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

Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas competes in the 200 freestyle finals at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on March 18 at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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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CLAIM: Reka Gyorgy, a Virginia Tech swimmer, posted from her personal Twitter account a statement saying her finals spot was “stolen” by transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, and she encouraged other swimmers to refuse to compete.

THE FACTS: The tweet did not come from Gyorgy’s account. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed to The Associated Press that the user responsible for the tweet was suspended for violating the platform’s policy on the “creation of fake accounts,” and multiple representatives from Virginia Tech’s athletics department also said the account was not authentic. The tweet gained more than 28,000 retweets and 101,000 likes before the account was suspended Monday, about a day after the post was made. The critical message came after Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania senior, made history on March 17 as the first transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming championship. Gyorgy had criticized the NCAA rules that allowed Thomas to compete in the women’s division on other platforms, and called for them to be changed in a letter posted publicly to her Facebook account on Sunday afternoon. But the tweet posted hours later under a profile using Gyorgy’s name and photo did not come from an account belonging to her, according to Twitter. “The account referenced has been permanently suspended for violating our platform manipulation and spam policy, specifically the creation of fake accounts,” Twitter wrote in a statement to the AP. Pete Moris, Virginia Tech’s associate athletics director for strategic communications, and Sergio Lopez Miro, women’s swimming and diving head coach, also confirmed that the tweet did not come from Gyorgy. “The account was fake,” Lopez Miro wrote in an email to the AP. The earliest available record of the now-suspended page was captured on March 20 by the internet archive the WayBack Machine. At that time, the account had posted several retweets supporting Republican politicians dating back to December 2021. The account had not posted any content about swimming or Gyorgy until March 17, when the NCAA women’s swimming championships were underway. Additionally, the same account previously used the handle “@Amanda191923” before changing it to “RekaGyorgy_.” Searches on Twitter for the Amanda username reveal older tweets now linked to the fake Gyorgy account. Before it was deleted, several conservative news outlets and social media users with large followings had retweeted or shared screenshots of the tweet about Thomas, representing it as a genuine post from Gyorgy. Thomas has followed NCAA and Ivy League rules since she began her transition in 2019 by starting hormone replacement therapy, the AP has reported. Gyorgy did not respond to a request for comment via Facebook Messenger.

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

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CLAIM: NATO killed tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of civilians during a 2011 military intervention in Libya.

THE FACTS: Estimates for how many civilians were killed during the NATO campaign in Libya vary, but experts told The Associated Press that figures placing civilian casualties in the tens of thousands are dramatically inflated. Nongovernmental organizations have also said that far fewer civilians were killed by the NATO airstrikes, with estimates ranging from 72 to 403. After former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime violently cracked down on anti-government protesters, NATO, with U.N.-backing, conducted a campaign of airstrikes against the regime between March and October of 2011, the AP reported. NATO warplanes conducted more than 9,600 strike missions, and the campaign ended after Gadhafi was ousted and killed. In recent days, widely-circulating social media posts have claimed that NATO forces killed tens of thousands of civilians during the 2011 military intervention. “The most air strikes ever launched in Africa by NATO was more than 10,000 on Libya in 2011 with over 500,000 Civilian Casualities,” said one tweet. Another Twitter user claimed that tens of thousands of civilians were killed by NATO forces in Libya while comparing the allegation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “NATO+USA+France killed 55k+ civilians in Libya because they wouldn’t accept the jihadist rule that NATO+Obama admin eventually bombed into power there,” the user wrote on Sunday. “The Russian people are correct to be terrified of NATO.” No credible estimates support the assertions that tens of thousands of civilians were killed by the 2011 NATO airstrikes in Libya. “Those numbers strike me as wildly off. Wildly exaggerated,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Alan Kuperman, a University of Texas professor whose research focuses include ethnic conflict and military intervention, also told the AP that the claims are “exaggerated by a factor of 100 times or more.” The U.N.-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Libya investigated some of the airstrikes and found that while NATO did not intentionally target civilians, 60 civilians were killed and 55 were wounded, the AP reported in March 2012. Separately, Human Rights Watch concluded in a May 2012 report that at least 72 civilians were killed by NATO airstrikes. In March 2021, Airwars, a group that tracks civilian harm in conflict zones, estimated that NATO strikes caused 223 to 403 likely civilian deaths. Chris Woods, director of Airwars, wrote in an email to the AP that the claims that tens of thousands of civilians were killed by NATO airstrikes is “not supported by any public claim we are aware of,” adding that: “The great majority of civilians killed in Libya in 2011 also died as a result of Gaddafi forces actions.” In an emailed statement to the AP, NATO Deputy Spokesperson Piers Cazalet declined to confirm the number of Libyan civilians killed by NATO actions in 2011. “Everything possible was done to minimise the risk to civilians, but in a complex military campaign, that risk cannot be reduced to zero,” Cazalet said, adding: “It is likely some have been affected in the seven months-long campaign. We deeply regret any instance of civilian casualties.”

— Associated Press writer Josh Kelety in Phoenix contributed this report.

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CLAIM: Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first person to go to space 61 years ago, has been stripped of his honors by the Space Foundation because he is Russian.

THE FACTS: The Space Foundation changed the name of an annual fundraiser that was previously known as “Yuri’s Night,” but it didn’t strip Gagarin of any honors. The nonprofit, which advocates for the global space industry, continues to celebrate Gagarin’s accomplishments at events and with a display at its Discovery Center, a spokesman told The Associated Press. The Space Foundation’s decision to rename an annual fundraiser amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was distorted by social media users who falsely claimed the organization stripped Gagarian of official honors. “Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, has been stripped of his honours by the Space Foundation ‘in light of current events,’” read a tweet, which was shared across platforms in a screenshot. “Imagine pretending Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon because the US invaded Iraq decades later,” another post commented. But the Space Foundation isn’t pretending Gagarin wasn’t the first man in space. Instead, it changed the name of an annual fundraiser from “Yuri’s Night” to “A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next” after its initial social media posts about the April 3 fundraiser elicited negative responses about Russia on social media. “Almost four weeks ago, we posted about Yuri’s Night and our social media feeds started to feed into a lot of anti-Russian anger,” Rich Cooper, vice president of strategic communicaztions and outreach at the Space Foundation, said in a phone interview with the AP. “We wanted to not have our social media platforms become any type of venue for hate or animosity against anyone. We changed the name out of respect for that situation.” Cooper said the narrative that the Space Foundation was stripping Gagarin of any honors is “totally false” and added that “no one can strip away” the honor of being the first person to go to space. The Space Foundation has not conferred specific honors to Gagarian but it has a display for the cosmonaut at its Discovery Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The nonprofit has no plans to stop celebrating Gagarin’s accomplishments in any capacity, Cooper said. In a public statement issued on its website, the Space Foundation said this year’s annual fundraiser will still “highlight Yuri’s flight,” as well as other “space milestones.”

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

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CLAIM: Video shows Boeing 737 crash in southern China.

THE FACTS: The footage is computer generated, and was created using a flight simulator game. A China Eastern Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board crashed in a remote mountainous area of southern China on Monday, setting off a forest fire, according to the country’s aviation officials. Following the crash, Twitter users began sharing a video game clip of a plane plummeting from the sky, falsely claiming it showed the China Eastern crash. The footage takes the point of view from a window seat, from which a red, yellow and green Ethiopian Airlines logo can be seen on the plane’s wing. Screams can be heard in the background. “A Boeing 737 just crashed in southern China. This was one of the last moment recorded on the plane. maybe the only moment. Viewers’ discretion advised,” stated one widely-shared Twitter post with the video. The video circulating on social media is identical to a portion of a longer clip posted to YouTube on March 10, 2019. That post states that the footage was made from the flight simulator game X-Plane 11, as an attempt to recreate how an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed after takeoff in March 2019. “This is only a simulated flight crash for Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302,” the video’s caption states. In the longer clip, graphics such as the clouds and landscape are clearly computer generated. The plane’s interior also matches video and screenshots of the Boeing 737-800 simulation from X-Plane 11’s website. The 10-minute clip on YouTube shows the aircraft taking off and ends with the plane falling from the sky. The video notes that the screams were edited into the flight simulator footage: “This sound is added while editing, so this is not implemented from the simulator,” an on-screen caption states. The creator of X-Plane 11 did not immediately return a request for comment.

— Associated Press writer Arijeta Lajka in New York contributed this report.

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CLAIM: Twitter has a feature that notifies users if a profile belongs to a registered sex offender.

THE FACTS: Twitter does not have any such feature. The false claim that the site had implemented a feature warning users when they visit an account created by a registered sex offender spread after a Twitter user created a hoax warning on their profile page to make it seem like Twitter was notifying people about a sex offender on the platform. On Tuesday, a Twitter user posted a screenshot of a different user’s profile page with the caption: “When did Twitter start showing that you’re a sex offender ??” A notice on that user’s page featured a man’s photo next to a warning symbol and the text “This user is a registered sex offender, to learn more visit twitter’s safety policy.” The tweet suggesting this was an authentic notice received more than 20,000 retweets and 101,000 likes. While some people pointed out that the feature was not legitimate, many others shared the tweet as if the warning was real. But the banner did not show an official notice. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed in a phone call to The Associated Press that the platform has no such feature. The person who posted the false notice used Twitter’s newsletter feature to make a fake warning label. Twitter allows users to create newsletters through its tool Revue, and pin them prominently to their profiles to get people to subscribe. Since a person can type anything to create such a newsletter, this person wrote “this user is a registered sex offender” and pinned it to their profile. Twitter’s help center states that: “creators can control the display of the newsletter feature on their Twitter profiles,” but warns, “We do not permit this feature to be used as ‘clickbait’ or for promoting external products or services, distributing offers or promotions, or similar activity.” The hoax banner has since been removed from the user’s profile, and the link to Revue now directs to a message saying the newsletter has been suspended. A Twitter spokesperson told the AP on Wednesday that the account that posted the hoax notice was also later permanently suspended for violating a spam policy. The photo of the man that was used has appeared online dozens of times over the years, usually as a meme.

— Sophia Tulp

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