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18 fact-checks of things that were wrong on the Internet

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson December 28, 2014

At PolitiFact, one of our most frequent sources of checkable claims is our readers’ social media feeds. And in this regard, 2014 did not disappoint. We checked chain emails, shareable Facebook memes and other Internet detritus, often submitted by readers who ask us: "Is this really true?"

Most of the time the answer is no: Since PolitiFact began in 2007, we’ve rated 47 percent of shareable Facebook memes as either False or Pants on Fire, compared to just 20 percent that were either True or Mostly True. The track record of chain emails is even more dismal. A full 83 percent of chain emails have been False or Pants on Fire, compared to just 7 percent that were either True or Mostly True.

One particularly worrisome trend for 2014: the growth of fake news sites. Unlike The Onion, which publishes articles that are clearly satire, such sites as the Daily Currant, the National Report, Empire News and others publish plausible-sounding -- but entirely fabricated -- news articles. What we’ve seen happen is that the posts go viral, free of any "satire" label, reaping Web traffic and advertising revenue for the site when people unwittingly share them on social media.

Here is a selection of 18 claims that readers asked us to check out that turned out to be inaccurate.


President and Mrs. Obama

1. As in the past, the First Family was a big target for social media attacks. A brief video that gained wide circulation showed Obama giving a speech that seemed to defend authoritarianism as a form of government: "And for the international order that we have worked for generations to build, ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign." But those were two separate thoughts from an actual speech, spliced together through video editing in a way that twisted Obama’s argument beyond recognition. We rated it Pants on Fire.

2.  The blogosphere this year featured a number of posts saying that John Roberts, the chief justice of the United States, has ordered Obama’s arrest for treason. The post was not transparently sourced, citing "serious speculation" and an unlinked-to "leaked document." The reality is that, even if Roberts wanted to -- and there’s no indication that he does -- the Constitution wouldn’t allow it. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

3. For years, we’ve received a chain email from readers that claims that Obama is the only American president in the last 69 years who has failed to visit France’s D-Day Monument on D-Day. But the email is wrong -- Obama was already one of four presidents who had visited the monument in Normandy on D-Day, and it became even more wrong in 2014, when he visited it on D-Day again, making him the only president to visit it twice on D-Day. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

4. Readers sent us a meme based on an event that occurred on Michelle Obama’s March 2014 trip to China. The meme shows the First Lady energetically waving two red flags. A superimposed caption reads, "Michelle Obama waves red communist flags on her taxpayer-funded visit to China. Anyone remember her ever waving an American flag?" But the image simply showed a bit of audience participation during a folk-dancing exhibition; the flags were not Chinese national flags, and the dancers waved flags of a variety of colors, not just red but also purple, yellow and green. We also found ample evidence that Michelle Obama appears to enjoy displays of red-white-and-blue patriotism. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.


5. A chain email that has circulated for several years said that of Congress’ 535 members, 36 have been accused of spousal abuse, seven have been arrested for fraud, 19 have been accused of writing bad checks, 117 have directly or indirectly bankrupted at least 2 businesses, three have done time for assault, 71 cannot get a credit card due to bad credit, 14 have been arrested on drug-related charges, eight have been arrested for shoplifting, 21 are currently defendants in lawsuits, 84 have been arrested for drunk driving in the last year. We found that the statistics came from an article written 15 years ago; the original source has removed the article from its website. Congress’ record isn’t blemish-free, but these statistics have no basis in fact. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

Criticism of Fox News

6. Critics of Fox News call the cable channel "Faux News." But one meme went further, saying, "Fox News admits they lie. They argued that, under the First Amendment, broadcasters have the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on public airwaves." The claim doesn't track back to the national cable network most people know. Instead, it's rooted in a wrongful termination lawsuit against a local Fox affiliate in Tampa. We found no evidence that the Fox affiliate admitted that it lied about the news, and we certainly found no evidence that Fox News as a whole admits it lies more generally. PunditFact rated the claim False.

Ferguson, Mo.

7. A photo circulating on social media showed an African-American protester standing in front of a fire station and holding up a hand-lettered sign that read, "No mother should have to fear for her son's life every time he robs a store." The sign was an obvious reference to the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. However, the original photograph -- published on the Riverfront Times news blog on Oct. 1 -- showed a sign reading, "No mother should have to fear for her son's life every time he leaves home" (emphasis added). The change in wording turned the sign’s message completely on its head, so we rated the claim Pants On Fire.


8. A chain email lauded Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, for purportedly standing up to Obama’s decision to send more than 100 unaccompanied minors to Iowa. According to the email, Branstad quickly chartered a jet for the immigrant children and flew them all back to Honduras. But this story is pure fiction. Branstad’s office denied it, and there is no credible evidence to undercut the governor’s account. In addition, experts said Branstad would have had no authority to make such a move on his own. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.


9. A long-lived chain email claimed, among other things, that "at age 76 when you most need it most, you are not eligible for cancer treatment. Cancer hospital will ration care according to the patient's age." These claims are based on an incorrect understanding of a bill that was proposed but never passed. The Affordable Care Act does not include any provisions on seniors losing their treatment eligibility once they reach age 76, and the Texas judge who purportedly authored the email has disowned it. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

10. A newer anti-Obamacare claim surfaced this year -- with an amusing twist. A reader sent us a link to a September American News article that claims an 86-year-old woman, Dorothy Zborknak, was ordered executed after a panel established by the Affordable Care Act determined that "she is no longer useful." We debunked the myth of death panels in 2009, selecting it as our inaugural Lie of the Year, and almost five years later, death panels are still not a part of U.S. health care law. But the kicker is that "Dorothy Zbornak" (with a slightly different spelling) was the name of Bea Arthur’s character on the old TV sitcom The Golden Girls. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

Student loans

11. During the summer, debt-laden Americans were noticing chain emails and social media posts with a headline that offered a pleasant surprise: "Obama Signs Bill Forgiving All Student Loan Debt." While Obama has taken executive action and called for passage of a student-loan refinancing bill, he didn’t say he was planning to forgive all student debts -- a far more massive undertaking. The claim stems from a fake-news website called Empire News (you can read the full article here). It was ridiculously false, so we rated it Pants on Fire.

Foreign affairs

12. Former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney have been out of office for more than five years, but the rest of the world hasn’t forgotten about them. A meme said Bush and Cheney are "unable to visit Europe due to outstanding warrants." But the claim that there are "outstanding warrants" is flat wrong. While it’s theoretically possible for a national court to issue an arrest warrant against either man, there is no sign of that happening. We rated the claim False.

13. A Facebook meme argued that Americans were two-faced when it came to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The meme said, "22 Countries Invaded by the U.S. in 20 Years. Russia Does It and Everyone Loses Their Mind." We found that using the clearest standard -- ground troops seizing foreign territory without the backing of international law -- then the actual number of U.S. invasions in the past 30 years was three. An additional seven military actions that were supported by international law might perhaps be called "invasions" in a technical sense, even though they had official justification. The remaining examples cited by the meme weren’t even close to any conventional definition of "invasion." We rated the claim False.

Ammunition shortages?

14. A chain email charged that "we, the American public have been blindsided again by the Obama crowd!!! Last Lead smelting plant -- gone." The email went on to blame the "Evil Protection Agency" for shutting down the smelter, calling it "backdoor gun control" and saying it will send the cost of bullets soaring. It is true that a Doe Run primary lead smelter closed in December 2013, leaving no smelters in the United States to make lead from ore. However, smelters that recycle lead remain in operation, and there’s wide agreement that their output is substantial enough to satisfy the needs of ammunition manufacturers. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

Various fabrications

15. After Coca-Cola aired a multilingual Super Bowl ad, a meme suggested that U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., disapproved. The Coke ad, featuring "America the Beautiful" sung in seven languages provoked a backlash on Twitter and criticism from conservatives who objected to hearing parts of the patriotic song performed in tongues other than English. "If English was good enough for Jesus when he wrote the Bible it should be good enough for Coke," the meme quoted Bachmann as saying. But it’s fake — and not even new. PolitiFact Texas traced the gag back to at least 1881. We rated it Pants on Fire.

16. We received a meme pasted into an email with the subject line, "A sign in Dearborn, Michigan," which is a city with an unusually large Muslim population. The meme features a photograph of a sign with removable letters, purportedly advertising a group called the Advancement of Islamic Agenda for America. The sign reads, "Allah be praised. America we will kill you all and nothing you can do to stop it. Allah be praised." However, the sign comes from a template on the website Church Sign Maker that allows people to create photos of church signs conveying any message they choose. The image was fabricated, so we rated it Pants on Fire.

17. An article from the American News website (the same one that published the claim that one of the Golden Girls had been executed by an Obamacare death panel) said welfare recipients will be eligible for a free vehicle and receive a monthly $100 gas card beginning Jan. 15 under new legislation proposed by Obama. The claim is false -- it stemmed from the fake-news site Empire News (which published the article about Obama forgiving all student debt). We rated it Pants on Fire.

18. This year, the "ALS Ice Bucket Challenge" raised upwards of $100 million for research and assistance for those with the neuromuscular disease, but that didn’t stop charges on social media that "over 73% of all donations raised are going to fundraising, overhead, executive salaries, and external donations. Less than 27% is actually used for the purpose we donated for." In reality, though, nearly 79 percent of the ALS Association’s expenditures were for purposes that advance its stated mission. Fundraising, overhead and executive salaries accounted for no more than 21 percent. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

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18 fact-checks of things that were wrong on the Internet