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:


CLAIM: Photo shows Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden kissing a young girl’s cheek.

THE FACTS: The photo is being misrepresented. The man in the photo is Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Posts circulating on social media are using an image of López Obrador kissing a young girl in an effort to cast Biden in a negative light. “Ladies and Gentlemen Let me introduce the Democratic Leader for the Presidency of the United States of America!!!!!! Joe Biden!!!!!,” one Facebook post falsely claimed. The miscaptioned photo had over 9,000 shares. “Hey Liberals, is this normal behavior.?? @joebiden #sundayvibes #SundayThoughts,” was the comment on a tweet. The image was taken from a video López Obrador tweeted on March 14. At the time, the Mexican president ignored social distancing rules and continued to engage in affectionate physical greetings. According to AP reporting, López Obrador met with crowds, where he shook hands with people and kissed cheeks. He was criticized for holding large rallies while dozens of coronavirus cases were confirmed in Mexico. In recent months, Biden has received scrutiny over his interactions with women. Over the years, Biden was shown on camera hugging or whispering to women at high-profile events. He’s defended his actions, saying he doesn’t believe he’s acted inappropriately with women.


CLAIM: Photo shows a woman at a California protest against stay-at-home orders holding a sign that says: “Barack 6 Hussein 7 Obama 5 COVID = 19 OPEN YOUR EYES.”

THE FACTS: Social media users are sharing an altered photo of a woman holding a sign at a protest against California stay-at-home orders earlier this month. The actual sign said: “Give me liberty or give me death,” a famous quote from Patrick Henry’s speech at the Virginia convention in 1775. The images are identical except for the sign carried by the woman, who is wearing an American flag tank top, hat and sunglasses. In the manipulated photo the woman’s sign spells out the full name of former President Barack Obama, placing a tally of the number of letters contained in each part of his name. An online conspiracy theory movement called QAnon often uses numbers associated with significant dates or the numbers of letters corresponding to a person’s name to promote baseless claims of an attempted coup against President Donald Trump’s presidency. In this case, social media users falsely claimed the woman was some linking the letters in Obama’s name to COVID-19, although the number of letters in his name only equals 18. Social media users posted the doctored image with comments mocking the woman for the math error. The original photo was taken during a protest in Huntington Beach, California, by Jeff Gritchen, a staff photographer for the Orange County Register. In an email, Gritchen confirmed the image had been edited and said he had seen the altered photo “getting a lot of traction online.”


CLAIM: Madagascar is the first country to succeed in finding a cure for COVID-19.

THE FACTS: Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina has been promoting an herbal drink called Covid Organics as a remedy for COVID-19, but there’s no scientific evidence to show it’s effective. Posts claiming the drink can “wipe out the virus at any stage” circulated on social media this week after some students returning to school in Madagascar were given face masks and a small bottle of the herbal extract to drink before going to class. Medical experts are critical of the drink, noting there are no scientific tests to indicate it would be effective against the novel coronavirus, according to AP reporting. Social media posts touting the drink emerged in late April after Rajoelina launched the product. “CORONA MEDICINE FOUND IN MADAGASCAR. The President of Madagascar Andry Rajovelina today was busy officially launching final medicine for Corona infection. The medicine is made from natural herbal mixes that wipe out the virus at any stage within a period of six days. Madagascar is the first country to succeed in finding a cure for its people, against the pandemic,” stated one Facebook post shared more than 3,000 times. The Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, an organization that has researched Madagascar’s traditional medicines for more than three decades, developed the drink. No ingredients are listed on the bottle, but according to the president, the drink is derived from artemisia, a bitterroot used in some malaria drugs. The country’s national medical academy has expressed concern over the drink. “The scientific evidence that this is effective has not been proved. It’s likely that it could actually harm the health of the population, particularly that of children,” Marcel Razanamparany, president of Madagascar’s Academy of Medicine, said in a statement. The U.S. National Institutes of Health also warned against the use of alternative medicines — including certain herbal therapies and teas — for treating or preventing COVID-19, saying there was no evidence they work and some may be unsafe. There are 128 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Madagascar and no deaths linked to the virus.


CLAIM: Videos surface of North Korean President Kim Jong Un’s body on display in a glass coffin.

THE FACTS: The videos were misrepresented. The images were captured in December 2011, and they show the body of Kim’s father, former North Korea President Kim Jong Il, lying in state in Pyongyang. Many of the images relied on AP photos and video from coverage of that funeral. The posts circulated on social media, claiming to show Kim Jong Un had died. Reports out of North Korea emerged Friday in the U.S. that he had made a public appearance. Rumors and reports about Kim Jong Un’s health emerged because of his prolonged public absence. The unconfirmed speculation suggested that Kim Jong Un might be dead or recently underwent a botched surgery. South Korea’s government had repeatedly rebuffed such reports.


CLAIM: Politicians receive full-pay retirement benefits even after serving only one term.

THE FACTS: Under federal law, members of Congress do not receive their full pay when they retire, and they must serve at least five years to be entitled to a pension. A post circulating on Facebook attempts to contrast what people who serve in the U.S military for 20 years receive when they retire compared to those who serve in Congress. “No one has been able to explain to me why young men and women who serve in the U.S. military for 20 years, risking their lives protecting freedom, and only get 50% of their base pay. While politicians hold their political positions in the safe confines of the capital, protected by these same men and women, and receive full pay retirement after serving 1 term,” states the post, which has been shared more than 73,000 times on Facebook alone. “Now, a federal employee pension is pretty generous by private sector standards, but that’s a completely different story from claiming that congressmen receive a full pension after one year on the job. They do not,” said Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. As for military benefits, Biggs said it is true that those who serve 20 years in the military get a pension equal to 50 percent of their base salary. Members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms, while Senators serve six-year terms. House members who leave after one term are not entitled to retirement benefits since they must serve at least five years. Congressmen and congressional staff get nearly the same pensions as other federal employees, said Biggs, who focuses on state and local government pensions. There are multiple retirement plans available to people who served in the military, depending on when they joined and how many years they served. Biggs noted that the military is trying to reform pensions. “It was seen as an unfair pension. They are trying to fix that to make it more fair between people at different career lengths,” he said. Since 2009, base pay for Representatives and Senators has been $174,000 each year. A congressional research report updated in August 2019 outlines pension plans for Congress members. “By law, the starting amount of a Member’s retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary,” the report states. Biggs said congressional pensions are more generous than federal employees since members of Congress and staff often lose their job as a result of elections. “To really get a great pension, you have to serve a long time,” Biggs said. “It’s still a good deal.”


CLAIM: Video shows the premier of Queensland, Australia, Annastacia Palaszczuk, faked getting a flu shot.

THE FACTS: Social media users are sharing an edited video clip that leaves out the part where Palaszczuk actually received the shot. When Queensland’s premier went before the media to publicize she was getting a flu shot Tuesday, it happened so fast a photographer had to ask for a do over. “I didn’t even feel it. It was over before it began,” Palaszczuk said after receiving the actual shot, which the medical worker reenacted with the needle covered. Social media users, including anti-vaccine supporters, are now sharing a shortened TikTok video that shows only the reenactment of the shot to suggest that government officials want everyone to get vaccinated but will not take the vaccines themselves. The TikTok video, which was shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, is overlaid with text that says, “Of course you didn’t feel it with the cap still on the needle.” 7News Brisbane, which covered the event, released the full footage on Twitter. It shows a medical worker wiping Palaszczuk arm before administering the vaccine and placing a Band-Aid over the location of the shot. A photographer then asked that the shot be reenacted and the woman repeated it with a cap on the needle. In the reenactment, the cap can be seen on the needle as the medical worker pretends to stick it into the premier’s arm. The video was aired during a segment on coronavirus cases in Queensland, which examined health experts’ concerns about the flu as winter weather approaches in Australia and social distancing measures ease up.


CLAIM: Nobel prize winner Dr. Tasuku Honjo said that the coronavirus is not natural and is completely artificial.

THE FACTS: Posts shared thousands of times on Facebook and WhatsApp in English and Spanish suggested Honjo “caused a sensation” by saying that the new coronavirus is not natural. No evidence could be found that Honjo ever made the comments attributed to him and he issued a statement denying he made them. The fabricated quote attributed to Dr. Honjo said: “If it is natural, it wouldn’t have adversely affected the entire world like this. Because, as per nature, temperature is different in different countries. If it was natural, it would have adversely affected only those countries having the same temperature as China. Instead, it is spreading in a country like Switzerland, in the same way it is spreading in the desert areas. Whereas if it were in fact natural, it would have spread in cold places, but died in hot places.” The text is accompanied by a photograph of the doctor and a link to his profile on Wikipedia. The Nobel Prize winner issued a statement on April 27 denying the posts on the website of Kyoto University, where he is a professor. Dr. Honjo won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “In the wake of the pain, economic loss, and unprecedented global suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am greatly saddened that my name and that of Kyoto University have been used to spread false accusations and misinformation,” he said in a statement. The theory that COVID-19 was created in a laboratory has been circulating on social media for months. However, scientists from around the world have carried out various analyses that have concluded that it is of animal origin. A study published on March 17 in one the world’s top journals, Nature, found that “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”


Abril Mulato in Mexico City contributed to this report.


This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.


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