and podcast host wrote in an email to the AP on Tuesday. Charles declined to say which image-generating program he used as well as when he made it, but his profile on X includes the disclaimer “BREAKING = satire.” Charles also published a post on his political satire Substack newsletter featuring a fabricated picture of Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, wearing what he described as a “pair of pink booty shorts” to go with a matching pink polo shirt. Spokespersons for Paul didn’t respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday, but the Kentucky Republican appears to have acknowledged the joke on social media. “I thought I was clear when I said no photographs,” he wrote in a post on X over the weekend in which he shared a post that included Charles’ fake image. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced last week that staff for the chamber’s Sergeant-at-Arms would no longer enforce a dress code on the Senate floor after Sen. John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, began wearing shorts while working in the building. However, the Senate reversed course this week, approving a resolution requiring men wear a “coat, tie, and slacks or other long pants” when on the chamber floor. It did not specify what women should wear.

— Philip Marcelo

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