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:

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NASA hasn’t hired theologians to study reaction to alien life

CLAIM: “NASA just hired 24 theologians to assess how the world would react if we discovered alien life.”

THE FACTS: NASA has not...

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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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NASA hasn’t hired theologians to study reaction to alien life

CLAIM: “NASA just hired 24 theologians to assess how the world would react if we discovered alien life.”

THE FACTS: NASA has not hired any theologians to study the potential reaction humans would have to the discovery of alien life. NASA provided some funding in 2015 to the Center of Theological Inquiry, frequently referred to as CTI, in Princeton, New Jersey, for a program to study the potential societal impact of finding life beyond Earth. The NASA-funded portion of the program ended in 2017, an agency spokesperson told The Associated Press. Claims suggesting NASA recently hired two dozen theologians for the research followed an announcement by Rev. Andrew Davison, who participated in the research, that he was publishing a book called “Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine.” Davison, of the University of Cambridge, confirmed to the AP that he was not “hired directly or paid a salary” by NASA or CTI. He said Cambridge continued to pay his salary while he participated in the program. One tweet that was shared nearly 25,000 times made the joke that the so-called NASA hires were “planting the seeds for the main storyline of 2022.” While the agency’s astrobiology program did grant money to CTI to “assess societal implications for NASA’s astrobiological and search for life efforts,” NASA was not involved in the selection of researchers, according to the agency spokesperson. The fellows worked independently through the center and were not considered NASA employees. Further, the NASA-funded parts of the research concluded four years ago. “Individuals who receive grant funding from NASA are not employees, advisors, or spokespersons for the agency,” the NASA spokesperson told the AP in an email. “Thus, the researchers and scholars involved with this study were not hired by NASA, but instead received funding through CTI to conduct this work.” William Storrar, CTI’s director, told the AP that the purpose of the program was not to advise NASA but to convene scholars in the humanities to discuss research in astrobiology, the scientific field that studies the potential of the universe to harbor life outside Earth. “These scholarly reflections on the societal implications of astrobiology are being published in a series of individual monographs and peer-reviewed academic journal articles by the theologians, religion scholars, philosophers and literary scholars who participated in our research program for visiting scholars at the Center of Theological Inquiry,” Storrar wrote in an email.

— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in Kansas City, Kansas, contributed this report.

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Using water on COVID-19 tests produces inaccurate results

CLAIM: Pouring water on home COVID-19 tests gives a positive result, evidence that they are unreliable or that they are detecting the disease in tap water.

THE FACTS: The virus that causes COVID-19 has not been detected in drinking water. The tests are not made to be used with other liquids, including water, and will provide inaccurate results in those situations. Videos and photos circulating on social media show at-home rapid COVID-19 tests displaying positive results after being doused with water. One TikTok video showing a positive home test after being placed under a running faucet has been viewed more than 10 million times. It has been used to support a variety of false claims across social media platforms. It was unclear what brand of test was used. A post with more than 82,000 likes on Instagram shows photos and a video of several BinaxNOW home tests that have been used with water and have positive test results. Part of the caption reads, “Now it makes me look even deeper, is it the water???” But the videos do not show that the coronavirus is in tap water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus has not been detected in drinking water. The coronavirus is also not transmittable through water according to the World Health Organization. The clips also do not show that the tests are unreliable. In all these cases, the tests are being used incorrectly. COVID-19 tests are designed to be used in an exact way, similar to any other medical testing devices, said Dr. Nam Tran, the senior director of clinical pathology at the University of California, Davis, who serves on the California COVID-19 testing task force. Running a sample not intended for a test can lead to inaccurate results. “The device was designed to test for a certain thing and as you deviate from what it was designed to do, it will give perhaps sometimes unpredictable results,” Tran said. In the case of BinaxNOW, which is produced by Abbott Laboratories, a user applies a solution called an extraction reagent to the test, swabs their nostril, and places the swab onto the test. If the virus is detected, two lines show up on the testing strip. According to AP reporting, some home tests result in false negatives but it’s rare for tests to mistakenly indicate a positive test result. A spokesperson for Abbott Laboratories confirmed to the AP in an email that the BinaxNOW is not for use with water or any other foods or liquids. Other liquids have different chemical properties and can lead to false results. “Spreading misinformation with deliberate misuse of a medical product during a pandemic is misleading, irresponsible and dangerous to public health,” the spokesperson said.

— Associated Press writer Karena Phan in Sacramento, California, contributed this report.

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Posts mislead on Anderson Cooper interview

CLAIM: CNN journalist Anderson Cooper wants Social Security payments to be withheld from those who are unvaccinated.

THE FACTS: In an Aug. 4 interview, Cooper asked Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates his position on whether the federal government should enforce COVID-19 vaccine mandates by withholding Social Security or other federal benefits from people who don’t comply. Cooper did not say he personally supports such mandates. Social media users shared the months-old clip of the interview on “Anderson Cooper 360” misrepresenting the anchor’s question. “Anderson Cooper wants Social Security to be withheld from the unvaaxed.. What a miserable m0nster!” read one widely shared tweet that did not include the original clip for context. But the full video and a transcript of the episode show Cooper was merely asking an interview question. During the interview, Cooper asks Gates: “Obviously, corporations increasingly are saying you have to be vaccinated in order to work at our corporation. Is that something you support? And do you think the Federal government or state governments, or the very least Federal government should mandate, if you want to get on an airplane, you have to be vaccinated; if you want to get Social Security, you need to be vaccinated; if you want to get whatever benefits they give, you need to be vaccinated for. Is that something that the U.S. can and should do?” Gates did not directly respond to the issue of Social Security but told Cooper: “Well, certainly, if you take a case like nursing homes, where, you know, we are seeing transmission primarily through unvaccinated people. There, you can make a very compelling case. If once you get far beyond that, the question is, will it work to get people to be more — to seek out the vaccine?” He also referenced Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s push to lift his state’s ban on mask mandates, adding that people “ought to be open minded to what tactics can help get people protected.” At no point during the interview did Cooper say he supports taking away Social Security benefits from the unvaccinated. “Anderson was posing a question, in no way implying that he supports this position,” Shimrit Sheetrit, a CNN public relations representative, told The Associated Press in an email.

— The Associated Press

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Image falsely attributes quotes on inflation to Psaki

CLAIM: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “If you don’t buy anything, you won’t experience inflation.”

THE FACTS: There is no record of Psaki making that statement, and the image sharing that quote was previously published as satire. The image circulating on Facebook reads: “‘If you don’t buy anything, you won’t experience inflation,’ explains Jen Psaki.” It goes on to also quote her as saying that people should “barter” so you “won’t even see a price tag.” An accompanying photo of Psaki appears to show her speaking at a Nov. 12 press briefing. Inflation was discussed at that briefing, but there is no record of Psaki making the quotes attributed to her in the image. The image was previously shared in mid-December by a satire account on Instagram and a label on the image clearly marked it as such. That label was omitted from the version now being shared on Facebook and, while some commenters indicated the quotes were likely false, many suggested they thought it was true. “That is the perfect example of how stupid this administration is,” one wrote. Another said, “An example of how tone deaf this administration is.” The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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Chris Wallace’s show on CNN streaming service hasn’t premiered

CLAIM: Former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s “first show on CNN received the lowest ratings in cable news history.”

THE FACTS: Wallace’s show on CNN+ hasn’t yet launched, and it will air on a streaming service, not cable news. But social media posts are falsely suggesting that Wallace’s new show on CNN+ was not well received by viewers and that its “first show on CNN” received record-low ratings. However, that is impossible, since the show hasn’t even premiered. When it does, it won’t have ratings like traditional television shows. A CNN spokeswoman told The Associated Press the claim was false for multiple reasons. “Chris’s show will launch with CNN+, the subscription streaming service, that is debuting in Q1 2022,” Emily Kuhn said in an email. “Since CNN+ is a streaming service, it will not have traditional ratings like linear television, so the post is false on multiple levels.” The claim appears to have originated with a fabricated story on a website that’s part of America’s Last Line of Defense, a network of satirical websites whose content often gets shared on social media as if real. Wallace announced his departure from Fox News during his Dec. 12 “Fox News Sunday” show; CNN said on the same day that Wallace would join CNN+ in 2022.

— Angelo Fichera

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