Not real: A look at the fake news circulating on social media this week

News

President Joe Biden visits the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., on Thursday, Feb. 11. At bottom center is a model of the COVID-19 virus. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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:

Biden didn’t reinstate funding for a Wuhan virus lab

CLAIM: President Joe Biden restored taxpayer funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

THE FACTS: Social media users are falsely claiming the Biden administration is bankrolling the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese lab that has faced unproven allegations that the coronavirus leaked from the facility, leading to the global COVID-19 pandemic. “Biden not sending out COVID relief checks… but refunding the Wuhan lab where COVID came from is THE PERFECT EXAMPLE of America last,” read a screenshot of a Twitter post shared on Instagram. “Voila — U.S. taxpayer money was returned to the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” a Washington Times opinion piece stated.

The claims seemed to originate with distortions of an article on the conservative news website The Daily Caller, which claimed the lab was eligible to receive U.S. taxpayer funding until 2024. The article never said the lab was currently grant funded. It’s true that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has fulfilled one requirement that animal research facilities outside the U.S. need to receive a NIH grant: foreign assurance approval. This assurance issued by the NIH Office of Laboratory Welfare confirms that the lab complies with certain guidelines on the humane care and use of laboratory animals. The institute’s foreign assurance was issued in 2019 and expires in 2024, the NIH told The Associated Press. However, foreign assurance is just one requirement and “does not determine whether an organization can or will receive a grant award or subaward,” according to the NIH.

In 2014, the NIH granted an award to the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based environmental health nonprofit, for a research project on bat coronaviruses. As part of that project, the nonprofit worked with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But in April 2020, the NIH terminated that grant. In July, the agency technically reinstated the grant, but suspended all activity related to it, citing “bio-safety concerns″ at the lab and asking EcoHealth Alliance to meet a list of conditions. Those conditions included arranging for an outside team to investigate the lab “with specific attention to addressing the question of whether WIV staff had SARS-CoV-2 in their possession prior to December 2019,” according to a letter from the NIH to EcoHealth Alliance viewed by The Associated Press.

Some social media users have speculated that a recent World Health Organization trip to the Wuhan Institute of Virology could help satisfy the NIH’s conditions, since the team of experts on the trip determined it was unlikely the coronavirus leaked from the lab. Peter Embarek, the WHO food safety and animal disease expert who led the mission, said initial findings suggest the most likely pathway the virus followed was from a bat to another animal and then to humans. He called the unsubstantiated theory that the virus traveled from the Wuhan lab to humans “extremely unlikely.” There’s no indication at this point that this finding will change the status of the grant that was previously funding research at the lab. Activities associated with the grant have not been allowed to resume at this point, spokespeople for the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance both confirmed to the AP.

Biden didn’t block Texas from increasing power during emergency

CLAIM: An order from the U.S. Department of Energy under President Joe Biden blocked Texas from generating adequate power during the recent statewide emergency because it would exceed pollution limits.

THE FACTS: The order did the opposite of what social media users are claiming. It gave the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates Texas’ power grid, emergency permission to produce enough energy to restore power to Texas homes, even if it temporarily exceeded pollution limits. On Feb. 14, as a severe winter storm wiped out heat and electricity for millions of Texans, ERCOT asked the Energy Department for emergency permission to generate electricity at maximum capacity to get the power grid up and running. Later the same day, the Energy Department granted ERCOT’s request, allowing the agency to dispatch enough additional units to “maintain the reliability of the power grid” through Feb. 19, even if it exceeded “emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon monoxide emissions, as well as wastewater release limits.”

The order gave ERCOT these waivers to avoid blackouts, while asking that the agency exhaust all “reasonably and practically available resources” prior to increasing energy generation in order to decrease environmental impact.

A week later, with Texas still reeling from the damage of the storm, social media users were misrepresenting the agency’s order, falsely claiming it throttled the state’s ability to get power back up and running. “Please read Biden’s Department of Energy Order No. 202-21-1,” a Twitter user wrote. “Had Biden’s Department of Energy not blocked Texas from increasing power, the people of Texas would’ve had power!” However, both the DOE and ERCOT confirmed to The Associated Press that these claims were false and that DOE’s order amounted to an approval of what ERCOT requested.

“We worked with the DOE to put the order in place,” Sopko said. While some social media posts expressed outrage that the order only allowed ERCOT to exceed emissions limits under certain circumstances, the order granted ERCOT’s request and did not block the state from increasing power generation.

Biden didn’t tweet about ‘minorities not being able to use the internet’

CLAIM: On Feb. 18, President Joe Biden tweeted that comments on “minorities not being able to use the internet” were “taken out of context.”

THE FACTS: A fake tweet made to appear it came from Biden’s official Twitter account @JoeBiden circulated on social media following remarks he made at a CNN town hall on Feb. 16. “My comment regarding minorities not being able to use the internet was taken out of context,” reads the phony tweet, which was shared as an image on social media. “It’s not they don’t know how to use it it’s just that they don’t know any better. Those people don’t know about computers because they lack the resources, education and their overall commitment in their communities. It’s not that they’re dumb it’s just they don’t like to do anything. Hope this clears that up.”

Multiple Facebook users shared the bogus tweet. “I am going to assume that all those minorities that voted for him are okay with how he thinks about minorities,” wrote one Facebook user who shared the false post. The tweet cannot be found on Biden’s Twitter account or ProPublica’s database Politwoops that tracks tweets deleted by public officials.

During a CNN town hall last week with journalist Anderson Cooper, Biden responded to a question about how his administration will tackle racial disparities in the COVID-19 vaccine response. There are fewer Black Americans being vaccinated than whites, AP reporting has found. Experts have cited several factors that could contribute to the emerging disparity, such as a deep-rooted mistrust of the medical establishment among Black Americans due to a history of discriminatory treatment.

In his response, Biden talked about access to the vaccine being a physical obstacle for marginalized communities and said some people lack the internet access needed to get key information. “A lot of people don’t know how to register,” Biden stated. “Not everybody in the community — in the Hispanic and the African American community, particularly in rural areas that are distant and/or inner-city districts — know how to use — know how to get online to determine how to get in line for that COVID vaccination at the Walgreens or at the particular store,” Biden responded. Those comments were widely circulated on social media. Some Facebook users then began sharing an image of the false tweet attributed to Biden.

Biden didn’t tweet about Coca-Cola ‘cultural reappropriation’

CLAIM: President Joe Biden tweeted that he was “proud” to see Coca-Cola educate its staff in “cultural reappropriation,” because white and Black people talk in different ways.

THE FACTS: The tweet was fabricated. It does not appear in any of Biden’s Twitter feeds, nor in Politwoops, a database from ProPublica that tracks deleted tweets by politicians.

While the fake tweet that amassed more than a thousand shares on Facebook and Instagram appeared to come from the Twitter handle @JoeBiden, the president has not tweeted from that account except to retweet his official accounts, @POTUS and @WhiteHouse, since he was sworn in on Jan. 20.

The bogus tweet began spreading after social media users began criticizing Coca-Cola for parts of a presentation about confronting racism on its LinkedIn Learning page. A slide in the presentation said, “Try to be less white.” It was part of a larger course called “Confronting Racism, with Robin DiAngelo.” But DiAngelo, an author and consultant who writes and conducts anti-racism trainings, said in a statement that she had not created the presentation, nor did she agree to its creation.

The statement said the slides “do not represent the work she does for her virtual or in-person presentations, trainings and workshops.” The course has since been removed from LinkedIn Learning. Coca-Cola responded on Feb. 20 to false claims that the presentation was part of a mandatory training program for its staff, explaining it was among several resources on diversity, equity and inclusion that employees could view through the social media platform. “The video in question was accessible on the LinkedIn Learning platform but was not part of the company’s curriculum,” the company wrote.

Whole Foods Market didn’t post sign banning gendered language

CLAIM: A sign from the grocery store chain Whole Foods Market asks customers to avoid using gendered language — including terms like brother, ladies and sir — when talking to other customers and employees.

THE FACTS: This sign appeared in a student-run café called Monash Wholefoods at Monash University in Australia. It is not affiliated with the American grocery store chain Whole Foods Market.

The photo shows a black sign with pink and blue lettering: “WHOLEFOODS ASKS THAT YOU DON’T USE GENDERED LANGUAGE WHEN TALKING TO CUSTOMERS AND SERVERS,” it states. “‘THANKS BROTHER’ ‘HELLO LADIES’ ‘HELLO SIR’ ARE EXAMPLES OF GENDERED LANGUAGE AND THAT IS HARMFUL TO TRANS AND NON-BINARY FOLK.”

Social media users this week shared the image without context, leaving many commenters to assume the sign was posted at the Amazon-owned grocery retailer Whole Foods. “Jeff Bezos owns it now, not surprised if real,” one commenter wrote. “Just don’t go to whole foods… problem solved!!!” wrote another. A reverse-image search confirms the sign was not posted at Whole Foods, but rather at the similarly named student-run café in Melbourne, Australia.

In a 2016 Facebook post, Monash Wholefoods explained its reasoning for the policy, saying, “It’s really important you know someone’s pronouns before using them, and if you’re unsure of their pronouns you can ask them politely, or use non-gendered language until you know.” On its website, Whole Foods Market outlines core values that include “inclusive people practices.” The site does not mention any restrictions on using gendered language in the store. A Whole Foods spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the company’s gender inclusion policies.

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