Hoaxes, conspiratorial nonsense, doctored poll results
This week’s rumor roundup runs the gamut of types of misinformation.
NO: COVID-19 vaccines do not magnetize your arm at the injection site. YES: This is a baseless hoax based on the widely debunked conspiracy theory that the vaccines contain microchips. NO: None of the available vaccines in the United States and Canada — including Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — list any metal-based ingredients, according to AFP Fact Check.
- “Fact Check-‘Magnet test’ does not prove COVID-19 jabs contain metal or a microchip” (Reuters Fact Check).
- “Covid-19 vaccines do not make you magnetic” (Sarah Turnnidge, Full Fact).
- “No, getting a COVID-19 vaccine won’t expose you to high amounts of electromagnetic radiation” (Madison Czopek, PolitiFact).
NO: Black Lives Matter did not say it “stands with Hamas,” the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. YES: The organization said, in a May 17 tweet, that it “stands in solidarity with Palestinians.” YES: Fox News published the erroneous headline in the above screenshot. YES: The headline was later “updated to more closely reflect the Black Lives Matter tweet,” Fox said in an editor’s note.
Note: The inaccurate headline was picked up by a number of other outlets.
Tip: Be wary of screenshots of news coverage that are not accompanied by a link to the actual story.
NO: These photos do not show Vice President Kamala Harris pretending to board Air Force One using a replica plane and a green screen. YES: They show (at left) a partial replica of Air Force One at a Secret Service training facility in Maryland and (at right) a green screen that was part of a shoot for the television show Designated Survivor in 2017.
Note: Rumors about Biden administration activities being faked or staged are offshoots of the QAnon conspiracy belief system, which includes the delusion that former President Donald Trump is secretly still president. QAnon followers contend the Biden administration is merely a performance and commonly encourage one another to “enjoy the show” — often including popcorn emojis — in reference to what they believe is the final act of an elaborate scheme to prepare the public for Trump’s apocalyptic return to power.
Related: “No, Biden wasn’t ‘computer generated’ in a March interview” (Ciara O’Rourke, PolitiFact).
NO: A Gallup poll of heterosexual couples who are married or living together did not find that men are more likely than women to do common household chores. YES: The results for men and women listed in this graphic reverse the actual findings published by Gallup in January 2020. YES: Another Facebook post containing a screenshot of this graphic — purportedly from MSNBC, with the same time stamp in the bottom right corner — displays the results correctly:
An April 9, 2020, Facebook post shared by two DJs at a country music radio station in Utah shows the same MSNBC graphic with the correct results of the Gallup poll.
Rumor Rundown: COVID-19 scare tactics, Middle East misinfo and more
This week’s selection of viral rumors plays on people’s fears and exploits partisan beliefs.
NO: The woman in the background in this video of a vaccination clinic in Mexico did not die after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. YES: She fainted.
Tip: Be wary of posts that seek to connect isolated incidents with COVID-19 vaccines. Anti-vaccination activists continue to use coincidental events, including celebrity deaths, and misleading or out-of-context videos to spread fear and falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines.
- “Facebook races to remove anti-vaccine profile picture frames” (Lauren Feiner, CNBC).
- “Just 12 People Are Behind Most Vaccine Hoaxes On Social Media, Research Shows” (Shannon Bond, NPR’s All Things Considered).
- “Distancing from the vaccinated: Viral anti-vaccine infertility misinfo reaches new extremes” (April Glaser and Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News).
NO: The video in this tweet does not show Hamas militants firing rockets from populated areas in the Gaza Strip in May 2021. YES: This video has been online since at least June 2018 and was claimed to be related to the conflict in Syria. YES: The above tweet was posted by Ofir Gendelman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson. YES: It has since been deleted.
Note: This video was also used out of context in a December 2019 tweet that claimed it was footage from Tripoli, Libya.
Tip: Photos and videos of rockets being fired, particularly at night, are easy to pass off out of context.
NO: This TikTok video does not show a barrage of rockets being fired at or from Gaza in May 2021. YES: This video appears to show a test of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) and has been online since at least November 2018.
Note: This clip also went viral out of context in January 2020 after Iran fired ballistic missiles at military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq.
Related: “As violence in Israel and Gaza plays out on social media, activists raise concerns about tech companies’ interference” (Antonia Noori Farzan, The Washington Post).
NO: The U.S. Census Bureau did not confirm any conflicts or problems related to the number of voters in the 2020 presidential election. NO: Census figures do not show that there was “a discrepancy of nearly four million votes” in the election. YES: The total number of votes in the 2020 election exceeded the number of people who reported to the Census Bureau that they had voted. YES: More than 36 million people age 18 and older did not tell the Census Bureau whether or not they voted in the election. YES: Researchers previously have found mismatches between people who say they voted and their actual voting record.
Related: “‘A Perpetual Motion Machine’: How Disinformation Drives Voting Laws” (Maggie Astor, The New York Times).
Misleading memes and engagement bait
This week’s selection of viral rumors includes common subjects: celebrities, photos from space and frightening content as engagement bait.
NO: LeBron James did not say he didn’t want anything to do with white people. YES: In the first episode of the HBO show The Shop in 2018, James shared that he was initially wary of white people at his predominantly white Catholic high school in Akron, Ohio. YES: In telling this story on The Shop, James said [link warning: profanity], “when I first went to the ninth grade … I was so institutionalized, growing up in the hood, it’s like … they don’t want us to succeed … so I’m like, I’m going to this school to play ball, and that’s it. I don’t want nothing to do with white people. I don’t believe that they want anything to do with me.” YES: The conversation went on to clarify that these initial feelings soon changed as sports and basketball created friendships.
Note: This misleading quote has gone viral several times before. It recently recirculated after James tweeted a photo of a police officer who was identified as firing the shots that killed Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, on April 20, along with the message “YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY.” James later deleted the tweet.
- “Did Lebron James Say He Wants Nothing To Do With White People?” (Dan Evon, Snopes).
- “Viral image uses doctored photo to paint LeBron James as pro-China” (Andy Nguyen, PolitiFact).
Resource: Reverse image search tutorial (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
NO: COVID-19 is not automatically declared the cause of death for anyone who dies within 20 days of testing positive for the virus. YES: The cause of death in the United States is determined by local coroners, medical examiners, and other officials across more than 2,000 independent jurisdictions, according to the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, who was interviewed by Lead Stories. NO: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not control death certificate decisions and has no authority to overrule local medical examiners. NO: There is no conspiracy to falsely inflate the number of COVID-19 deaths.
Related: “How COVID Death Counts Become the Stuff of Conspiracy Theories” (Victoria Knight and Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News).
NO: This video is not live footage of a gas station explosion. YES: This May 7 post on Facebook appears to use video footage from 2014 of a fire exploding at a gas station in Russia, according to the fact-checker Lead Stories.
Note: This is another example of “engagement bait.”
Tip: You can use reverse image search to look for the origin of videos by taking screenshots of different video frames.
Related: “How to find the source of a video (or, how to do a reverse video search)” (Gaelle Faure, AFP Fact Check).
Rumor rundown: Partisan falsehoods, logical fallacy, doctored content
Falsehoods about U.S. politicians and COVID-19 continue to go viral. A flawed study about violence against women and doctored content gained traction on social media by appealing to our emotions and beliefs. Below, we explain why these posts are actually misinformation and should not be believed, liked, shared or otherwise amplified.
NO: Officials at a facility for migrant children brought from the U.S.-Mexico border were not handing out a children’s book written by Vice President Kamala Harris. YES: A copy of Harris’ 2019 book Superheroes Are Everywhere was donated during a book and toy drive to an “emergency intake site” for unaccompanied migrant children at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. YES: The baseless claim that copies of the book were included in welcome kits at taxpayers’ expense and distributed to each child at the site originated with an erroneous report published by the New York Post on April 23. YES: Fox News — which, like the Post, is owned by the Murdoch family — also published the report. YES: The Post eventually added an editor’s note at the end of the story to update it with a correction after it had spread widely on social media. YES: Fox News also made updates and corrections to its report.
Note: The false assertion that the book was being given to each child at the facility appears to have been based on a photo of a single donated copy left on a cot.
Also note: Laura Italiano, the Post reporter who wrote the original report, announced her resignation from the paper on Twitter on April 27 and claimed she was “ordered to write” the false report. The Post issued a statement denying Italiano’s claim.
- “How a photo and a Long Beach book drive led to a false story and attacks on Kamala Harris” (Erin B. Logan, Los Angeles Times).
- “New York Post Reporter Who Wrote False Kamala Harris Story Resigns” (Michael M. Grynbaum, The New York Times).
- “Fox News host admits his show was wrong about Biden limiting red meat consumption” (Daniel Dale, CNN).
Idea: Have students evaluate the steps the New York Post and Fox News took to correct the false report. Were the corrections sufficiently clear? Did the organizations hold themselves accountable for the error? Did they explain how it occurred?
NO: 85% of Americans did not approve of President Joe Biden’s April 28 speech to a joint session of Congress — the first of his presidency. YES: According to a CBS News / YouGov poll, 85% of American speech-watchers — only 18% of whom identified themselves as Republicans — approved of it.
Note: As CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter noted, the television ratings for Biden’s speech were significantly lower than similar speeches by past presidents. But such ratings do not necessarily reflect the total reach of the speech because they can’t take internet and other viewers into account.
NO: The two violent phrases in this tweet were not “typed into Google” 163 million and 178 million times, respectively, over several months in 2020. YES: These figures that claimed a big increase in such searches from the prior year were based on a flawed study. YES: Searching these phrases returns several billion search results (the number of webpages a given search returns) but these should not be mistaken for search trends (the frequency of specific searches over time). YES: An analysis by the fact-checking website Snopes (linked above) using the Google Trends search tool determined that almost “no one used the website to look for information on ‘how to hit a woman so no one knows,’ including during the time window referenced in the study (March to August 2020).”
Note: Violence against women is alarmingly common. According to the World Health Organization, about 30% “of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.”
NO: These are not rigged COVID-19 tests. YES: They are control swabs included with some test kits that ensure they are working properly.
Note: The claim that this photo was “taken secretly by a nurse” is an example of an appeal to authority, a logical fallacy in which the opinion or endorsement of an authority is used as evidence to support an assertion. Because the nurse isn’t named, this example could also be classified as an appeal to anonymous authority (also known as an appeal to rumor).
NO: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) did not remove the Church of the Nativity, officially recognized as the birthplace of Jesus, from its World Heritage List. YES: The screenshot in this Facebook post has been doctored to conceal the last two words in the actual headline: “in danger.” YES: UNESCO in 2012 added the site to its List of World Heritage in Danger because it had been damaged by water leaks. YES: The church was removed from the “in danger” list in 2019.
A screenshot of the 2019 report published by UN News showing the actual headline, which includes the words “in danger” at the end. A doctored version that recently went viral obscured these two words and generated outrage.
Image of flamingos in canal was artwork
A piece of digital artwork of flamingos in Venice’s Grand Canal was mistaken as authentic and shared on social media:
Note: The verified Instagram account that shared it belongs to Kristina Makeeva, a photographer and digital artist in Moscow, who posts as “hobopeeba.” In reply to people who asked if the flamingo photo was real, she replied “no.”
Related: “The Animal Fact Checker” (Savannah Jacobson, Columbia Journalism Review)
Pence victim of PPE delivery hoax
This viral rumor drew a good deal of attention after a select clip was featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and other prominent people amplified the false story before it was debunked:
NO: Vice President Mike Pence did not deliver empty boxes to the Woodbine Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 7, pretending they were full of personal protective equipment (PPE). YES: Pence did deliver boxes filled with PPE to the nursing home. NO: Pence was not “caught on hot mic” admitting that the boxes were empty, as this tweet from Matt McDermott, a political strategist, claims.
YES: After the boxes of PPE were delivered, an aide told Pence that the remaining boxes in the van were empty, and the vice president made a joke about moving them “just for the camera.” YES: Jimmy Kimmel, host of the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live!, aired a “selectively edited” (as a campaign spokesman for Pence put it) clip of the delivery on his show that night, then tweeted the clip the next morning. YES: The claim that Pence’s team had staged the delivery went viral — and was amplified by a number of prominent media figures — before being debunked.
Images of protest signs often doctored
Protestors recently staged demonstrations in states that issued stay-at-home orders and business closures in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Since then, images of protest signs with doctored messages have been circulating on social media.
NO: The protest sign in this tweet is not authentic. YES: The sign actually said “Give me liberty or give me death” (h/t @jjmacnab). YES: The photo — taken on April 17 in Huntington Beach, California — shows people protesting statewide stay-at-home orders.
Note: The photo, by Jeff Gritchen of The Orange County Register, is included in the gallery at the top of this report on the protest (possible paywall).
NO: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did not digitally add a Confederate flag to a photo of a protest against a recent extension of the stay-at-home order in Wisconsin. YES: The man holding a pole flying a Gadsden flag (“Don’t tread on me”) above a Confederate flag can be seen (at around the 0:20 mark) in a video of the protest posted to Facebook. YES: Another man wearing a nearly identical plaid shirt was holding another pole with a Gadsden flag.
- “No, a Journal Sentinel image of Confederate flag at Brookfield rally was not doctored, as false accusations on Facebook claim” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
- National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics.
Discuss: What standards and ethics policies relating to photos do quality news organizations strive to abide by? What kinds of alterations to photos are ethical and allowed at standards-based news organizations? What kinds are not? What kinds of consequences might photojournalists face if they are caught breaching those standards?
Idea: Invite a photojournalist from a local news outlet to discuss photojournalism ethics and standards with your students.
Use digital forensics tools to verify images
A photo of a tank in downtown Toronto is circulating on social media with a caption suggesting was taken during the stay-at-home order. But is it really a demonstration of military enforcement of order?
NO: It was not taken this month — or even this year. YES: Canadian Armed Forces Operations posted it on Twitter on Oct, 1, 2016, when members of the Canadian military arrived at Yonge-Dundas Square for Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts event. YES: On April 5, Toronto-area residents were advised “to expect a larger number of [military] personnel and vehicles” on the roads in the next few days as units relocated to a base about 60 miles from the city to set up a COVID-19 response task force.
Idea: Share an archived version of this post with students and give them a sequence of digital verification challenges, including:
- Determining whether the claim (that the photo was taken in 2020) is true. (It’s not.)
- Finding the original tweet from the Canadian military (linked above).
- Finding the precise location using Google Street View.
If you want to make the challenge even harder, ask students to use different ways to prove that the image is not from 2020. For example, they might use critical observation skills to note that one of the billboards in the background, though partially cut off, announces the opening of a Uniqlo retail store on Sept. 30. A quick lateral search for “Uniqlo store opening Toronto Sept. 30” should produce results confirming that the chain announced Sept. 30 as the opening day for a store in CF Toronto Eaton Centre. Or students might try to use the billboards in another way: If they can find another photo of Yonge-Dundas Square with the same billboards displayed, they can demonstrate that this photo wasn’t taken in 2020.
Comparing a user-contributed photo on Google Maps that is time-stamped October 2016 (top) with the Facebook post falsely claiming that the tank photo was taken in 2020 (bottom) offers further proof that the photo is not a current one. Click the image to view a larger version.
COVID-19 video taken out of context
This screenshot of a video circulating on social media claims to show body bags piling up in a New York City hospital. Is this claim true?”
NO: The video in this tweet was not shot at a hospital in New York City. YES: It was captured at the Hospital General del Norte de Guayaquil IESS Los Ceibos in Guayaquil, Ecuador. YES: The same video clip has previously been taken out of context to make false claims about conditions in hospitals in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain.
Note: The fact check linked above, published by the Spanish fact-checking organization Maldita.es, is a good example of using digital forensics tools and methods to verify the location and other details of a piece of content. This tweet thread by Mark Snoeck, an open source investigator, provides additional evidence that the video was shot at IESS Los Ceibos by comparing interior photos of the hospital (from Google Maps and Flickr) with stills from the video:
An image from Snoeck’s tweet thread compares two stills from the viral video (far right, top and bottom) with a photo of the interior of the Hospital General del Norte de Guayaquil IESS Los Ceibos in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to match details such as signage, electrical outlets, trim and door. Maldita.es used similar methods in its fact check.
Netanyahu shares Hallmark Channel clip
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent several members of his cabinet a video clip of soldiers dumping bodies in landfills, claiming it was proof that Iran was concealing the number of COVID-19 deaths, Axios reported on April 1. According to the item by Barak Ravid, a diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 13 News who also writes for Axios, the video had been circulating in Iran and was sent to Netanyahu by his national security advisor, Meir Ben-Shabbat. Netanyahu talked about it during a conference call with his cabinet on March 31, and several people asked to see it, Ravid wrote. The video was actually a clip from a 2007 Hallmark Channel mini-series, “Pandemic.” The prime minister’s office told Ravid that the cabinet members who received the video were told that its authenticity had not been confirmed.
False and dangerous mask-wearing advice
Beware social media posts from unverified accounts providing health advice. This post office guidance on two ways to wear medical masks, depending on whether you are sick or not. Should you trust this advice?
NO: Medical masks are not intended to be worn two different ways — one if you’re sick (and trying to avoid infecting others) and the other if you’re not sick (and trying to avoid being infected). YES: The white side is absorbent; it should always be worn next to your mouth to stop droplets from passing through the mask and into the air. YES: The colored side faces out. YES: A number of graphics circulating on social media make this same false claim.
Note: This is a good example of how serious misinformation can be.
Misleading video, false cures swirl around COVID-19
NO: The man in the lead photo on this story from the “satirical news” website Viral Cocaine did not “drop dead” on the street in New York City’s borough of Queens. YES: The photos show a man who appears to have collapsed on the sidewalk in Flushing, Queens, on March 3. YES: He was wearing a surgical mask. NO: The incident was not related to COVID-19.
Note: Photos and videos of people who are unwell in public, along with speculation about COVID-19 as the cause, will almost certainly continue to circulate on social media. For example, a man passed out on a train platform in Brussels prompted several bystanders to shoot video of the incident and to speculate that the new strain of coronavirus was the cause.
False risks, false cures
NO: COVID-19 does not cause pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of the lungs). NO: Holding your breath for 10 seconds is not a reliable test for pulmonary fibrosis — or for COVID-19. YES: Drinking water is generally good for you, and proper hydration is important during treatment for any infection. NO: Frequently drinking water does not prevent infection from the current strain of coronavirus by washing the virus into your stomach.
Note: Like many viral rumors, this one includes a request to “send and share” this falsehood to “family, friends and everyone.” You should be skeptical of user-generated material that cites sources that are anonymous or unfamiliar, especially if it explicitly asks you to share it widely.
Also note: There are numerous “copy-and-paste” style viral rumors — many of them citing second- or third-hand advice from an authoritative source — circulating via social media, email and text message about the virus.
Also note: There are at least a dozen iterations of this “advice” circulating online, including one that says it is from an “internal message” to the “Stanford Hospital Board.” In a post on March 11, Stanford Health Care debunked this (scroll to the bottom of the webpage).
Misinformation creates coronavirus ‘infodemic’
Here are just two recent examples of the coronavirus ‘infodemic’ related to the outbreak:
Panic buying not staged by media
NO: A mainstream media (MSM) news outlet did not stage evidence of COVID-19 panic by removing goods from shelves in a grocery store. YES: The Romanian TV news program Observator did use video of empty store shelves and coolers in a report on Feb. 26 about people buying large quantities of specific items to prepare for a possible outbreak of the disease. These include flour, canned goods and water. YES: The photo in the post above was taken during a live report broadcast the next day. The news channel whose reporter appears in the photo above has debunked this claim.
Escape from quarantine post a hoax
NO: A man in his early 20s did not escape from a mandatory COVID-19 quarantine on a U.S. military base. NO: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not run this Facebook ad about this nonexistent “escapee.” YES: This ad (note the word “Sponsored”) was purchased by an imposter page named “Covid19” and using the CDC logo.
WHO describes a coronavirus ‘infodemic’
There is far more misinformation about COVID-19 and the strain of coronavirus that causes it than we can adequately address here. For additional coverage of what the World Health Organization has called an “infodemic,” see:
- “Here’s A Running List Of The Latest Disinformation Spreading About The Coronavirus” (Jane Lytvynenko, BuzzFeed News).
- “Surge of Virus Misinformation Stumps Facebook and Twitter” (Sheera Frenkel, Davey Alba and Raymond Zhong, The New York Times).
- “In Facebook groups, coronavirus misinformation thrives despite broader crackdown” (Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News).
Questions for discussion in the classroom
Why do you think rumors like this have appeal? What journalism standards and ethic policies address the authenticity of photos and video footage?
Virus not causing beer drinkers to avoid Corona brand
NO: More than a third of Americans are not avoiding Corona beer because of the current outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by a newly identified strain of coronavirus.
YES: A telephone survey of 737 American beer drinkers conducted on Feb. 25 and 26 by 5W Public Relations, a New York City agency, found that 38% of those surveyed (or 280 respondents) “would not buy Corona under any circumstances now.”
NO: A Feb. 27 press release publicizing the survey contains no evidence that the COVID-19 outbreak is the reason that any of those 280 people would not buy Corona beer right now.
YES: The press release also cites an “uptick in searches for ‘corona beer virus’ and ‘beer coronavirus’ over the past few weeks.”
YES: There is a genre of humorous memes that make puns about the virus and beer. Some joke that the beer is an antidote to the virus.
- “What the Dubious Corona Poll Reveals” (Yascha Mounk, The Atlantic).
- “Corona claps back at claims coronavirus scare will hurt sales” (Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune).