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

Social media users shared a range of false claims this week

The Associated Press
Friday 17 February 2023 15:39 GMT

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:

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Posts misuse Ohio River map to distort contamination area

CLAIM: Everyone living in the Ohio River basin, as shown in the yellow area of a map, should be concerned about the safety of their drinking water after the derailment of a train in East Palestine, Ohio, contaminated the river.

THE FACTS: The map shows the region of land whose surface water drains into the Ohio River, not the region that gets its drinking water from the river. A Feb. 3 train derailment in Ohio, and the decision to intentionally release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five of its cars to avoid an uncontrolled explosion, have sparked worries in local residents over whether their air and drinking water are safe. They’ve also generated a number of misleading and hyperbolic online claims about the degree to which the Ohio River and its surrounding states are affected. Social media posts with tens of thousands of shares this week used a map of the Ohio River drainage basin, which touches parts of 14 states, to falsely claim that the entire region needed to be concerned about contaminants that had been detected in the river after the derailment. Ohio officials in a news conference Tuesday did urge people in the East Palestine community to drink bottled water, especially if they use a private water source, until their water source can be tested. However, officials said, areas in Central Ohio were unlikely to be impacted. And water quality experts say the idea that the entire Ohio River basin needs to worry about its drinking water is wrong. The concentration of butyl acrylate, the only contaminant of concern that has been detected in the Ohio River, is much lower than the threshold considered hazardous, according to Patrick Ray, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Cincinnati. That concentration will continue to decrease as it moves downstream, Ray said. It’s likely to be nearly undetectable when it reaches Cincinnati, he added. The Ohio EPA agreed that the contaminant amounts found so far don’t pose a risk for cities that rely on the river for its drinking water. What’s more, the use of a map of the entire Ohio River basin to suggest all areas are affected is misleading, according to Ray and Paul Ziemkiewicz, the director of the West Virginia University Water Research Institute. “Indeed, last time I checked water still flows downhill,” Ziemkiewicz said. “So, only water supplies downstream and within the Ohio River’s pool elevations would be potentially affected.” The Ohio River valley is the lowest point of the region pictured in the map, Ray explained. As a result, areas whose water flows downhill into the river, such as Kentucky, wouldn’t be affected by its contamination. Many areas pictured in the map also get their water from sources besides the Ohio River, he said. “This map is showing an extremely large region that includes many, many counties that have nothing to do with the Ohio River at all,” Ray said. The map’s creator, Karl Musser, confirmed to the AP in an email that it showed the Ohio River drainage basin, not areas that get their drinking water from the river. Even as the state EPA says cities that rely on Ohio River drinking water are not at risk, some water companies have shut off their intakes or increased treatment processes as a precaution, the AP has reported.

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report.

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Oregon cloud video misrepresented as Ohio derailment aftermath

CLAIM: A video of a purple cloud looming over a street as a car drives underneath shows East Palestine, Ohio, after a recent freight train derailment and intentional burning of some of the hazardous chemicals on board.

THE FACTS: The video was filmed in Portland, Oregon, and appeared online months before the February 2023 derailment. Local weather experts said that it resembled clouds they had seen before in Oregon, and that they could have been associated with a thunderstorm. Days after the train came off the tracks on Feb. 3 in the community near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line, officials opted to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five of its rail cars, sending plumes of black smoke into the sky. While plenty of real photos and videos captured the sight, the video of a large, dark purple cloud overwhelming a dim blue and pink sky above an outdoor shopping center was filmed in Oregon, not Ohio. A reverse image search traced the video back to a TikTok user who posted it twice, first in November 2022. In a February video on her page, she explains that she filmed the clip herself in Jantzen Beach, Portland and that it is “several months old.” The video was filmed from North Tomahawk Island Drive at the Jantzen Beach Center shopping mall, a geolocation search confirms. The video captures a crosswalk and the hardware store Home Depot, which can also be seen on Google Street View. Meteorologists in Oregon said it looked like clouds they had seen in the state before. Larry O’Neill, associate professor and director of Oregon Climate Services at Oregon State University, said the cloud could have been associated with a thunderstorm, or could be a deck of altostratus clouds, a type of middle-altitude cloud that often takes up the whole sky. “Near sunrise or sunset, they can look dramatic from the lighting even though they are completely innocuous clouds,” he said. The East Palestine train derailment and burn did result in large plumes of smoke and released some hazardous gases into the surrounding air. Environmental officials said monitors detected toxins in the air at the site during the burn and that officials kept people away until that dissipated. They say continuing air monitoring done for the railroad and by government agencies — including testing inside nearly 400 homes — hasn’t detected dangerous levels in the area since residents were allowed to return.

— Associated Press writers Ali Swenson and Arijeta Lajka in New York contributed this report.

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Posts misidentify Michigan State gunman amid shooting

CLAIM: A photo shows 21-year-old Lynn Dee Walker, the suspect in the Michigan State University shooting.

THE FACTS: The person in the image is not the gunman and has no connection to the shooting. Authorities have confirmed that the gunman who killed three students and wounded five before fatally shooting himself was 43-year-old Anthony McRae. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Monday night, some social media users shared an image of a man unrelated to the fatal shooting at the university and falsely identified him as the suspected gunman. “#BREAKING: Michigan State University SHOOTING SUSPECT is 21 year old ‘Lynn Dee Walker’ according to dispatch audio. He is still on the loose and considered armed and dangerous,” wrote one Twitter user shortly after news of the shooting broke. The post included two images of a man with brown hair, a beard and glasses. However, the person identified in the post is not the gunman, nor is his name Lynn Dee Walker, a moniker derived from an internet meme. The photo actually shows a writer based in Massachusetts who identified himself as Cameron Fuller in a phone interview with the AP. He said his image was being shared with the false claims. Fuller posted one of the photos of himself on his Twitter account on Oct. 3, 2020. Fuller said he’s been the target of false claims and attempts to reveal his personal information before because of his online presence and political ideology. The actual gunman was identified on Tuesday as McRae, a Lansing man who had a previous gun violation. He fatally shot himself after an hourslong manhunt. Investigators were still trying to determine a motive as of Friday.

— Associated Press writers Graph Massara in San Francisco and Sophia Tulp in New York contributed this report.

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Video recycles dubious statistics about lawmakers’ crimes

CLAIM: Statistics show that among members of Congress, 117 have bankrupted at least two businesses, 71 can’t receive credit cards due to bad credit and, in the last year, 84 have been arrested for drunk driving.

THE FACTS: Those purported statistics have circulated via email and social media posts for years, but are not backed by evidence. In a TikTok video viewed by millions and also shared on Instagram, a 2012 video clip shows Mark Bailey, now chancellor of the Dallas Theological Seminary, relaying a text from a son and asking whether the statistics are “NBA or NFL?” “Thirty-six have been accused of spousal abuse. Seven have been arrested for fraud. Nineteen have been accused of writing bad checks,” he says. “One-hundred seventeen have directly or indirectly been bankrupted at least two businesses. Three have done time for assault. Seventy-one, I repeat 71, cannot get a credit card due to their bad credit. Fourteen have been arrested on drug-related charges. Eight have been arrested for shoplifting. Twenty-one currently are defendants in lawsuits and 84 have been arrested for drunk driving in the last year.” Bailey adds: “How many of you think NBA? How many of you think NFL? Well the answer is neither. It’s the 435 members of the United States Congress.” But there is no factual support for those statistics, which have been routinely recycled in emails and social media posts for years — long before Bailey rattled them off in 2012. The purported numbers are largely lifted from a political blog post, whose author isn’t named, that was published in 1999. That post claimed to have scoured public records, media reports and court records, but it offered no specific sources for the information and didn’t offer details about the lawmakers supposedly accused of each crime. Experts contacted by the AP said they were unaware of any sources or databases that track crimes among members of Congress in such a way. “In general, I’ve never heard of such a list and doubt that one exists,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist and professor in Dartmouth College’s Department of Government. Bailey told the AP in an email that he was surprised to learn that people were circulating the video of him speaking in 2012 and reiterated that he was reading from a piece that a son passed along to him. “I haven’t used the piece since and with the information you sent – I wouldn’t unless I could fact check it,” he said.

— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in New York contributed this report with additional reporting from Arijeta Lajka.

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