NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn't happen this week

NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn't happen this week

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Estimated read time: 10-11 minutes

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A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these is legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the real facts:


CLAIM: Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer criticized Democrats during the Iowa presidential debate, saying they would "destroy the economy in 15 minutes if they get in control.”

THE FACTS: A video that circulated on social media following the debate was edited to make it appear Steyer made a derogatory comment about Democrats and the economy. A review of debate footage shows that Steyer was discussing President Donald Trump's campaign and the role the economy would play in it. “Look, we know how Donald Trump is going to run for president. He’s going to run on the economy. He’s already told Americans last month in Florida, ’You don’t like me and I don’t like you, but you’re all going to vote for me because the Democrats are going to destroy the economy in 15 minutes if they get in control.'” The comment was made in response to a question from CNN moderator Abby Phillip, who asked the California businessman about spending more than $100 million of his own money on television ads: “How do you convince voters you are more than just your money?” Sarah Dolan, executive director of the America Rising PAC, tweeted the misleading video as the debate ended. Trump then retweeted it early Wednesday. “I agree with him on this, 100%,” Trump tweeted. “But why would anyone vote Democrat? We are setting all time records with the economy!” America Rising did not immediately respond to a request for a comment. Shortly after Trump’s tweet, Steyer responded telling the president he should read the transcripts of his full remarks on the economy during the debate. “Read the transcript. It’s actually perfect,” he said in a tweet. “I said you’re a fraud and a failure -- and I’ll expose you. Now go to bed.” Alberto Lammers, Steyer’s campaign press secretary, told The Associated Press that Steyer’s remark about Trump was in reference to a December speech Trump made at the Israeli American Council National Summit, in Hollywood, Florida. At the December event, Trump noted that many of the attendees work in real estate and should consider voting for him if they want to stay in business. “You’re brutal killers,” he said. “Not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me; you have no choice. You’re not going to vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. You’re not going to vote for the wealth tax.” The remarks were published by the White House.


CLAIM: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said if people don’t give up guns, the National Guard will cut off their power, and have them killed.

THE FACTS: The statement was fabricated. Since winning a majority of seats in the state legislature last year, Democrats have introduced multiple pieces of legislation around gun control, but none of them call for confiscating guns. In recent weeks, a number of posts featuring the fabricated quote attributed to Northam have circulated on blog posts and Facebook. “You will give up your guns, if you don’t I’ll have the National Guard cut your power, your phone lines, and your internet. Then, if you still refuse to comply I'll have you killed,” the fabricated quote states, citing Northam, a Democrat, as the source. Northam has responded to the false claim, saying he has no plans to confiscate guns. “Saying things like that we’re going to cut off people’s electricity — I don’t know where things like that come from but they’re intimidating, they provoke fear, they’re not necessary,” he said, speaking at a Jan. 7 news conference where he discussed misinformation circulating around gun control. The fabricated quote has spread widely in recent weeks and in advance of a pro-gun rally expected to draw thousands of activists to the Virginia Capitol on Monday. One Facebook user said the quote was calling for “bloodshed and civil war.” For the first time in a generation, Democrats gained full control of Virginia's statehouse in 2019 and are set to pass a number of gun-control measures, including limiting handgun purchases to once a month, imposing universal background checks on gun purchases, and allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks and other areas, the AP reported. One piece of Senate legislation that would have made it a felony to own assault weapons such as AR-15s was killed amid fierce opposition. One of the key issues was that the bill did not include a clause that would have allowed current owners to keep those guns and it was seen as a way of confiscating weapons. Virginia lawmakers have banned guns inside the Capitol and a legislative office building. And due to a gun rights rally planned for Monday, the governor declared a state of emergency, issuing a temporary ban on guns on Capitol grounds as well. He said he did so to prevent the kind of violence that erupted at a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Republicans and gun-rights groups have pledged stiff resistance to changes in the state’s gun laws. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose what they call “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns.


CLAIM: The Elizabeth Warren presidential campaign staged or digitally altered a text message exchange of a Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer calling Warren “Pocahontas.”

THE FACTS: The image of a text message calling Warren “Pochahontas” sent from the Sanders’ campaign text message system by a volunteer was posted to the Twitter account of a pro-Warren fundraising group Monday. The Sanders’ campaign confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday that the message was sent to a possible voter through Sanders’ messaging system by a rogue campaign volunteer. The screenshot of the campaign text message, addressed to a woman named Caitlin, asked: “Are you in for Bernie?” The person responded by saying they weren’t because they were a Warren campaign volunteer. “Pocahontas, huh?” the text from the campaign replied — invoking the racial slur Trump regularly uses to mock Warren, who had previously claimed American Indian heritage. Twitter users falsely claimed that the Warren campaign had either staged the text message exchange or digitally manipulated it. “That’s totally fake,” one Twitter user wrote in response to the exchange. The Warren campaign has no affiliation with the Twitter account that posted the text message and did not have knowledge of the text message exchange. A Sanders campaign aide said the text was sent from its system, which uses volunteers who can enroll online to send text messages to voters across the country. The Sanders campaign told the AP a rogue volunteer enrolled in the system, sending out the text message. The campaign, which can view text messages sent by its volunteers, removed the individual from the program. The phone number listed on the text message has been disconnected.


CLAIM: New York Senate just passed a bill that would “automatically register illegal immigrants to vote.”

THE FACTS: The New York Senate passed legislation in January that would automatically register people to vote when they submit applications to state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles. The passage has led to a number of stories and social media posts that wrongly claim the bill would automatically register illegal immigrants to vote. “That claim is 100 percent false,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris, sponsor of the bill, told The Associated Press in a phone call. According to the automatic voter registration legislation, when eligible voters submit an application to an agency like the Department of Health or the Department of Motor Vehicles, that agency will transmit the application to the state board of elections. In New York state, in order to register and vote that person must be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years old on Election Day, and must be a New York resident for a minimum of 30 days before the election. The bill clearly states that no agency “shall transmit to the state board of elections any application for registration for a person that is, by virtue of data collected by the agency ... demonstrably ineligible to register or pre-register to vote by reason of age or not being a citizen of the United States.” Concern around the issue was heightened because New York lawmakers voted last year to authorize driver's licenses for immigrants who are living in the country illegally. A mistake in the automatic voter registration legislation that was being considered at the same time contained language that would have inadvertently added them to the voting rolls, despite the fact that it is not legal for them to vote. The AP reported that lawmakers noticed the mistake in the session’s final days last year, the language was corrected and the bill reintroduced this session. VineSight, a technology company that tracks misinformation online, highlighted false posts around the legislation to The Associated Press.


CLAIM: Wombats in parts of Australia stricken by wildfires are not only allowing other animals to take shelter in their deep burrows, but are actively herding fleeing animals into them.

THE FACTS: Wombats do not herd other animals. However, the large furry marsupials have been known to share their burrows with some small animals. As wildfires continue to rage in Australia, social media posts have highlighted the plight of animals threatened by the fires. The posts have also led to some false claims circulating online. Greenpeace New Zealand shared a post on Jan. 9 with a photo of a wombat, stating: "Reports from Australia say that countless small animals have escaped death because wombats, unusually, opted to share their massive complex burrows. With some reports saying that the animals have even been observed exhibiting ‘shepherding behavior.’” The group later corrected their Instagram post to say the shepherding aspect was not accurate, but before the correction was made social media users took screenshots of the post and shared it widely. One tweet with the false information was retweeted more than 72,000 times and received more than 277,000 likes. Wombat experts in Australia said other animals commonly use wombat burrows for shelter and occasional access to resources such as water. “I would describe this as wombats tolerating other species using burrows they dig,” Scott Carver, a senior lecturer in wildlife ecology at the University of Tasmania, told The Associated Press in an email. He said there was no evidence the wombats were “sharing or encouraging other animals” to go into the burrows. Carver, whose research has focused on wombats, said the idea they are herding other animals is likely just a misinterpretation of a wombat following another species into a burrow. Julie Old, associate professor at Western Sydney University, told The Associated Press in an email that wombats have multiple burrows and when they are not using them other animals take advantage. “Wombats are ‘ecological engineers’ because they build burrows, thus providing habitat for a range of other species, assisting in soil turnover etc.,” she said. “They are also the largest burrowing animals.”


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.


Find all AP Fact Checks here:


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Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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