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

  • An older section of the border wall divides Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, from Sunland Park, New Mexico, top, on Jan. 12, 2021, on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez, 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: The $6 billion in aid President Joe Biden is seeking for Ukraine would have been enough to fund former President Donald Trump’s entire southern border wall project.

THE FACTS: The Biden administration last week told congressional aides it was seeking at least $6.4 billion in supplemental funding to help Ukraine amid Russia’s ongoing invasion, and has since upped the sum, asking for $10 billion. Still, the amount is well below the price tag for the border wall proposed by Trump. By 2021 his administration said it had secured about $15 billion for the border project. But following the Biden administration’s request for Ukraine aid, social media users began recirculating false claims about the border wall cost, offering a misleading comparison. “The Biden regime and Democrats want 6 billion for Ukraine. That would’ve funded Trump’s entire southern border wall project,” wrote one popular Twitter user. The post has been shared more than 5,000 times and received nearly 18,000 likes. But the claim gets the border wall figures wrong. When Trump first unveiled his plan to build a “virtually impenetrable” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border he said it would cost $8 billion, but his estimates have varied. Trump said in a February 9, 2016, interview with MSNBC: “the wall is probably $8 billion.” About a week later, during a Feb. 17 MSNBC Town Hall, he revised his estimate of the cost, putting it at “maybe $10 billion or $12 billion.” Ultimately, Trump’s administration set aside about $15 billion over the years through a combination of congressional appropriations, Pentagon funds and other government monies, the AP reported in 2021. A Senate aide with knowledge of the contracts also told the AP that $16.45 billion was actually secured for the wall, $5.8 billion of which was appropriated by Congress and the rest diverted from the Defense and Treasury departments. That’s considerably more than the $6.4 billion the Biden administration first indicated it wanted Congress to provide to pay for a U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which would largely go toward military and humanitarian assistance in the region. Although Biden increased the amount to $10 billion on Thursday, that still falls below the cost of the wall. The Trump administration built about 450 miles (725 kilometers) of wall before Biden suspended construction upon taking office.

— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed this report.

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CLAIM: An image of two Ukrainian men armed with mock rifles indicates that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is staged or fake and does not involve real combat.

THE FACTS: The image shows Ukrainian citizens training for combat with mock rifles before the invasion began, not engaged in actual fighting. Despite false claims that the combat in Ukraine is fake, Russia has continued to invade the country this week. The image, which briefly aired last weekend in a Fox News broadcast about Ukrainians preparing to fight back against Russia, shows two men holding up thin, rifle-shaped objects that appear to be cut out of wood. Some social media users shared a screenshot of the broadcast with false claims the fake guns in the image proved Russia’s war on Ukraine was “staged.” “None of it is even real,” wrote one Twitter user who shared the image. “I’m beginning to think that Biden needed Americans to believe his prediction and the MSM is playing it for you. Cardboard guns, really?” “For those not aware, there is so much fake stuff being shown on TV about the Ukraine war, it’s getting ridiculous,” a Facebook user wrote alongside the image. “Kyiv is NOT under attack by Russians.” It’s true that propaganda and decontextualized footage shared on social media have made it difficult to discern the truth during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, this image does not show that the attack on Kyiv isn’t happening. Instead, as a reverse-image search reveals, the photo shows Ukrainian civilians training for combat using fake weapons before Russia launched its invasion. “Two men with rifle cutouts take cover behind a corner during the territorial defence drill for civilians given by Azov Regiment veterans under the slogan ‘Don’t Panic! Get Ready!,’ Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine,” read a caption for the photo from Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency, which multiple photo-sharing websites also cited as the original source of the image. The caption said the photo was taken on Feb. 19 – five days before the Russian invasion began. Several legitimate news reports in recent weeks, including from the AP, have shown Ukrainian citizens participating in weapons trainings using wooden cutout rifles. The Feb. 26 Fox News segment showed the photo alongside several other images and footage from Ukraine during an interview with Ukrainian Parliament member Kira Rudik about the violent conflict. The segment did not give context for the image of the men with the fake guns, nor mention that it was a week old. A spokesperson for Fox News declined to comment.

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

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CLAIM: Video shows that Ukrainians are finding abandoned or captured Russian military vehicles.

THE FACTS: The video is not current. A Russian blogger who identifies herself as Nastya Tyman posted the footage on social media in February 2021. Social media users are sharing the footage of Tyman navigating her way around a tank, with false claims that it occurred during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “The future is a very weird place. Ukrainians are uploading videos on TikTok about how to drive abandoned or captured Russian military vehicles,” a Twitter post sharing the video falsely stated. Tyman posted multiple clips driving the tank on TikTok on Feb. 16, 2021, under the username “nastyatyman.” On the account, she identifies herself as an auto mechanic based in Russia and posts videos of herself driving different types of vehicles. In the videos, she is inside a tank, the tank starts and she appears to drive away. She also posted one of the clips to Instagram on February 23, 2021, with the caption, “Congratulations to all the defenders on the holiday,” a reference to the Russian holiday known as Defenders of the Fatherland Day, a holiday honoring the country’s veterans. In one video posted on Instagram, she also shows a Russian drivers’ license. She shared the footage again on TikTok after the invasion of Ukraine, resulting in misleading claims that the video was current and showed an abandoned tank in Ukraine. The Associated Press reached out to Tyman, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

— The Associated Press

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CLAIM: President Joe Biden signed a bill that will give law enforcement access to a “kill switch” that will be attached to ALL new cars in 2026.

THE FACTS: While a provision in the bipartisan infrastructure bill Biden signed last year requires advanced drunk and impaired driving technology to become standard equipment in new cars, experts say the technology doesn’t amount to a “kill switch,” and nothing in the law gives police access to those systems. The false claims began circulating in the months after Biden signed the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021. Social media users falsely claimed a provision in the bill would give police access to data collected by the technology or allow the government to shut down cars remotely. Experts who have for years been involved in creating and studying impaired driving prevention technology say those claims don’t accurately reflect what these tools do, nor what the law says. The law gives the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency under the Department of Transportation, three years to define which specific technologies cars should begin using. Once defined, automakers have up to three years to comply. The law specifies only that the technology should be equipped to passively monitor a driver’s behavior or blood alcohol concentration, as well as prevent or limit motor vehicle operation if the driver is impaired. Existing technologies and those in development generally fall into two categories: driver monitoring systems that use sensors or cameras to monitor the driver’s behaviors, head or eye movements, and alcohol detection systems that use touch-based or breath-based sensors to measure the driver’s blood alcohol concentration. In either case, if a driver is found to be impaired, the car might employ a warning message, block the driver from operating the vehicle, or if the vehicle is already in motion, direct it to a safe stop or automated ride home. None of the technologies currently in development would notify law enforcement of the data collected inside vehicles or give government agencies remote control of vehicles, according to Jeffrey Michael, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Injury Research and Policy. “I’ve been associated with this technology since the beginning of its development and it has always been viewed as a prevention device rather than an enforcement device,” Michael said. Robert Strassburger, president and CEO of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, is involved in a partnership with NHTSA to develop an alcohol detection system for vehicles. He said the partnership agreement includes a requirement to build security measures that would prevent third parties from accessing any data collected by the technology. Strassburger said the term “kill switch” is hyperbole, since none of the options being considered would include the risky move of lurching a fast-moving vehicle to an abrupt stop. Mothers Against Drunk Driving — a nonprofit that advocated for and helped draft bipartisan bills that evolved into the provision — said it would not support giving law enforcement or commercial entities access to any of the impaired driving data that will be collected in vehicles. “What’s circulating online is absolutely false,” said Stephanie Manning, chief government affairs officer at MADD. “MADD is completely committed to a vehicle technology standard that protects driver privacy.” NHTSA did not respond to a request for comment.

— Ali Swenson

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CLAIM: The Biden administration is funding drug smoking kits that are being distributed by a Los Angeles-based organization.

THE FACTS: No federal funding was used to provide the safer smoking kits that are being distributed by Being Alive, an HIV and AIDS-focused nonprofit in Los Angeles. The organization’s funding comes from the state of California, according to Being Alive staff and state officials. A video of a man holding what appears to be a smoking kit that he claims was funded by the Biden administration is being shared online as proof that federal officials are funding crack pipes. In the video, the man examines the contents of two plastic bags, which he says contain pipes used for smoking drugs. “Being Alive!” is on a card in one of the bags. “Joe Biden said he spent $60 million on paraphernalia for drugs and this is what it looks like,” the man says in the video. A Twitter user who shared the video on Wednesday wrote: “Biden’s America handing out Crack Pipes and Drugs to destroy #America #redpill #truth #anon.” But Jamie Baker, executive director of Being Alive, told The Associated Press the claims are “absolutely not true.” “Our funding comes from the state of California,” he said. “No federal dollars are used for this program at all.” Baker said that for about a year, Being Alive has been distributing smoking kits. He noted that primary funding for their smoking supplies distribution comes from the California Harm Reduction Initiative. The purpose of the kits — which can contain sterile items such as lip balm and pipes — is to reduce risk of burns, cuts, infections and the transmission of diseases among drug users, as well as overdoses, according to Caleb Banta-Green, a principal research scientist at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Addictions, Drug &Alcohol Institute. Corey Egel, a spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health, confirmed in a statement to the AP that Being Alive was awarded a $160,000, three-year grant from the California Harm Reduction Initiative, and that the organization was also recently awarded more than $16,000 for supplies such as safer smoking materials and syringes. The assertions made in the recent video stem from claims that the Biden administration planned to pay for smoking kits through a harm reduction grant program. The original request for funding proposals had listed “safe smoking kits/supplies” among the items that could be purchased with taxpayer money, the AP reported in February. But the Biden administration has denied that federal funding would be used to finance pipes. In a statement emailed to the AP, Sarah Lovenheim, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the Biden administration had not provided any funding for Being Alive’s smoking kit distribution.

— Josh Kelety

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