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

  • In this 2017 file photo, dairy cattle feed at a farm near Vado, N.M. On Friday, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming under the proposed infrastructure bill, farmers will be taxed for each cow, including $6,500 a year for dairy cows. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)

Aroundup 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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CLAIM: Newly leaked emails among Pfizer employees show that the company’s COVID-19 vaccine contains fetal cells.

THE FACTS: A widely shared video by the group Project Veritas has led to a false claim online that purported emails among Pfizer officials show that the pharmaceutical company’s COVID-19 vaccine contains aborted fetal cells. But the video — an interview between Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe and a self-identified Pfizer employee who claims to show internal emails from the company — does not support that erroneous conclusion. Instead, it shows that the company used a fetal cell line when testing the efficacy of its vaccine. Cell lines, which are key to medical research, are cloned copies of cells from the same source that have been adapted to grow continuously in labs. Nevertheless, users spread the falsehood about the contents of the vaccine widely on social media. “You are mandated to inject dead babies into your body,” one Twitter account sharing the video falsely claimed. “Fetal cells in the vaccines yet they are denying people religious exemptions.” At the heart of the widely shared video spurring the false claims are purported emails among Pfizer officials from early 2021. The messages displayed show an alleged conversation about the company’s reluctance to publicize that testing of its vaccine — not production — used a cell line that was originally derived from fetal tissue. One of the main emails cited specifically says, “Human fetal derived cell lines are not used to produce our investigational vaccine, which consists of synthetic and enzymatically produced components.” It adds: “One or more cell lines with an origin that can be traced back to human fetal tissue has been used in laboratory tests associated with the vaccine program.” The video also shows an email referencing the HEK293T cell line — or Human Embryonic Kidney 293 — which was first established in the early 1970s using cells from a kidney of a fetus. What’s not made clear in the video is that it is already publicrecord that Pfizer’s vaccine was tested using such cells. In a paper published in September 2020 detailing the vaccine’s development and success in mice and monkeys, Pfizer and BioNTech scientists said that the vaccine had been tested using the HEK293T cell line. And the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in a January document about the COVID-19 vaccines noted: “Neither Pfizer nor Moderna used an abortion-derived cell line in the development or production of the vaccine. However, such a cell line was used to test the efficacy of both vaccines.” The conference recommended that, in the absence of a vaccine with no connection at all to such a cell line, vaccines that use them “only for testing would be preferable to those that use such cell lines for ongoing production.” Dr. Saahir Khan, an assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases at the University of Southern California, said about the Pfizer shot, “There are no components of fetal cells in the vaccine, and none used in manufacturing.” Khan said it is very common to use such cell lines somewhere along the way in the research or development of vaccines and other medicine for humans. He said such cell lines, started decades ago, are grown in labs — so the cells being used for research are not the original cells. One COVID-19 vaccine used in the U.S., from Johnson &Johnson, is produced by using an adenovirus that is grown using retinal cells that trace back to a fetus from 1985, according to the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Vaccines for chickenpox and other diseases also use this type of process. But none of these vaccines contain fetal cells. Pfizer did not respond to questions about the Project Veritas video, but a spokesperson pointed out that information about the testing has been publicly disclosed through a number of sources and news reports.

— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia contributed this report.

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CLAIM: Under the proposed infrastructure bill, farmers will be taxed for each cow, including $6,500 a year for dairy cows.

THE FACTS: The infrastructure bill, a $1 trillion package that was approved in August by the Senate, does not include such a provision. Yet in a tweet shared by thousands that also circulated on Facebook, a conservative commentator falsely claimed the legislation would impose taxes on cows that would cripple American agriculture. “Just one example cattle farmers have to pay $2600 PER COW a year,” Melissa Tate wrote. “Dairy cows $6500 a year. This will put millions of cattle farmers out of business.” Tate did not respond to a request for comment. The erroneous claim follows a congressman’s false assertion about a separate, $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, referred to as the Build Back Better Act, that is supported by many Democrats. In a statement criticizing that bill, Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin said the legislation “would impose a ‘fee’ on all methane emissions, including in our agriculture industry. … The tax is estimated to cost $6,500 per dairy cow, $2,600 per head of cattle, and $500 per swine each year.” But the reconciliation bill as currently drafted includes taxes on methane emissions relating to oil and gas production — not from livestock. A spokesperson for Mullin acknowledged that the bill does not currently contain those provisions. “This is what could happen if the methane fee were applied to agriculture,” Meredith Blanford said in an email. She said that while the text of the bill only specifies the oil and gas industry, it also references the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas inventory “and leaves too much room for the EPA to expand its regulatory reach.” Blanford said the numbers were derived from an analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation, a lobbying group. The organization’s vice president for public affairs, Sam Kieffer, said in a Sept. 30 statement that the group’s economists over the summer conducted an analysis of potential costs on agriculture using proposals relating to the methane tax on oil and gas. “To clear up any confusion, I want to make clear that the current language of the reconciliation bill does not impose a methane tax on agriculture,” Kieffer said.

— Angelo Fichera

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CLAIM: Adam Ali, a high school student from Solihull, a town in West Midlands, England, died from the COVID-19 vaccine.

THE FACTS: Ali, a 17-year-old student who died in September, had not been vaccinated against COVID-19. His death was misrepresented online. The actual cause of Ali’s death is unknown, according to a spokesperson from the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS. One false tweet claimed, “Adam Ali 17 years old from Alderbrook school, had his first jab, had instant adverse reaction, convulsing, blood clots,” adding “he died the other day within two weeks and not a word from the media.” Ali, a student at Alderbrook Sixth Form in Solihull, died at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Sept. 19. “We can confirm that Adam did not have a COVID-19 vaccination; the cause of his tragic death is currently unknown,” a spokesperson for the Birmingham and Solihull vaccination program at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS said in an emailed statement.

— Arijeta Lajka

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CLAIM: Sex offenders are not required to carry cards identifying them as sex offenders because it is an invasion of their privacy.

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THE FACTS: Several states require registered sex offenders to carry special identification, and when states have rejected such laws, it has been based on the First Amendment, not privacy. Social media users are misrepresenting sex offender laws as they criticize requirements to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, and incorrectly compare the two. “So we need a vaccine card to drink a beer at a bar, but sex offenders don’t need to carry anything?” reads the text on one widely shared TikTok video. “The U.S. has over 750,000 registered sex offenders and NONE of them are required to carry a passport because it violates their privacy,” another video’s text read. Those claims rest on the false premise that privacy protections prevent sex offenders from being required to carry special identification. But experts on sex offender laws confirmed that in at least nine states, sex offenders do have to carry a state ID card with a special label. “In some states this says Sex Offender while in others the designation is a code that is known to law enforcement,” said Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor and psychologist at John Jay College in New York who researches sexual violence prevention. Courts in some states have struck down laws requiring sex offenders to identify themselves in this way, but judges have not cited privacy reasons. Instead, they have pointed to the First Amendment’s compelled speech doctrine, which says the government can’t force an individual or group to convey a certain message. The claims spreading online this week also fail to recognize that registered sex offenders have limited access to privacy as it is, according to Alissa Ackerman, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Fullerton. When sex offenders are required to register, they must upload their full name, demographic information, aliases, birthday, address and other information to a public database, Ackerman said. “So they don’t have a lot of privacy,” she said. “This claim that is being made online is just asinine.”

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

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