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:
THE FACTS: Anti-gay groups and LGBTQ+ advocates in the southern European nation confirm the government has made no such announcement. A longstanding, conservative event known as “Family Day” was held last month in Rome, but it is not sponsored by the government and is mostly focused on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and other right wing politicians have attended that daylong event over the years. But social media users are claiming Italy’s conservative government has come up with a new, monthlong celebration of the traditional concept of marriage between a man and a woman. “Report: Italy PM Giorgia Meloni has decided to counter ‘Pride Month’ by launching ‘Family Pride Month’ which will instead promote traditional family,” wrote one Twitter user in a widespread post. Meloni’s office did not respond to emails seeking comment, but LGBTQ+ advocates, opponents and other experts confirmed there is no truth to the claim. “There has been no such announcement by the government and, as far as we know, there has been no proposal either,” said Jacopo Coghe, a spokesperson for Pro Vita & Famiglia, a Rome-based group opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. “Proof that it is fake news can be found in the fact that no Italian media outlet has ever mentioned it.” Vincenzo Branà, a spokesperson for Arcigay, a prominent LGBTQ+ advocacy group based in Bologna, concurred, adding that the group would strongly oppose such an idea if it ever came to fruition. Some posts making the false claim even include video clips from a longstanding anti-abortion march in Rome, noted Gabriele Magni, a political science professor and founding director of the LGBTQ+ Politics Research Initiative at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Manifestazione Nazionale per la Vita, or the National Demonstration for Life, was organized in part by the Family Day Association and took place May 20. Over the years, Magni said, Meloni and other prominent conservatives have participated in the event, which is akin to the anti-abortion March for Life that takes place annually in Washington, D.C.
— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in New York contributed this report.
CLAIM: A video of a helicopter dropping flames on treetops in Canada shows wildfires in the country are “a set up.”
THE FACTS: The footage shows firefighters conducting a planned burn last weekend on the Donnie Creek wildfire in northeastern British Columbia. The ignition was being used to help contain the fire by taking away fuel, not to spread it. Yet social media users misrepresented footage of the containment efforts to baselessly claim it shows that the fires were deliberately lit. A video shared on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter shows a yellow helicopter flying above a forest filled with smoke, as a helitorch suspended from the chopper emits flames. The next shot shows a forest ablaze. Text overlaid on the footage reads: “it was a set up.” However, the footage was taken from a video shared by the British Columbia Wildfire service on June 4 on YouTube. In the video, members of the fire service explain how they are using “planned ignitions” to fight the Donnie Creek blaze. Mike Morrow, an ignition specialist with the service, says firefighters are stopping the conflagration from spreading by using planned burns to rob the fire of fuel. “We’re taking the fuels out on our terms rather than letting Mother Nature guide the project,” he says. Sarah Budd, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, confirmed to the AP that the clip circulating online matches the video from the planned burn that took place last weekend, on June 1 and 2, on the Donnie Creek wildfire in northeastern British Columbia. “When the decision is made to conduct such a burn operation, the wildfire is usually beyond the initial attack stage,” Budd said in an email. “The goal is to remove the majority of available fuel ahead of the wildfire so there’s less fuel available for the wildfire to burn.” Similar videos of planned burns have been shared in the past to spread conspiracy theories during major wildfires or to discredit climate change.
— Associated Press writer Karena Phan in Los Angeles contributed this report.
CLAIM: The majority of AIDS patients died from medication developed when Dr. Anthony Fauci led the nation’s response to the emerging epidemic, not from the virus itself.
THE FACTS: While it’s true that Fauci had been a leading researcher when AIDS emerged in the 1980s, the claims that azidothymidine, commonly known as AZT, killed more people than the virus itself are baseless. Public health agencies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the World Health Organization, as well as prominent AIDS organizations and researchers, told the AP that the drug, while not perfect, remains in use today as it’s been shown to be effective at keeping HIV in check when used in combination with other medications. Still social media users are once again sharing the long debunked notion that Fauci, the face of the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, advocated decades earlier for a drug to combat the emerging AIDS epidemic that turned out to be more deadly than the virus itself. Many are sharing a video clip from a newly released conspiracy theory film called “Plandemic 3,” a sequel to a 2020 video that spread misinformation about COVID-19 online. The clip features old footage of a young Fauci speaking about the safety and efficacy of AZT, which at the time was the first drug developed to treat HIV, the virus that causes the immune system-damaging disease AIDS. The caption of the clip includes the claim that “hundreds of thousands of innocent people died” as a result of the medication, which it said Fauci “pushed” on the American public. “AZT is what killed a majority of the AIDS patients. Not the virus,” wrote one user on Instagram who shared the video clip. But officials and experts say the claim that AZT was responsible for most AIDS deaths is not backed by scientific evidence. Kathy Donbeck, a spokesperson for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the false claim has “long been trotted out by AIDS ‘denialists’ and debunked repeatedly over the years.” Chanapa Tantibanchachai, a spokesperson for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approved the antiretroviral drug in 1987, concurred, adding that AZT remains an approved drug for the treatment of HIV. She noted that the FDA-approved package label for Retrovir, the brand name for the drug, which is also known as zidovudine, states that the drug was found to reduce the risk of HIV progression compared to a placebo. A New England Journal of Medicine study from 1987 also concluded that patients who received AZT died at a much lower rate compared to those who received placebo. Fauci, who served as director of NIAID from 1984 until his retirement last year, declined to comment. But health experts also acknowledged the development of better medications to treat HIV diminished AZT’s use over the years. Longer-term research, such as a 1994 study published in Lancet, found that AZT’s effectiveness waned when used as a standalone treatment, explained Marlène Bras, a director at the International AIDS Society based in Geneva, Switzerland. Many patients in the early years of its use ultimately developed AIDS and succumbed to the illnesses as the virus became resistant to AZT. Researchers eventually came to understand that a combination of medications — not just one — was needed to keep HIV in check, said WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic. Today, AZT is among some 40 drugs approved for HIV treatment, he said, though it’s generally reserved for patients for whom new medications fail. The drug is also used to prevent disease transmission in certain situations, such as from an HIV-positive mother to a developing fetus. Health experts weren’t able to provide any statistics or estimates for whether any people died as a result of AZT. Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson, said a number of factors contribute to AIDS-related deaths, including late diagnosis, limited access to healthcare and co-infections. “AZT was just one component of the evolving treatment strategies for HIV/AIDS, and its use has significantly evolved over time,” she wrote in an email. GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Retrovir, similarly dismissed the claims as “unsubstantiated.” “Did Fauci support the use of AZT? Yes,” wrote Warren Gill, a spokesperson for AIDS United, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. in an email. “Was that backed by science? Also, yes.”
THE FACTS: There is no evidence to support that claim, which is an outgrowth of comments made by anti-vaccine activist and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. His campaign said the remarks were intended as a “rhetorical” comment about the pharmaceutical industry’s influence through advertising. Social media users, however, shared his comments as literal. “BREAKING: Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. claims Pfizer funneled $12 million dollars to CNN anchor Anderson Cooper as part of a deal to promote mRNA COVID jabs to the American public,” one widely shared tweet reads. But there is no factual support for that claim, which a CNN spokesperson called “completely false and fabricated.” Kennedy said during an October 2022 video interview with podcaster Brian Rose that “75% of advertising revenues now in the mainstream media are now coming from pharma and that ratio is even higher for the evening news.” “Anderson Cooper has a $12 million a year annual salary,” he continued. “Well $10 million of that is coming from Pfizer. His boss is not CNN. His boss is Pfizer.” Kennedy made similar comments in another 2022 interview with Dr. Drew Pinsky. While social media users shared his remarks as literal — suggesting Pfizer actually provided Cooper with millions of dollars — Kennedy’s campaign said the Democrat’s words were “rhetorical.” “This was a rhetorical comment, based on the huge proportion of television advertising revenue that comes from pharmaceutical companies,” the campaign said in a statement. “Since they contribute as much as 80% of TV ad revenue, close to $10 million of Mr. Anderson’s salary originates in Big Pharma. To use ‘Pfizer’ as a stand-in for ‘Big Pharma’ was a rhetorical flourish and not technically accurate.” The campaign, when asked, did not provide a citation for the statistic on TV advertising revenue from the pharmaceutical industry, but instead noted that the industry spends billions on TV advertising — and argued that Pfizer advertising on CNN helps to fund Cooper’s salary. CNN declined to comment on Cooper’s salary. The $12 million figure has been floated online without clear sourcing.
— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in New Jersey contributed this report.