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

Social media users shared a range of false claims this week

Melissa Goldin
Friday 19 January 2024 16:50 GMT

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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.


A panel of healthcare experts discussed ‘Disease X’ at Davos. But it’s only a hypothetical illness

CLAIM: A deadly contagion known as Disease X is emerging and under discussion at the World Economic Forum’s 2024 annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

THE FACTS: Disease X is not real. It is the name given to a hypothetical pathogen that is being used to help plan for future health crises. Global healthcare experts this week spoke on a WEF panel called “Preparing for Disease X.” The name was coined by the World Health Organization in 2018. In the days leading up to Wednesday’s panel on the topic, social media users began sharing a range of posts misrepresenting Disease X as real, and portraying it as an imminent threat to society. “Disease X is the mystery contagion that the World Economic Forum is having a meeting about TODAY!” reads one Instagram post that had received more than 2,000 likes as of Thursday before it was deleted. “Apparently it ‘could have 20 times more fatalities than COVID.’ Remember… they always tell us what’s coming.” But Disease X is not an actual illness. The WHO introduced the concept as part of its 2018 list of diseases that pose the greatest public health risk. The information helps guide global research and development in areas such as vaccines, tests and treatments. Disease X represents a hypothetical pathogen that could one day cause an epidemic or pandemic, according to a 2022 announcement about the WHO’s intent to update its list. An initial version of the list, which did not include Disease X, was published in 2017 and another update is planned for the first half of 2024. Actual diseases on the current list include COVID-19, Zika, Ebola and SARS, among others. “Targeting priority pathogens and virus families for research and development of countermeasures is essential for a fast and effective epidemic and pandemic response,” Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said in the 2022 press release. Asked for comment on false claims about Disease X, the WHO sent The Associated Press an updated copy of the release, which was nearly identical to the one from 2022. The Davos panel discussing Disease X on Wednesday featured global healthcare leaders, including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; Nísia Trindade, Brazil’s minister of health; and Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association.


Migrants in NYC were temporarily housed in a local school during a storm. The school has not shut down

CLAIM: A New York City high school was shut down to house migrants who entered the U.S. illegally.

THE FACTS: News that migrants living in a temporary shelter at Floyd Bennett Field, a former airport, would wait out out a storm at James Madison High School led to false claims on social media that the move would be long term. Nearly 2,000 migrants housed in tents at the Brooklyn shelter were moved temporarily to the high school in the borough’s Midwood neighborhood on the evening of Jan. 9. All of the migrants had left the school by early the next morning. Classes were held remotely on Jan. 10 and resumed in person the next day. “(Heart)BREAKING: New York has shut down a highschool so that it can become a shelter for illegal aliens,” reads one post on X, formerly Twitter. But the move was temporary, the migrants were at James Madison High School for less than 12 hours. “To be clear, this relocation is a proactive measure being taken out of an abundance of caution to ensure the safety and well-being of individuals working and living at the center,” Kayla Mamelak, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Eric Adams, said in a statement on Jan. 9, referencing the Floyd Bennett Field shelter. “The relocation will continue until any weather conditions that may arise have stabilized and the facility is once again fit for living.” Aries Dela Cruz, a spokesperson for the New York City Office of Emergency Management, told The Associated Press that migrants began loading onto buses at Floyd Bennett Field at about 4:50 p.m. on Jan. 9 and arrived at the school starting about 5:30 p.m. The last buses arrived about 8 p.m. Some families arrived on their own after hearing about the relocation. The agency wrote on X that the migrants had all returned to Floyd Bennett Field by 4:27 a.m. on Wednesday, after winds had subsided. Fabien Levy, another Adams spokesperson, wrote on X Wednesday that “as the rain died down early this AM, we were able to move all the migrants out of James Madison High School by 4:15 this morning, and all headed back to Floyd Bennett Field.” James Madison High School wrote in a Facebook post late Tuesday that all classes would be remote the next day. Regular in-person instruction resumed the next day. The decision to house migrants at James Madison High School led to widespread anger, including a protest outside the school and a bomb threat directed at the institution. But Adams stressed at a press conference on Jan. 10 that using schools in emergency situations was nothing new.


Starbucks’ watermelon mug was part of its UK summer collection, not a show of support for Palestinians

CLAIM: Starbucks has begun selling a watermelon mug to signal its support for Palestinians amid the Israel-Hamas war and appease those boycotting the chain.

THE FACTS: The mug was part of Starbucks’ U.K. summer collection, which launched in May 2023, months before the conflict broke out, a company spokesperson told The Associated Press. Starbucks, as well as many customers, featured the mug in socialmediaposts around that time. While fighting continues in the third month of the Israel-Hamas war, some on social media are falsely claiming that Starbucks is selling the watermelon mug to mitigate damage caused by a boycott of the company over the conflict. Posts spreading online include photos and videos of the mug, which features a watermelon design on each side — green on the bottom with a white stripe through the middle and red with black seeds near the rim. “it’s giving ‘we’re so sorry pls come’,” reads one post on X, formerly Twitter, that had received approximately 58,000 likes and more than 18,600 shares as of Friday. “y’all ain’t fooling us. we still boycotting.” But the mug has nothing to do with the Israel-Hamas war and was launched months before the fighting began, according to Jaci Anderson, a Starbucks spokesperson. Any stores still selling the product would simply have leftover stock from its May 2023 release, Anderson said. The mug can be seen in social media posts from around the time it became available for purchase. A June 22 post on Starbucks’ U.K. Facebook page, for example, shows the mug as part of a beach picnic. Multiple TikTok users postedvideos, starting in May, that showed the watermelon mug among the company’s other summer merchandise. Colors found in a slice of watermelon, the green and white rind, red pulp and black seeds, also appear in the Palestinian flag. For years watermelon has been used as a sign of defiance against Israeli actions. Watermelon imagery has more recently become a symbol of solidarity in protests against the Israel-Hamas war, particularly where displaying the flag has been banned. In October, Starbucks sued Workers United — the union organizing its employees — over a pro-Palestinian message on social media that used Starbucks’ name and a circular green logo resembling that of the coffee chain, saying that customers might be confused about its origin. The lawsuit was refiled in November, adding language about workers’ rights to express political views and emphasizing a desire to protect worker safety and Starbucks’ reputation. Starbucks has not taken an official stance on the conflict, but those boycotting the chain have said they see this as a failure to offer more support to the people of Gaza. The company says of its position on the war: “ Starbucks stands for humanity. We condemn violence, the loss of innocent life and weaponized speech. Despite false statements spread through social media, we have no political agenda.”


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