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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Congress didn’t exempt its members from IRS audits

CLAIM: Members of the U.S. Congress recently voted to exempt themselves from IRS audits of their personal finances.

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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Congress didn’t exempt its members from IRS audits

CLAIM: Members of the U.S. Congress recently voted to exempt themselves from IRS audits of their personal finances.

THE FACTS: Congress has not voted on any such measure, according to spokespeople for the IRS, the Speaker of the House and the House Ways and Means Committee. The unsupported claim that U.S. lawmakers voted to exempt themselves from IRS audits spread online this week after a tweet from an account that has posted numerous bogus claims was interpreted as real. “BREAKING,” read the Aug. 17 tweet, which amassed more than 13,000 shares. “In order to safeguard democracy, Congress has voted to exempt itself and its members from upcoming IRS audits.” Hours later, the same account hinted that it had been a joke, writing that “a shocking number of American adults” can’t spell or recognize the word “satire.” Still, the tweet was not deleted or labeled and the false claim has since circulated as real on Twitter and Instagram. A review of recent legislation passed in Congress found no bills matching this claim. The Inflation Reduction Act, which became law last week and sparked an onslaught of misinformation about the IRS, did not include any such provision. Terry Lemons, communications and liaison chief at the IRS, confirmed to The Associated Press that the claim was false, and that “all tax filers are treated equally under the tax law.” Henry Connelly, spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said the claim was “nonsense.” Dylan Peachey, a spokesperson for the House Ways and Means Committee, also confirmed the claim was false.

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report.

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Posts exaggerate adult fentanyl deaths in the U.S.

CLAIM: Fentanyl is the leading cause of death for adults in the U.S.

THE FACTS: Fentanyl overdose deaths, while high, are not the leading cause of deaths among all adults in the U.S., experts say. Heart disease and cancer kill more people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social media users, including some Republican elected officials, claimed that the synthetic opioid is the No. 1 killer of adults in the U.S. “Fentanyl is the leading cause of death among American adults,” Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, wrote on Twitter. “Until @POTUS secures our southern border, this crisis will only get worse.” The congresswoman’s tweet was also shared by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. This is not the case, according to experts and CDC data. “It absolutely is not the leading cause of death for all adults,” said Kenneth Leonard, director of the University at Buffalo Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions. “I wouldn’t minimize fentanyl as a problem, but it’s certainly hard to say it’s the leading cause of death,” said Lewis Nelson, a professor of pharmacology, physiology and neuroscience at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. That distinction goes to heart disease and cancer, said Dan Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. About 71,000 people died from overdosing on synthetic opioids like fentanyl in 2021, up from almost 58,000 in 2020, according to the CDC. In comparison, the CDC estimates that in 2020, almost 700,000 people died from heart disease, roughly 600,000 from cancer and around 350,000 due to COVID-19. Spokespeople for McCarthy did not respond to the AP’s request for comment. Andrea Coker, a spokesperson for Van Duyne, wrote in an email that while heart disease may be the leading killer of older American adults, the “cdc is stating fentanyl is the leading cause of death for Americans 18-45.” As part of her response, Coker provided a link to an analysis conducted by the Ohio-based nonprofit Families Against Fentanyl that determined fentanyl was the top killer of people ages 18-45 in 2019 and 2020. The group analyzed publicly available CDC data by comparing synthetic opioid deaths to other causes of death over the last few years, according to spokesperson Moira Muntz. The CDC has not verified that fentanyl is the top killer among people in that age group, said Jeff Lancashire, a spokesperson for the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. The agency uses death certificates to determine the leading causes of death in the U.S. In its datasets, fentanyl deaths are included as part of a larger category of deaths attributed to synthetic opioids. Synthetic opioids, which include drugs like fentanyl and tramadol, are different from natural opioids, like morphine, and semi-synthetic opioids, such as oxycodone, according to the CDC. While fentanyl accounts for the majority of synthetic opioid deaths, the CDC lacks breakout data on deaths caused by fentanyl specifically, Lancashire said. Drug overdose deaths are spread over four different cause of death categories, though the majority of them land in the “accidental” category. The rest are classified as suicides, homicides or undetermined. According to preliminary 2021 data, accidents were the leading cause of death among 18-45 year-olds, with accidental synthetic opioid overdoses amounting to less than half of those deaths, Lancashire wrote. “It doesn’t appear that fentanyl alone is the leading cause of death among 18-45 year olds and definitely is NOT the leading cause of death among all adults,” he wrote. “However, we don’t break down the leading causes in such a way that we can rank fentanyl anywhere.”

— Associated Press writer Josh Kelety in Phoenix contributed this report.

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Florida didn’t ban ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ as fake list suggests

CLAIM: The state of Florida banned “To Kill a Mockingbird” in schools, along with a number of other popular titles on a “Banned Book List.”

THE FACTS: Florida hasn’t forced schools to stop teaching Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” despite misleading posts that amassed thousands of shares on social media. The false claim erupted after various social media users shared a list of book titles and said it showed books banned in Florida, including “To Kill a Mockingbird” and other well-known titles such as “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Giver,” and “Of Mice and Men.” Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Florida’s Republican governor, confirmed in several tweets that the claim was false. “The State of Florida has not banned To Kill a Mockingbird,” Griffin tweeted. “In fact, Florida RECOMMENDS the book in 8th grade.” The tweet linked to Florida’s state Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking, or BEST, standards, which include the book as a sample text for eighth grade students. Jeremy Redfern, deputy press secretary for the governor, told the AP in an email that there is no banned book list at the state level, and that the “Banned Book List” circulating online was fake. “The state sets guidelines regarding content, and the local school districts are responsible for enforcing them,” Redfern said. The Palm Beach County School District temporarily removed “To Kill a Mockingbird” from classrooms to review it earlier this year, but has since returned it, according to the Florida Freedom to Read Project. The Palm Beach County School District told the AP in an email that it had reviewed 2.5 million books over the summer and was in compliance with Florida’s parental rights legislation. The Florida Freedom to Read Project, which tracks book removals across Florida school districts, said its research did not find any other recent bans of the title in Florida schools, though it relies on documentation from the state’s school districts, which have not all responded in recent months. “There is no way for us to say for sure that the title is still available in every district, but it definitely isn’t banned across the state,” said Stephana Ferrell, cofounder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project. Tasslyn Magnusson, an independent researcher who tracks book banning attempts nationwide, also said she was not aware of any recent bans on “To Kill a Mockingbird” in Florida school districts. She said the widely shared “Banned Book List” also didn’t match up with her own data.

— Ali Swenson

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Flawed calculation fuels falsehood on Pfizer vaccine and pregnancies

CLAIM: Pfizer documents show that 44% of pregnancies reported during its COVID-19 vaccine trial ended with miscarriages.

THE FACTS: The claim is based on a flawed calculation that, among other issues, twice counted some of the same reported miscarriages — which also were not established to be caused by the vaccine. Thousands of social media users in recent days spread the erroneous claim that newly released documents showed that nearly half of all pregnancies in the Pfizer vaccine trial resulted in miscarriages. “Massacre: Nearly Half of Pregnant Women in Pfizer Trial Miscarried,” one widely shared headline claimed. The claim first appeared Aug. 12 in a blog run by Naomi Wolf, an author who has gained attention in recent years for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. The blog post falsely claimed that documents from the Food and Drug Administration revealed “chilling data showing 44 percent of pregnant women participating in Pfizer’s mRNA COVID vaccine trial suffered miscarriages.” Asked for comment, the Daily Clout noted in a statement to the AP that it had issued a correction. The post was updated to say in a footnote that the 44% figure is “incorrect.” As of Friday, the post was no longer accessible. The original blog post cited a more than 3,600-page document of Pfizer information dated March 2021 and submitted to the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. The blog post pointed to 22 references in the document to spontaneous abortions, or a pregnancy loss without outside intervention before the 20th week of pregnancy. The blog also noted that a table within the same document showed 50 pregnancies that occurred among trial participants after receiving their first dose. Using those numbers, the blog wrongly concluded that nearly half of pregnancies in the trial resulted in miscarriages. But Jeffrey Morris, director of the division of biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told the AP in an email that the post’s methodology contained “numerous mistakes.” The blog’s 22 references to miscarriages actually count about half of the same events twice, Morris said. That’s evident by comparing the unique ID numbers of the clinical trial participants for each of the reports. For example, a single miscarriage reported by one participant in October 2020 was recorded in a “Listing of Adverse Events” as well as a subsequent “Listing of Serious Adverse Events,” though they refer to the same instance. Such reported adverse events are also not confirmed to be caused by the vaccine, but are simply events that occurred after a participant received a shot. Beyond that, Morris pointed out that, of the unique miscarriage events in the document, only three of the subjects appear in the table that lists 50 pregnancies that occurred after participants received their first dose. That means the table is not a listing of all participants who were pregnant during the clinical trial, and therefore can’t be used to calculate the miscarriage rate as the website did. Miscarriages are not uncommon: It’s estimated that about 10% to 20% of known pregnancies result in miscarriage. The AP has previously debunked similar claims that misrepresented Pfizer data to assert that the vaccine was dangerous to pregnancies. In reality, a 2021 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that COVID-19 vaccine exposure did not increase the odds of a spontaneous abortion. And a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine the same year found that the risk of spontaneous abortion after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination was consistent with the expected risk of spontaneous abortion. A Pfizer spokesperson declined to comment on the specific claim. The FDA did not return a request for comment.

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

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This story was first published on August 26, 2022. It was updated on August 29, 2022, to make clear that the Palm Beach County School District responded on Aug. 25, 2022, that it had reviewed 2.5 million books over the summer and was in compliance with Florida’s parental rights legislation.

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