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

Published 1:45 pm Friday, November 20, 2020

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The Associated Press

A look at false and misleading claims and videos circulating after the presidential election and news about COVID-19 vaccines. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:

Officials debunk multiple claims of dead people voting in Georgia

CLAIM: The identities of deceased Georgia residents Linda Kesler, Deborah Jean Christiansen and James Blalock were used to illegally cast ballots in the 2020 election.

THE FACTS: No one voted using the identities of these deceased individuals, according to election officials in their respective counties. The rumors started on Nov. 11, when President Donald Trump’s campaign published a press release and posted their obituaries on its Facebook page.

“Mr. James Blalock of Covington, Georgia, a World War II veteran, voted in the election,” read one of the posts. “The only problem? He passed away 14 years ago, in January 2006. Sadly, Mr. Blalock is a victim of voter fraud.”

Since then, the claims have racked up hundreds of thousands of interactions on Facebook. The obituaries were also picked up by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who devoted an entire segment to the fraud accusations. That broadcast was amplified by Trump, whose tweet sharing the video was retweeted more than 47,000 times.

Linda Kesler, a resident of Nicholson, who died in 2003, is listed as deceased in county voting records and didn’t vote this year, Jackson County election officials told The Associated Press. Lynda Kesler, who has a similar name but a different address, birthday and zip code, did vote, they said.

Deborah Jean Christiansen, a Roswell resident who died in 2019, cast her last vote in 2018, according to Fulton County election officials. Her voter registration was canceled in 2019 and the county did not mail her a ballot for the Nov. 3 election, they said. A different woman also named Deborah Jean Christiansen, who was born in the same year, did vote in Cobb County in 2020, according to county Elections Director Janine Eveler. However, that woman has a different birthday and social security number, Eveler said.

James Blalock, a resident of Covington, who died in 2006, was purged from the Secretary of State database that year and did not cast a vote in the 2020 election, Newton County election officials said in a statement.

“His widow, Mrs. James E. Blalock Jr. has always voted under that name and continued to do so through this year’s election,” the statement read.

Carlson issued an on-air correction and apology on his Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight for falsely claiming Blalock voted.

“We’ve got some good news tonight, and an apology: One of the people who voted in last week’s election isn’t dead,” he said on Nov. 13. He later broadened his apology without specifying names, saying, “some of the specific dead voters reported to us as deceased are in fact alive.”

A potential ballot cast in the name of Edward Skwiot, a fourth deceased individual identified by the Trump campaign, remains under investigation as local authorities try to determine what happened. A spokesman for the Georgia Secretary of State told the AP he couldn’t comment on the active investigation.

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in Seattle contributed this item.

Fabricated tale claims ballot fraud by Philadelphia mob boss

CLAIM: The campaign for President-elect Joe Biden paid Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, a mob boss in Philadelphia, to fill out 300,000 blank ballots.

THE FACTS: A video with over 180,000 views on Facebook claims in its caption, “Reports are coming in that the MOB in PA was HIRED by the Biden team to crate fake ballots by the thousands!”

The claim originated with a Nov. 14 article published by the Buffalo Chronicle, which has a history of publishing false stories, according to an analysis by NewsGuard, a company that rates the trustworthiness of news sites.

The Buffalo Chronicle story relies on anonymous sources to claim Merlino and his associates filled out the ballots with Sharpie markers and were paid $3 million in cash by political operatives. It suggests, without providing evidence, that “Democratic Party operatives working inside Philadelphia’s election office” gave Merlino “crates of raw ballots” which he took to two houses in South Philadelphia so they could be filled out for Biden, then transported them to a backroom at the Philadelphia Convention Center. John Meringolo, Merlino’s attorney, called the claims “fiction.”

The New York lawyer told The Associated Press “we categorically deny everything,” and added that the account can be debunked by the fact that his client is not allowed to leave Florida where he is under supervised release after leaving federal prison. Merlino pleaded guilty to a gambling charge in 2018 after a jury deadlocked in a criminal case that accused him of racketeering and fraud charges.

Jane Roh, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office wrote in an email to the AP, “Nothing fitting the description of what is being alleged here has been reported to the District Attorney’s Office Election Task Force for criminal investigation.”

Roh noted that the Buffalo Chronicle “has an established history of publishing disinformation” and the article in question “appears to be false.” The news site did not respond to a request for comment. Election experts told the AP a voter fraud scheme like the one alleged in the article would be impossible to pull off.

Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that if this claim had actually happened, there would be 300,000 more ballots cast and counted than voters who checked in to vote or cast an absentee ballot.

“That’s obviously false and would be easy to catch during the canvass,” Weil said. Voters who show up to vote in-person in Philadelphia use a ballot marking device to mark their paper ballots, and Weil pointed out, “300,000 ballots made in two private homes and then infiltrated into the system would not look like these.” If the alleged fraud scheme involved fabricating mailed ballots, Weil said the scheme would also require “the outer envelope, internal privacy sleeve, and a voter’s signature.”

Even if it were possible to somehow fabricate ballots — which experts say it is not — University of Pennsylvania political scientist Marc Meredith told the AP, “there are a lot of safeguards” that would prevent such a fraud scheme from going unnoticed by him and others who analyze election data.

“A scheme like you describe would have to leave a paper trail that is clearly not present in the data,” Meredith said.

— Associated Press writers Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix and Marco Martínez Chacón in Mexico City contributed this item.

More votes were not cast in Detroit in 2020 than there are people

CLAIM: There are “far more votes” in Detroit than people.

THE FACTS: According to unofficial election results on the City of Detroit’s website, on Nov. 5, there were 250,138 votes cast and 504,714 registered voters. Detroit has an estimated population of 670,000.

False claims swirled after the Wayne County Board of Canvassers met to certify election results showing Democrat Joe Biden defeating President Donald Trump. One Twitter user posted on Tuesday: “How did Wayne County of Detroit, Michigan have more votes than people registered to vote?”

President Donald Trump also tweeted the false claim about Detroit, while falsely stating he won the state of Michigan: “In Detroit, there are FAR MORE VOTES THAN PEOPLE. Nothing can be done to cure that giant scam. I win Michigan!”

The issue appeared to grow from a deadlock down party lines that occurred as the four members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers met to certify election results Tuesday night. Monica Palmer, one of the two Republicans on the board of canvassers, said poll books in some Detroit precincts were out of balance, meaning the number of names recorded in poll books did not match the number of ballots counted.

She and the other Republican board member initially cited the discrepancies as a reason not to certify Detroit’s election results — which Democrats, election experts and spectators at the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting condemned as a dangerous attempt to block the results of a free and fair election. According to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, only 357 votes out of 250,000 votes cast appeared to be out of balance.

“The idea that the out of balance precincts reflects any problem with the voting is utter nonsense,” Duggan said in a press conference Wednesday. “It is not any indication of any kind of fraud in the voting process.”

It is not uncommon for there to be slight inconsistencies between the number of ballots and the number of voter names in a poll book. Typically these issues are due to human error, according to Tammy Patrick, a former Arizona election official who now works for the Democracy Fund, a foundation that works on voting issues.

“That’s not a sign that there’s anything necessarily wrong with the system,” Patrick explained in a call with the AP. “It’s just a sign that elections are conducted by people and for people, and so that kind of interaction with the system is where you can have discrepancies occur.”

In the 2016 presidential election, some Detroit precincts were out of balance, and a Michigan Bureau of Elections audit attributed the discrepancies to human errors, not voter fraud.

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

Debunked theory used to claim Trump won 410 electoral votes

CLAIM: An image of a map showing President Donald Trump actually won 410 electoral votes reflects election data from a server the U.S. Army seized from the election software company Scytl in Frankfurt, Germany.

THE FACTS: Social media users have been sharing false reports claiming a server with U.S. election data was confiscated in Germany. Most posts said the server belonged to the software company Scytl, which is based in Barcelona, and some suggested the server housed information from Dominion Voting Systems.

Social media posts also claimed the recovered server had raw data showing Trump had actually won the election with 410 electoral votes, including a tweet from Manga Anantatmula, a Republican congressional candidate in Virginia who lost her race by a 43-point margin. “The raw data in the server seized by the US military shows Trump won by a landslide 410!!!!” reads Anantatmula’s tweet. “VOID all results in landslide states and declare the R-candidates winners!!”

One America News Network reported on Anantatmula’s tweet, as well as an image she tweeted of a mostly red map with electoral votes adding up to 410 for Trump, and just 128 for President-elect Joe Biden. But the map in question does not show official data. It has the logo “270 TO WIN” and can be made by anyone using the website.

The Associated Press reached out to Anantatmula for comment but did not hear back.

The false claims followed a Zoom call last week that featured Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, suggesting that election software company Scytl maintained data that could be “gleaned” to prove Republican votes had been switched to Democratic ones in the Nov. 3 election, and that “U.S. Army forces” had seized a Scytl server from the company’s Frankfurt office.

In his remarks, which were widely shared on social media, Gohmert acknowledged that the information about the alleged raid came from a tweet and he said, “I don’t know the truth.” The Associated Press reached out to Gohmert’s spokesperson but did not hear back.

When asked by The Associated Press if the Army had engaged in an operation to recover servers in Germany, an Army spokesperson responded Saturday, “Those allegations are false.” As the false conspiracy spread, Scytl released a statement that said: “We do not have servers or offices in Frankfurt” and “The US army has not seized anything from Scytl in Barcelona, Frankfurt or anywhere else.”

It also said Scytl does not “tabulate, tally or count votes in the US.” Jonathan Brill, the president and general manager for Scytl’s U.S. division, told the AP the company had temporary backup servers in Frankfurt last year for the European Parliament election, but “these back-up servers were closed in September 2019.” Brill said when it comes to the U.S. elections, “Scytl products sold to US customers are fully housed in the US, utilizing Amazon Web Services and have never been housed in Germany.”

Scytl and Dominion do not have ties to one another, according to statements from both companies.

— Jude Joffe-Block

Lung tissue from aborted fetus not used in AstraZeneca vaccine development

CLAIM: Researchers used lung tissue from an aborted male fetus in the creation of COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine.

THE FACTS: As news continues to break around the results of new COVID-19 vaccines, a widely shared video made false claims about the vaccine developed through a partnership between the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

The video, which had more than 160,000 views, falsely claimed: “CONFIRMED- aborted Male fetus in Covid 19 vaccine.” In the video, an unidentified woman shows the packaging from a box of AstraZeneca and Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine, and urges people to share the video with “anybody else that doesn’t want aborted fetal tissue fragments put into them.”

She then shows a preprint of a University of Bristol study that tested the vaccine on MRC-5 cell lines. She explains that the cell line was originally developed from an aborted male fetus.

“Is everybody OK with having that injected into themselves or their children?” the woman asks.

A spokesperson for AstraZeneca confirmed to the AP that the company does not use MRC-5 cells in the development of its vaccine. Researchers at the University of Bristol, who were independent from the vaccine’s development, injected the COVID-19 vaccine into MRC-5 cell lines as part of their own study.

MRC-5 cells are what is known as an immortalized cell line, which can reproduce indefinitely. Such cell lines are used in vaccine production to grow viruses in order to keep them from replicating.

The AstraZeneca and Oxford vaccine relies on a harmless chimpanzee cold virus to carry the coronavirus spike protein into the body in order to create an immune response. AstraZeneca did not use MRC-5 cells, but it did use a different producer cell line to develop it: Human Embryonic Kidney 293 TREX cells. According to the University of Oxford development team, the original Human Embryonic Kidney 293 cells were taken from the kidney of an aborted fetus in 1973, but the cells used now are clones of the original cells.

Dr. Deepak Srivastava, president of Gladstone Institutes and former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said fetal cell lines were critical in developing hepatitis, measles and chickenpox vaccines. “What’s important for the public to know even if they are opposed to the use of fetal cells for therapies, these medicines that are being made and vaccines do not contain any aspect of the cells in them,” Srivastava said. “The cells are used as factories for production.”

Misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines have public health experts concerned about the implications it could have on the adoption of the vaccine in the United States.

— Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed this item.

Thousands attended DC rally supporting Trump, not ‘1 million’

CLAIM: More than 1 million people took part in the “Million MAGA March” in Washington.

THE FACTS: On Nov. 14, fervent supporters of President Donald Trump gathered at Freedom Plaza along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to rally behind Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him.

Some social media users shared aerial images from the Washington march claiming that 1 million people had attended. That number is far off, a generous estimate would be between 11,000 and 15,000 participants, according to G. Keith Still, a professor who teaches crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England and trains police departments on techniques to calculate crowd sizes.

“73 million angry Trump voters. One million of them marched in DC today…” said one Twitter user who overstated the crowd size. The false post had over 6,000 retweets.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also tweeted the exaggerated numbers: “More than one MILLION marchers for President @realDonaldTrump descend on the swamp in support,” she tweeted on Nov. 14. The post had over 70,000 retweets.

The National Park Service in Washington issued a permit to Women for America First, a pro-Trump group that demonstrated on Saturday, for 10,000 people to attend the event at Freedom Plaza. The park service and Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department do not provide estimates on crowd size.

— Arijeta Lajka