Not real news: Looking at the ‘news’ that didn’t actually happen this week, despite what you may have read

Published 5:10 pm Friday, June 12, 2020

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:


CLAIM: Photo shows the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., vandalized, the statue of Abraham Lincoln covered in graffiti and “BLACK + BROWN LIVES MATTER” written on the wall.

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THE FACTS: The Lincoln statue and surrounding monument were not vandalized during recent protests, according to a spokesman for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, although some graffiti was left at the steps leading up to the monument. Altered photos showing the monument honoring former President Abraham Lincoln damaged and covered in spray paint began circulating following protests for George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes as he begged for air. “The media is trying to hide this picture from you,” an Instagram post sharing one manipulated photo said. “Democrats are saying riots and lawlessness is necessary for change.” Mike Litterst, chief of communications for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said in an email that the photo circulating online was a hoax. “The only vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial was graffiti at the bottom of the steps at street level, far away from the statue,” he said, adding it had been removed already. The National Mall National Park Service tweeted numerous instances of vandalism to its sites on May 31. One of the photos in the tweet featured showed the steps near the Lincoln Memorial spray painted with the words “y’all not tired yet?” “For generations the Mall has been our nation’s premier civic gathering space for non-violent demonstrations, and we ask individuals to carry on that tradition,” the tweet said. The Associated Press has taken several photos showing both National Park Service police officers and National Guard members watching over the Lincoln statue as protesters demonstrate on the National Mall in front of the memorial. In the photos taken on June 6 and June 7, the Lincoln statue shows no signs of vandalism.


CLAIM: Hitler also defunded the police and installed his own enforcers.

THE FACTS: Nazi leader Adolf Hitler did not defund the police. In fact, the opposite is true. “Let’s just say the Nazis did everything BUT defund the police,” said Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, a historian and history professor at Fairfield University, noting that Nazis made the police one of the chief recipients of state financial support aside from military spending. The claim began circulating as protesters around the nation called for defunding the police in response to police brutality. The Nazis expanded funding for police, the number of officers and their powers, said Christopher Browning, a Holocaust scholar and retired University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor. “Hitler did not disband or defund the police,” he said in an email. “The Fire Decrees of February 1933 gave the Nazis the power to take over all state governments, which meant also the power to take over each state police.” The false claim comes after protesters around the nation have called to defund the police following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against his neck for minutes as he struggled to breathe. One post with the false claim suggesting that Hitler defunded police was liked more than 32,000 times on Twitter.


CLAIM: National Public Radio wants people to burn books written by white people.

THE FACTS: On Tuesday, the conservative news website Trending Right Wing published a story with a misleading headline: “NPR Wants People to Burn Books Written By ’White People.” “National Public Radio wants everyone to burn every book they own written by ‘white people,’” the June 9 story said. “Anyone who reads John Grisham or Danielle Steel is a slave whipping plantation owner in disguise.” A subheadline later in the piece read, “Liberals want to burn it all.” The piece, which accumulated more than 230,000 Facebook views in two days, refers to an NPR story published on June 6, titled “Your Bookshelf May Be Part of the Problem.” But the NPR story says nothing about book burning. Instead, it implores white people to examine their bookshelves and see if they are only reading authors that look like them. The story then suggests people expand their reading lists to include more diverse authors and viewpoints. “Reading broadly and with intention is how we counter dehumanization and demand visibility, effectively bridging the gap between what we read and how we might live in a more just and equitable society,” it reads. Trending Right Wing defended its story, telling the AP in an email that the article “caricatures” the NPR piece. “The article makes it quite clear that the ‘burning’ is not literal,” said Christopher Dorsano, a spokesperson for Trending Right Wing. NPR Executive Director of Media Relations Isabel Lara also provided a statement, saying, “NPR stands by this piece which encourages people to read more and from a variety of sources, rather than less.”


CLAIM: A tweet from the Obama Foundation featuring a picture of George Floyd went out on May 17, more than a week before his death, suggesting the nonprofit was aware of Floyd well before he died.

THE FACTS: The Obama Foundation’s website simply updated its Twitter card image after Floyd’s death, which changed the preview image for the site when it’s linked to on Twitter. That retroactively changed the image appearing on previous tweets pointing to the site. About two weeks after Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, social media users noticed something curious: A tweet from the Obama Foundation on May 17 displayed a picture of a George Floyd poster. “Did you tune in to @BarackObama’s commencement message last night?” the tweet read. “Here are a few of our favorite watch parties.” Along with the message, it linked to the Obama Foundation’s website. The link displayed an image of a protester holding a Floyd poster with the words “This is America.” Posts about the tweet circulated widely on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube over the weekend. Social media users speculated that it proved the nonprofit knew something about George Floyd several days before he died. “How Did the Obama Foundation Tweet a George Floyd Poster on May 17, when he wasn’t Killed until May 25?” read a headline from the Hal Turner Radio Show, a conservative talk show in New Jersey. The story racked up nearly 200,000 views on Facebook over the weekend. But a peek into the code behind the Obama Foundation’s website reveals that the image that originally displayed with the tweet is different than the image that displays now. Any website can designate a Twitter card image to appear in tweets that link to that site. On May 17, tweets pointing to the Obama Foundation site featured a picture of President Barack Obama in graduation robes. On June 8, they featured a picture of a George Floyd poster. On Twitter, when a website updates the image that’s designated to appear in tweets, the image will update on existing tweets that link to that site, in addition to newly created tweets. A version of the site that was archived on May 17 contained code showing that, at the time, the graduation photo of Obama was designated as the image to appear in tweets. There is no evidence that the foundation was aware of Floyd in any capacity before his death.


CLAIM: Video shows “rioters destroying children’s hospital in Houston.”

THE FACTS: The video does not show people destroying the children’s hospital, according to a spokeswoman with Texas Children’s Hospital. The video was filmed in downtown Houston on May 29. On June 4, the video was posted on YouTube with a description claiming that “rioters” attacked a children’s hospital in Houston. The video then circulated on Twitter and Facebook on June 6. The video captures a crowd outside a large building in downtown Houston. At one point, some people throw objects at the building’s windows. “RIOTERS DESTROYING CHILDRENS HOSPITAL IN HOUSTON,” one Twitter post falsely stated. The video was viewed more than 300,000 times. The video was then shared to Facebook that same day with those false claims. The Texas Children’s Hospital is not located in that area. A geolocation search confirms that the video shows a building near the intersection of Walker and Austin streets. There are parking garages and offices in the area. While there are other children’s hospitals in Houston, the closest one is nearly four miles away from where the unrest was captured on video. “The location in this video is not Texas Children’s Hospital. We have not experienced any damage to our hospital as a result of the protests against the death of George Floyd and the injustices our communities of color continue to experience,” a spokeswoman with Texas Children’s Hospital confirmed to the AP. A spokesperson with Houston police confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday that the incident from the video occurred on May 29. According to a spokesperson, there are no specifics yet on property damage, and the incident may have been related to the protests going on downtown. Thousands rallied in Houston for George Floyd; the unarmed black man killed after being restrained with a knee on his neck by a white police officer. Floyd grew up in Houston.


CLAIM: Photo shows antifa member who was tackled by Trump supporters then duct taped to an electrical box.

THE FACTS: The photo actually shows a work by street artist Rallitox, from the 2015-2016 participatory art series “Human Stickers,” in Berlin. A photo circulated on Facebook showing a man duct-taped to an electrical box with “I’m a unicorn” written on him. “Trump supporters tackled an antifa thug, unmasked him, duct taped him to an electrical box, placed a dildo on his head & wrote ’I’m a unicorn on him…,” a Facebook post published on June 10 falsely claimed. The post had over 1,400 shares. The post featured a screenshot from a now suspended Twitter parody account titled “Fifth Avenue Antifa.” The screenshot of the tweet states: “How can we let Nazis do this to our comrades.” The tweet from the antifa — short for anti-fascist — parody page has been circulating since at least 2017. According to the Rallitox website, the creation was, in fact, part of the “human stickers” series. “Rallitox’s latest sociological experiment in Warschauer strasse, Berlin, is to transform a friend into a sticker — or rather — to stick a friend to a wall with duct tape,” the website states. The making of the project was filmed and published to Rallitox’s Instagram account on March 31, 2016.


CLAIM: When Minneapolis residents call 911 they are now told there are “no officers available” due to the defunding of the police department after protests in the city against police brutality.

THE FACTS: The 911 center is still operating and accepting phone calls, a spokesperson for Minneapolis Police Department confirmed to The Associated Press. Hours after a majority of members on Minneapolis City Council said Sunday that they support disbanding the city’s police department, a false video was posted to Tik Tok claiming to show the automated response that residents get when they call 911. On the video recording, a man says that “there are no officers available” to respond to calls because the police department has been defunded as a result of protests against police brutality. “Minneapolis now that they are dismantling the police department,” text over the video says. The Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center “is open and handling 911 calls,” Minneapolis Police Department spokesman John Elder told the AP in a text message. The TikTok user who posted the video acknowledged in the comments section that the video is a “joke,” but several users appear to believe the recording is real. “Unreal!” one TikTok user wrote. “I’m speechless,” wrote another.


CLAIM: Gen. Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate States Army in the Civil War, “opposed both secession and slavery.” He did not own slaves.

THE FACTS: According to historians, not only did Lee own slaves, but he also fought in court to keep them. Claims casting Lee as an anti-slavery figure are tied to a false narrative known as the Lost Cause, which says the Confederate experience in the Civil War was not about slavery, but states’ rights. As protests following the death of George Floyd led to reexamination of historical injustices and demands that monuments celebrating the Confederacy be taken down, false posts emerged on Facebook claiming that Lee “opposed both slavery and secession.” The false post was shared tens of thousands of times. “Between owning a handful of slaves from his own family and then managing his father-in-law’s 200 slaves, Lee was very, very involved with slavery during his life up until the end of 1862,” said John Reeves, a historian and author of the book, “The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon.” Reeves explained that Lee worked the slaves for about five years in order to pay off legacies associated with his father-in-law’s estate. “He was utilizing the slave labor in order to pay the legacies,” Reeves explained. Lee fought in court to keep the slaves working because he didn’t know if he would be able to pay off his legacies. Wesley Norris was born a slave on the plantation that Lee managed after his father-in-law died. Norris testified during the court fight that Lee beat him when he tried to run away. “Every one of the facts in Wesley Norris’ account has been shown to be true,” Reeves noted. The Lost Cause ideology imagines Lee as a gifted military general who was fighting not for slavery but for states’ rights.