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:


Biden is not withholding benefits from unvaccinated veterans

CLAIM: President Joe Biden has ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to withhold health care benefits from unvaccinated veterans.

THE FACTS: Social media posts falsely suggested that a supposed order from Biden would keep veterans who receive assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs from accessing health care benefits unless they received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Nov. 1. But the worries proved to be unfounded as no such directive or executive order exists. ​​In a statement to The Associated Press, the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed the claims were untrue. “The President has not and will not withhold benefits to Veterans who choose not to be vaccinated,” Veterans Affairs Press Secretary Terrence L. Hayes wrote in a statement. “The spread of this misinformation is extremely detrimental to our Veterans and their families and should cease immediately.” The claims were spread through an article on a website that describes its stories as “parodies, satire, fiction, fake, not real.” The blog includes a disclaimer explaining that “everything on this website is made up” and warning readers not to “rely on anything said here.” But many social media users who shared the story seemed to think it was a real news report. U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican from Iowa, was among those who tweeted a link to the satirical article, writing in her tweet: “If true, this is insane!” While Biden did issue an executive order Sept. 9 introducing sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans in an effort to curb the surging COVID-19 delta variant, that order makes no specific mention of veterans and does not extend to their government health care benefits or to people who receive assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover medical expenses. The rules apply to private-sector employees, health care workers and federal contractors. The order mandates that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced in July that all its health care personnel who work in Veterans Health Administration facilities, visit those facilities or provide direct care to those the VA serves would need to get vaccinated. However, that rule does not extend to non-employees who may utilize the department’s services.

— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed this report.


Nicki Minaj tweet shares unfounded claims about vaccine side effects

CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines cause impotency and swollen testicles.

THE FACTS: There is no evidence from available research to suggest COVID-19 vaccines cause erectile dysfunction, swelling of the testicles or male infertility. The unfounded claims received considerable attention Monday after Trinidadian-born rapper Nicki Minaj tweeted to her more than 22.6 million followers an unverified story about a cousin’s friend in Trinidad. Minaj asserted the unidentified individual “became impotent” and “his testicles became swollen” after receiving the shot. The specifics of the claim aren’t clear. A representative for Minaj did not return requests for more information. But experts say there is no data to support the idea that the vaccines cause erectile dysfunction or swollen testicles. “We have never seen that,” said Dr. Ranjith Ramasamy, director of male reproductive medicine and surgery at the University of Miami’s health system. Orchitis, a condition that can result in swollen testicles, can follow a bacterial infection, such as a sexually transmitted infection. Ramasamy said that while orchitis and erectile dysfunction have not been linked to coronavirus vaccines, there is someevidence suggesting they could be associated with a COVID-19 infection. Dr. Ashley Winter, a urologist specializing in sexual dysfunction at Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon, agreed there is no indication that the vaccine negatively impacts male sexual function or the testicles overall. “On a population level, hundreds of millions of men have gotten this vaccine and there’s no study showing reduced erectile function in men who have been vaccinated,” she said. “Fundamentally, we just have no study linking the vaccine to either swollen testicles or erectile dysfunction.” Furthermore, experts say there is no established link between COVID-19 vaccines and male infertility or lower sperm counts. In the days since Minaj’s tweet, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. infectious disease expert, and Trinidad's health minister have both publicly dismissed the claim. The White House also offered to connect Minaj with one of the Biden administration’s doctors to address her questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, the AP reported.

— Associated Press writers Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia and Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed this report.


False claims about Sharpie pens bubble up again around California recall

CLAIM: There was fraud in California’s recall election because voters were given Sharpie pens or other permanent markers, which is illegal and will invalidate ballots.

THE FACTS: As voters cast their ballots across California on Tuesday and rejected an effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, social media users revived a months-old falsehood that marking your vote in Sharpie or marker was illegal, would render the ballot unreadable or would “force an invalid ballot.” One widely viewed post expressed horror that Bay Area voters were given a “black magic marker” at the polls. Similar claims about Sharpie pens invalidating ballots also emerged after the 2020 election and were swiftly debunked then by both election officials and election technology firms. “Sharpie pens are safe and reliable to use on ballots, and recommended due to their quick-drying ink,” reads a Nov. 5 statement from Dominion Voting Systems. “Regarding potential ink bleed-through, Dominion’s systems never allow for the creation of ballots with overlapping vote bubbles between the front and back pages of a ballot.” Many California counties used Dominion Voting Systems technology to tabulate ballots cast in Tuesday’s recall election. The company confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday that its earlier statements still applied. Jenna Dresner, spokesperson for California’s Office of Election Cybersecurity, told the AP that “using a Sharpie will not invalidate a ballot.” While the Secretary of State’s office recommends using blue or black ink, Dresner said there is no law that states what kind of writing utensil must be used to fill out a ballot. “In the event the voting tabulation system is unable to determine the voter’s selections, the tabulator is designed to sort the ballots into a separate pile to be reviewed manually to determine voter intent,” Dresner said. John Arntz, the director of elections in San Francisco, said the Dominion scanners his office uses are programmed to identify where the voting targets are on each ballot and can determine which bubbles are filled in by detecting pixels. “The system is very sensitive. You could use a Sharpie, you could use a felt-tip pen, a ballpoint pen, a pencil, just about any color except red will get picked up well by this system,” Arntz said. He said it has long been considered a best practice to have voting targets staggered on the two sides of a ballot so that ink bleed-through will not be a factor, and Dominion scanners only work with ballots designed that way. “If someone were to, let’s say, use a Sharpie and just lay that Sharpie on that voting target and let it bleed for a minute, there is no overlap with the target on the other side,” Arntz said.

— Associated Press writers Ali Swenson in New York and Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix contributed this report.


Video clip misrepresents Biden’s comments on hurricane preparedness

CLAIM: A video clip shows Biden stating that individuals should get vaccinated to protect themselves against hurricanes.

THE FACTS: Biden didn’t say getting vaccinated would protect against hurricanes. The video clip, first posted on TikTok, was edited to remove key portions of his comments. A review of his full statement shows he said getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is a vital step in hurricane preparedness, necessary to protect people should they have to evacuate or stay in shelters. Biden spoke on Aug. 10 before a White House briefing by FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell, representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and COVID-⁠19 response teams. The briefing was in anticipation of what Biden called the peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic region. On Tuesday, an Instagram user shared a clip of Biden's comments in which he says, “Let me be clear: If you’re in a state where hurricanes often strike — like Florida or the Gulf Coast or into Texas — a vital part of preparing for hurricane season is to get vaccinated now.” The video then cuts to insulting comments from the movie “Billy Madison.” Underneath the video, text was also added. “Get vaccinated to protect yourselves from hurricanes y’all,” the post said, adding a laughing emoji. But the caption mischaracterizes Biden’s comments, which looked at the importance of vaccines in reducing risks in the event of a natural disaster. He highlighted how crises can compound one another as the Delta variant spreads, with wildfires in the West and peak Atlantic hurricane season approaching. “Everything is more complicated if you’re not vaccinated and a hurricane or a natural disaster hits,” Biden said after encouraging individuals to get vaccinated. “If you wind up having to evacuate, if you wind up having to stay in a shelter, you don’t want to add COVID-19 to the list of dangers that you’re going to be confronting.”

— Associated Press writer Terrence Fraser in New York contributed this report.


Fake news report makes false claim about Taliban edict

CLAIM: A CNN article reports that the Taliban banned menstrual hygiene products in Afghanistan, saying it goes against Sharia law.

THE FACTS: The article, which was made to look like it was published by CNN, is fabricated. CNN did not publish such a story and no credible reports can be found to support any such action by the Taliban. “Taliban bans sanitory napkins in Afghanistan, says it’s not a Sharia complaint practice,” says the falsified post, which has multiple spelling errors. A closer look at the post shows that the CNN logo was flipped and the font does not match the cable news network’s logo. The post also features a photo that has been circulating online since at least 2015, showing a person standing in front of a shelf full of menstrual hygiene products. A spokesperson for CNN confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that the post was bogus. AP reporters in Afghanistan found no evidence of any such Taliban edict.

— Associated Press writer Arijeta Lajka in New York contributed this report.


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