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:


Conspiracy theorist spreads false information about the return of COVID-19 mandates

CLAIM: Transportation Security Administration managers were told on Aug. 15 that by mid-September they, along with airport employees, will again be required to wear face masks and by mid-October the policy will apply to travelers as well. Further, the managers were told that COVID-19 lockdowns will return by December.

THE FACTS: No such announcement was made to TSA managers, an agency spokesperson told the AP. A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued a now-expired travel mask mandate in 2021, also refuted the rumors. The claim originated on the Aug. 18 episode of “The Alex Jones Show,” where its namesake host said an anonymous “high-level manager in the TSA” and an unnamed “Border Patrol-connected” source told him about the alleged announcement. Jones is known for spreading conspiracy theories. A tweet with the video, which had more than 38,000 likes and 20,000 shares as of Friday, claimed the supposed announcement was “due to a new ‘dangerous variant’ out of Canada.” But TSA Press Secretary Robert Langston told the AP that managers at the agency did not receive any such instructions last week. Benjamin Haynes, a spokesperson for the CDC, confirmed that reports of upcoming lockdowns are “utterly false.” Neither Jones, nor a representative of his show, responded to a request for comment before publication. Two new COVID-19 variants — EG.5 and BA.2.86 — have recently emerged. As of Aug. 23, the latter had only been reported in Denmark, South Africa, Israel, the U.S. and the U.K, according to the CDC. Health Canada confirmed to the AP that as of Aug. 18, no cases had been detected in the country. Canada has seen a steady increase of EG.5 cases, but the World Health Organization reported in early August that its risk to global public health is low. In early 2021, the CDC issued an order requiring people to wear masks on public transportation, including airplanes, and in transportation hubs, that was implemented and enforced by the TSA. A federal judge in Florida struck down the mandate in April 2022, finding that the CDC failed to justify the order and that it did not follow proper rulemaking procedures. Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who also specializes in constitutional law, told the AP that the CDC could reissue the order, but he said it would likely be immediately challenged and struck down in a lower court, a decision which would probably then be upheld by the Supreme Court. The CDC has authorization from Congress to issue certain orders if they are necessary to prevent infectious diseases from spreading between states, he said. It can also make recommendations. But the agency has no enforcement power, leaving implementation and enforcement to the states, which is why pandemic-related restrictions varied across the U.S. “They don’t even have the power to do the kinds of things that are being suggested,” Gostin explained. Similar limits apply to the president and to Congress. Gostin said that if the president or Congress tried to institute a nationwide lockdown, “they’d be slapped down by the courts in a minute” because of restrictions on federal police power. While COVID-19 hospital admissions are rising — there were 12,613 for the week ending Aug. 12 — they are far lower than than past peaks, like the 44,000 weekly hospital admissions in early January, the nearly 45,000 in late July 2022, or the 150,000 admissions during the omicron surge of January 2022. Still, some schools and businesses are reinstating mask mandates and other restrictions. Leana Wen, a professor of public health at George Washington University, told the AP that the fact that COVID-19 has become an endemic virus is another reason future lockdowns or restrictions at any level of government are highly unlikely. An endemic virus is one that has a constant presence in a geographic area. “Eliminating it is not possible,” she said. “And so having measures that are aimed at a societal level, containment is not practical and won’t achieve the aim that we initially thought was possible in early 2020.”

— Associated Press writer Melissa Goldin in New York contributed this report.


Counties don’t decide presidential elections, contrary to misleading posts about 2020

CLAIM: Former President Donald Trump won 2,497 counties in 2020, far more than President Joe Biden’s 477 counties, suggesting Trump actually won the election.

THE FACTS: It is true that Trump won significantly more counties than Biden, but those numbers come from an analysis immediately following the election that was later slightly updated. Regardless, it doesn’t say anything about the outcome of the election. County victories don’t play a role in deciding the president and county populations vary widely. Biden won the popular vote and the Electoral College. Still, some are resurfacing a claim that Trump's win in many counties indicates he must have won. “Biden won 477 counties Trump won 2,497 counties,” reads a popular post on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, which had received more than 28,000 likes as of Friday. “Who do you think won the election? Something isn’t adding up.” The numbers cited were shared in the days immediately following the election in November 2020 and attributed in media reports to the Brookings Institution. The figures were later updated after the vote count was finalized to put Biden at 551 counties and Trump at 2,588 counties, Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings, said in an email. But it’s worth noting that not every state has county governments and how those numbers are reported can vary. AP Election Research team data shows Trump won 3,198 counties and New England townships, Biden won 1,380 and there were four ties. Moreover, “counties are an arbitrary geographic unit that has nothing to do with the number of votes that any person receives,” said Rachael Cobb, an associate professor of political science and legal studies at Suffolk University in Boston. “Counties don’t vote, people vote.” In U.S. presidential elections, each state holds a certain number of electoral votes and a candidate must obtain at least 270 votes in the Electoral College to win. In most states, the winner of the statewide popular vote gets all of the state’s electoral votes. Cobb noted that one county may have 100 voters and another could have 1,000 voters, so it’s the votes that matter — “not the geographic boundaries.” Indeed, counties range widely in terms of population size: Loving County, Texas, for example, has an estimated population of 52, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, Los Angeles County, California, has an estimated population of about 9.7 million. “Biden won the nation’s most important big, dense, populous counties while Trump won hundreds of sparsely populated small-town and rural counties that contained few voters,” Muro said. Biden won the election with more than 81 million votes and 306 electoral votes.

— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in New Jersey contributed this report.


Carbon dioxide helps plants grow. That doesn’t mean more of it is good for the planet

CLAIM: Carbon dioxide is good for crop growth, so efforts to remove it from the atmosphere will destroy the planet.

THE FACTS: Excess carbon dioxide does increase growth in some crops, but it also decreases their nutritional value and has other negative impacts on the planet, such as increasing droughts and fires through climate change. Overall, the negatives of more CO2 far outweigh any benefits, experts say. But a video circulating online is misrepresenting research around the issue in an attempt to discredit efforts to tackle rising carbon emissions. In the video, a narrator points to a 2022 story from NPR titled “Stopping climate change could mean sucking carbon from the air." He then shows a clip from a natural gas company that supplies supplementary carbon dioxide to greenhouses to help grow tomatoes and highlights a line from a study published by The Lancet in 2019, reading: “Higher CO2 concentrations increase photosynthesis in C3 plants (eg, wheat, rice, potatoes, barley), which can increase crop yields.” “So if we suck all the carbon out of the air, we’re almost going to destroy the planet. Because these plants need carbon dioxide in order to grow,” the narrator concludes. But experts — including the authors of the study cited — say this is a fallacy. For starters, scientists are not seeking to remove “all” CO2 from the air, just to bring it down to earlier levels and keep it from increasing so rapidly. “That will stabilize temperatures to historical norms which will be much more advantageous for crop growth than any CO2 fertilization effects," said Phil Robertson, an ecosystem science professor at Michigan State University. Additionally, the video misrepresents the benefits of increased carbon dioxide to some plants by ignoring the downsides. The key point of the Lancet study was that while a higher concentration of carbon dioxide did increase growth in 85% of plants, it ultimately lowered their nutritional value — which is not a worthwhile trade-off for the planet — said Kristie Ebi, a co-author of the study and a professor of global health at the University of Washington’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. “There’s about 830 million people in the world who are food insecure. There’s about 2 billion that are micronutrient deficient,” Ebi said. The clip of tomatoes being grown in a greenhouse in the video on social media is a controlled environment where temperature, water and nutrients are optimized for plant growth, but it’s more complicated in outside crop fields, experts explained. More importantly, the increasing amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being released by humans into the atmosphere has led to climate change, which has all sorts of other negative impacts on the planet that vastly outweigh any benefits from higher crop yields. “Heatwaves, droughts, forest fires as we see raging now, and all these other impacts associated with climate change would impact society much more than you would see benefits from slightly higher carbon now,” said Jonas Jagermeyr, an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research who also studies food security at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

— Associated Press writer Karena Phan in Los Angeles contributed this report.


No, a top FEMA official was not arrested for treason following the Maui fires. The claim is satire

CLAIM: Erik Hooks, the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been arrested in connection with the agency’s response to the Maui wildfires.

THE FACTS: A FEMA spokesperson told the AP that Hooks has not been arrested. The claim originated on a website that says it publishes “humor, parody, and satire” and has previously published similar false stories about supposed arrests of public officials. Many on social media are nevertheless quoting directly from an item posted on the website, Real Raw News, that falsely purports Hooks, who effectively serves as the agency’s chief operating officer, was arrested by the U.S. Marines at his home in Arlington, Virginia, on Saturday. The item goes on to say that an indictment alleges Hooks and Deanne Criswell, who serves as FEMA administrator, ordered agents in Maui to “deny fire victims food and water, to inhibit civilian relief efforts, to stop ‘by any means necessary’ displaced persons from exiting fire-ravaged Lahaina, and to dispose of bodies as ‘discriminately as possible’.” Jeremy Edwards, FEMA’s press secretary, said in an email Thursday that “Deputy Administrator Hooks is literally at FEMA Headquarters as we speak, and has been here all week, working with FEMA personnel and our interagency partners as we help the people of Maui recover, as well as respond to other events happening nationwide.” Edwards included a link to a recent FEMA tweet in which Hook is pictured at a meeting with other federal officials ahead of Tropical Storm Hilary earlier this week. Real Raw News frequently publishes fabricated stories about made-up arrests without any supporting evidence. The website’s “About Us” page even includes a disclaimer stating it’s content is for “informational and educational and entertainment” purposes and “contains humor, parody, and satire.” The website’s post about Hook’s supposed arrest also does not provide any credible evidence, citing only an anonymous “source in General Eric M. Smith’s office.” The site has similarly cited unnamed sources in the acting commandant’s office in prior false stories. Real Raw News, the Marines and the Department of Defense didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in New York contributed this report.


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