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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Swedish study on COVID vaccines and DNA misinterpreted
Claim: A Swedish study shows that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine changes recipients’ DNA.
The facts: The study, conducted by researchers at Lund University in Sweden, tested whether the vaccine’s mRNA could be converted to DNA, and found that this was the case in certain lab-altered liver cell lines under experimental conditions. It did not assess whether the vaccine alters the human genome, or what the effects of that would be.
But social media users are citing the February study to push the unproven theory that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines permanently alter recipients’ DNA.
A clip from March that is being reshared online in recent days shows three doctors, who have spread misinformation about the vaccines in the past, discussing the Swedish study and falsely claiming it demonstrates that “the Pfizer vaccine reverse transcribes and installs DNA into the human genome.”
The genome is the set of instructions to build and sustain a human being. Other social media users commented that the paper proves mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “change the recipient’s DNA.”
Experts say such interpretations mischaracterize the work and draw inaccurate conclusions. The study authors clarified their research in a Q&A, stating that “this study does not investigate whether the Pfizer vaccine alters our genome,” adding that “there is no reason for anyone to change their decision to take the vaccine based on this study.”
DNA is the building block of the body’s genetic code. RNA is closely related to DNA, and one type, called messenger RNA, sends instructions to the cell. The mRNA in the COVID-19 vaccines helps train the body to recognize a protein from the coronavirus to trigger an immune response.
During the study, which was conducted in a petri dish, the researchers were able to detect DNA that had been converted from the vaccine’s mRNA in a lab-modified cell that was derived from liver cancer tissue.
Some viruses, like HIV, are known to be able to convert RNA to DNA and then incorporate that DNA into host cells’ genome. Coronaviruses, however, are not expected to do this, said Bethany Moore, chair of the University of Michigan’s microbiology and immunology department.
Still, the Swedish study only demonstrated that RNA had converted to DNA under the conditions created in the lab. The study did not demonstrate that anything further happened with the converted DNA. If such DNA had been incorporated into the genome, the fear is that it could alter cell function or lead to cancer.
“Where that paper was getting a lot of press was the idea that those pieces of DNA were then getting incorporated into the genome, and there’s absolutely no evidence that that happened,” Moore said.
She also cautioned that the cells used in the study were “quite different” than most cells in the body.
“In order to create these cell lines, the genetic makeup of the cells has to be ‘fiddled with’ to make them immortal and keep them alive in the petri dish,” Dr. David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at England’s University of Exeter Medical School, wrote in an email. “These cells have had the normal protections of the immune system removed.”
Unlike the “abnormal” cells used in the study, the human body’s protections help stop imported genetic material from being “corrupted,” Strain said.
Because the study design doesn’t reflect what happens in most bodies, the experts said the findings cannot be extrapolated to make inferences about human subjects. The study authors similarly pointed out in their Q&A that a limitation is that they “don’t know if what we observed in this cell line could also happen in cells of other tissue types.”
— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in New York contributed this report.
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Mexican president hasn’t endorsed in Texas governor’s race
Claim: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador endorsed Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke for governor of Texas.
The facts: López Obrador criticized an executive order issued by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is running for reelection, but he did not endorse Abbott’s Democratic opponent.
Politicians and social media users falsely claimed Mexico’s president made an endorsement in Texas’ gubernatorial race after López Obrador’s comments in a news conference were misrepresented.
During the July 8 news conference, a journalist asked López Obrador what he thought about Abbott’s July 7 executive order, which authorized state law enforcement authorities to apprehend migrants and return them to the U.S.-Mexico border. López Obrador said Abbott was overstepping the limits of his role and called the executive order “immoral” and “political.”
The Mexican president also repeated that people should not vote for parties or candidates who mistreat immigrants and Mexicans. While López Obrador did not make any endorsement in his comments, Abbott’s campaign falsely claimed that he did, writing in a July 8 statement, “It’s not surprising that the pro-open border President of Mexico is endorsing Beto O’Rourke, the pro-open border candidate for Texas Governor.”
In the weeks since, others have picked up the false claim, including U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who directly addressed the Mexican president during a news conference on July 15. “To listen to Mexican President Obrador say he’s going to endorse Beto O’Rourke over my governor, Gov. Abbott, because he’s daring to secure the border, take steps to secure the border?” the Republican lawmaker said. “Let me say something to President Obrador. If you want to come have a skirmish with Texas, you can meet us at San Jacinto.”
López Obrador, who did not respond to an emailed request for comment, has not made any public statements endorsing any candidate in the Texas gubernatorial election.
Chris Evans, a spokesperson for O’Rourke, confirmed that he hadn’t received any endorsement from López Obrador. He pushed back on Abbott’s claims that O’Rourke was a “pro-open border” candidate, saying, O’Rourke “wants order and security” at the border and to create a “safe, legal, orderly system of immigration” that meets the country’s needs.
Nate Madden, a spokesperson for Roy, told the AP that López Obrador’s comments urging people not to vote for parties or candidates who mistreat Mexicans amounted to an endorsement of O’Rourke because he was “clearly telling Mexican Americans to vote against Abbott.”
Abbott’s press team did not respond to a request for comment.
— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in Seattle contributed this report.
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New 988 hotline doesn’t use geolocation services
Claim: Using the new 988 mental health hotline “will automatically route your geolocation information to local authorities.”
The facts: The hotline does not currently have the capability to detect the exact location of a caller, nor does it “automatically” share such information with authorities.
The country’s first nationwide three-digit mental health crisis hotline, designed to connect callers with trained mental health counselors, went live on Saturday, July 16, the AP reported. But some social media users cautioned against using it, falsely claiming that those who contact the hotline will have their “geolocation information” shared with authorities “automatically.”
That’s wrong, as a website dedicated to the hotline makes clear, stating: “The Lifeline does not currently have the capability to directly ‘trace’ callers, chat or text users in a way the same way that 911 providers do.”
Instead, the hotline attempts to use a phone number’s area code to route callers to nearby crisis centers, which may be inaccurate since many people live or are located in places different from the area code associated with their phone number.
The hotline website adds that in “atypical situations” in which emergency services are needed to prevent serious injuries or fatalities but the caller is not able to share their location information, counselors must provide what information they have to 911 operators, such as the caller’s phone number or the chat user’s IP address.
FCC spokesperson Katie Gorscak confirmed in an email to the AP that geolocation services are “not currently enabled for 988.”
The agency did hold a forum in May to explore incorporating geolocation capabilities. The purpose of the lifeline is to connect those in need of help with professionals who can assist directly by phone, said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“We’re actually reducing the need for an in-person response,” she said.
But Wesolowski said that incorporating geolocation technology would make it easier to accurately route calls to local assistance centers that can provide community resources. It would also be valuable in rare cases where dispatching emergency services is warranted, she said.
Unlike 988, calls to 911 are paired with geolocation information, said Brandon Abley, director of technology at the National Emergency Number Association, a 911-focused nonprofit group.
If a 988 counselor finds there may be an imminent risk, that call could be transferred to 911, Abley said, but even then, geolocation information would not be available if the caller did not directly dial 911. Instead, in an event where an imminent risk is present and the 988 caller will not disclose an address, a 911 center could process an “exigent circumstances” request, which involves approvals and contacting a cellphone company to help locate the individual, Abley said. That requires “serious justification,” he added, noting that the process of locating someone could result in a delayed response.
Still, some have raised privacy and legal concerns around the prospect of pairing all 988 calls with geolocation information. “Precise geolocation information is not needed for the vast majority of calls, and it is unclear to whom and under what circumstances this location data would be accessible, if and when the FCC does require its collection,” Chris Frascella, a law fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, wrote in an email.
Wesolowski said that geolocation data can help to save lives, but also added that it’s important to protect callers’ privacy and to not allow it to be used to unnecessarily dispatch law enforcement to people in crisis.
— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia contributed this report.
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Graphic does not show 2019 election fraud in Kentucky
Claim: A 2019 clip of CNN election coverage shows a Republican gubernatorial candidate’s vote tally drop while his Democratic opponent’s total rises amid the ongoing count, which is evidence of fraud.
The facts: In the clip, a CNN graphic does briefly display a drop in the Republican candidate’s total, but it was caused by an error that was corrected minutes later, according to a representative of the data firm that provided the numbers.
A clip of “Anderson Cooper 360” recorded by someone watching the program on their television has circulated on Facebook in recent days. The clip shows incoming vote results from the Nov. 5, 2019, Kentucky gubernatorial race, with Democratic candidate and eventual winner Andy Beshear ahead of Republican incumbent Matt Bevin. When the vote tally numbers update, Bevin’s total appears to decrease, even as ballots are still being counted in the race.
“At the exact same second that Andy Beshear has gone up 560 votes, Matt Bevin has gone down 560 votes,” the person watching says. “This is vote-switching in the computer.”
But votes for Bevin were not transferred to Beshear.
The CNN graphic contains a “typo,” according to Rob Farbman, executive vice president of Edison Research, which provided the vote data to CNN. Farbman told the AP in an email that a reporter for Edison in Kentucky’s Henderson County accidentally read the vote totals backward, attributing Beshear’s 6,863 votes to Bevin and Bevin’s 6,303 votes to Beshear. That gave Bevin an illusory boost of 560 votes.
“This vote change was due to a typo in one county (Henderson) that was caught and corrected within 3 minutes on election night,” he said. “We saw the discrepancy of this vote with the Kentucky state feed data and verified that the numbers had been read to our input center backwards.”
The correct vote tallies for Henderson County are corroborated by the county’s certified election results.
Farbman said that Edison’s data would have automatically updated CNN’s on-screen graphics.
The race between Beshear, then the state’s attorney general, and Bevin was close. With 100% of precincts reporting on election night, Beshear led by a margin of less than 0.4 percentage points, the AP reported. Bevin conceded the next week.
The vote discrepancy shown in the video has repeatedly spurred false rumors in the years since the election. Reached for comment, a CNN spokesperson referred the AP to other articles about the misleading clip.
— Associated Press writer Graph Massara in San Francisco contributed this report.
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