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

Mabel R. Acton

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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Experts: Mars ‘doorway’ just small crevice on barren terrain

CLAIM: NASA’s Mars rover has captured images of a doorway cut into a mountainside of the red planet, suggesting the presence of extraterrestrial life.

THE FACTS: Social media users shared a magnified version of the image, which made it appear the formation was much larger than its actual dimensions. NASA officials and Mars experts say the curious formation is nothing more than a narrow, naturally-occurring crevice in the rocky, barren terrain. Andrew Good, a spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told the AP that the image being circulated is a “very, very, very zoomed in shot” of a naturally formed rock crevice. On Wednesday, NASA posted on its website more detailed renderings of the area, which it says is a mound of rock nicknamed “East Cliffs” on Mars’ Mount Sharp. Curiosity, a rover that’s been exploring the mountain since landing in 2012, took the image of the crevice on May 7. Good said that NASA scientists overseeing the rover estimate the opening is 12 inches (30 centimeters) tall and 16 inches (40 centimeters) wide. “You can see all kinds of cracks and fractures in the surrounding area,” Good wrote in an email. “There are linear fractures throughout this outcrop, and this is a location where several linear fractures happen to intersect.” Gaia Stucky de Quay, a researcher at Harvard’s earth and planetary sciences department who studies Mars’ surface, said images suggest this particular spot started developing linear cracks until a large wedge of rock eventually broke off, perhaps due to wind erosion, dust storms or “marsquakes.” “The shadows make it look like a perfect rectangle in low quality images, which has been used to suggest it is a ’doorway,” Stucky de Quay wrote in an email. “But cracks generally form in straight lines, and you can actually see very clearly into the inside of the rock wall, and see the back of the wall, with even more cracks in it.” The assessment from NASA and other Mars experts hasn’t deterred some online skeptics from questioning the timing of the image release. It came just days before Congress opened its first hearing in more than half a century on unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, on Tuesday. Rather than extraterrestrials, lawmakers at the hearing honed in on concerns that China, Russia and other well-equipped foreign adversaries could be using new aerospace technology against the U.S. and its allies without their knowledge.

— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in Boston contributed this report.

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WHO health regulations don’t infringe on US decision-making

CLAIM: The Biden administration is proposing amendments to the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations that would transfer U.S. sovereign authority over health care decisions to the WHO director-general.

THE FACTS: The International Health Regulations, which are aimed at detecting disease outbreaks, allow the WHO director-general to declare a public health emergency of international concern. Member countries agree to abide by the guidelines, but the WHO does not have the power to enforce them, nor can it interfere in other countries’ decision-making processes, according to experts. As the WHO hosts its 75th World Health Assembly beginning on Sunday, some social media users are misrepresenting proposals the U.S. is bringing to the conference, where delegates from 194 member states convene to discuss priorities. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has drafted a series of amendments to a legal framework called the International Health Regulations, which define countries’ rights and obligations in handling cross-border public health emergencies. The U.S. amendments call for greater accountability and transparency in responding to such emergencies. But some remarks, including those by former U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, bloggers and conservative political commentators, are misrepresenting the proposals to falsely claim they would take health policy decision-making powers away from U.S. officials and grant unilateral authority to the WHO’s director-general. “These amendments would transfer our health care decision-making out of U.S. hands, into the hands of the director-general of the WHO,” said Bachmann, a former congresswoman from Minnesota, while calling into a conservative radio show last week. The segment was posted on Facebook, where it was viewed more than 32,000 times. Bachmann went on to suggest that the same amendments would allow the director-general to impose global lockdowns and vaccine mandates, as well as force climate change policy and even gun control measures on member nations. Bachmann did not respond to a request for comment. Experts familiar with the International Health Regulations say these assertions are misleading, and the idea that the director-general could impose enforceable mandates on other countries is unfounded. Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University law professor and director of the university’s WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, told the AP that the director-general only has the power to make recommendations, not enact laws or otherwise dictate national policy decisions. “It is utterly untrue that the IHR would interfere with health care decisions or transfer such decisions to the WHO Director-General,” he wrote in an email. Gostin, who also helped write the 2005 version of the IHR, cited the fact that China signed the IHR, but violated it by delaying reporting of the initial COVID-19 outbreak and later pushing back against the WHO investigation into its origins. The U.S. amendments seek to prevent this from happening, by tightening requirements for reporting information to the WHO and allowing them to conduct unimpeded investigations, among other changes. Dr. David Freedman, the president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, who served on a WHO committee of IHR experts for a decade, reiterated that the WHO “has zero enforcement, police or punitive powers.” Further, the IHR is mostly focused on preventing the spread of infectious diseases and pandemics, he said. Climate change, gun control or even specific measures like vaccinations or lockdowns are not mentioned. Some social media users are also conflating the IHR with a separate effort the WHO has launched to develop a global accord on pandemic prevention and response. That accord is still being drafted, but experts told the AP there’s no evidence it would cede any national decision-making powers, either. “Unfortunately, there has been a small minority of groups making misleading statements and purposefully distorting facts,” WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said during a news briefing Tuesday, clarifying that the WHO does not override member nations’ sovereignty.

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

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Trump misleads on Afghanistan casualties

CLAIM: When former President Donald Trump was in charge, 18 months went by in Afghanistan when “we didn’t lose one American soldier.”

THE FACTS: There is no year-and-half time frame under Trump’s presidency alone that no combat deaths among U.S. service members in Afghanistan were reported. But while speaking in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Trump claimed, “when I was in charge, in 18 months, we didn’t lose one American soldier.” After mentioning that day’s deadly shooting in Buffalo, New York, in which a white gunman killed 10 Black people in a supermarket, Trump reiterated that “in 18 months in Afghanistan, we lost nobody.” He didn’t specify which 18-month period he was referencing, and a spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for clarification. During Trump’s presidency, which ran from January 20, 2017, to January 20, 2021, there were 45 combat deaths among U.S. service members reported in Afghanistan, as well as 18 “non-hostile” deaths, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Casualty Analysis System. While there was an 18-month stretch that saw no combat, or “hostile,” deaths in Afghanistan — from early February 2020 to August 2021 — it was a time period that also included Biden’s presidency. There were two combat deaths reported in early February 2020, when Trump was president, and none reported again until late August 2021, when an attack killed 13 U.S. troops amid the exit from Afghanistan, during Biden’s presidency. There were also several “non-hostile” deaths among U.S. service members in Afghanistan during that time frame, specifically in 2020. Looking at other periods of Trump’s presidency also tells a different story than the one he offered. During the last, full 18 months before Trump left office in January 2021 — from July 2019 to December 2020 — there were 12 combat deaths reported. Nearly 2,500 U.S. service members died during the 20-year war.

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

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Tech leader investments in biotech startup didn’t cause formula shortage

CLAIM: The current baby formula shortage was created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates because he invested in a company that makes artificial breast milk.

THE FACTS: The investment by Gates’ firm, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, has nothing to do with the recent baby formula shortage, according to experts. Shoppers searching for the product have encountered empty shelves in recent days, leading some social media users to speculate about the cause of the scarcity. Posts on social media, predominantly Facebook and Twitter, are suggesting that an investment by Gates in a biotech startup called Biomilq is linked to the shortage. Biomilq is working to create a lab-produced breast milk alternative using cultured human mammary cells, according to the company’s website. One tweet pushing the baseless theory stated, “Bill Gates is heavily invested in lab produced breast milk? And now we have a baby formula shortage?” The post received more than 15,000 likes, and linked to a June 2020 CNBC story about Gates’ firm’s investment. But the claims are flawed for several reasons, including that the product is not available yet and experts say such an investment wouldn’t have the power to cause or prevent the existing shortage. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment firm focused on climate change founded by the billionaire philanthropist, granted some initial funding for Biomilq in June 2020, the investment group confirmed in a statement to the AP. But it clarified that investment decisions are made by the firm’s leadership, and neither Bill Gates nor other board members or investors are “involved in every investment decision.” Some posts making the false claims also mentioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. While Zuckerberg, along with other prominent investors in technology, was involved with the investment firm when it was first launched in 2015, Zuckerberg is not listed as an investor or board member on the firm’s site. The spokesperson also confirmed to the AP that Zuckerberg is not currently a board member or investor. Further, Biomilq is not available to consumers yet. Kelli Reifschneider, the company’s head of business, said the product is still in the research and development phase and likely wouldn’t be offered for sale for at least another four years. Assertions that investments in the company would have impacted the current shortage are also false. The shortage has been caused by ongoing supply disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, and exacerbated by a safety recall from Abbott Nutrition, a company that makes several major brands of powdered formula, two experts told the AP. Abbott is one of only a handful of companies that produce most of the U.S. formula supply, so its recall and subsequent factory shutdown wiped out a large segment of the market, the AP has reported. Rachna Shah, a University of Minnesota professor specializing in supply chains and operations, and Keely L. Croxton, a professor of logistics at Ohio State University who researches supply chain resilience, told the AP that there’s no evidence Gates’ investment would have influenced the shortage. “Very large players can constrain the competition in the market, and when there is no competition, prices will go higher and/or they will control the supply,” Shah said, adding, “I don’t think Bill Gates’ investment in this has anything to do with the current shortage that we’re seeing.” Even if Biomilq was on the market, the two experts said it’s unlikely the product would have the power to either prevent or cause the situation.

— Associated Press writer Karena Phan in New York contributed this report.

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