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Haley BeMiller
By Haley BeMiller December 28, 2020

From presidential politics to the pandemic, 2020 was unquestionably a year for misinformation.

And too many times, we saw politicians, partisan television hosts and social media users go a step further than false and make absurd claims that strayed from reality.

That, of course, would be our Pants on Fire rating, which we reserve for any statement that’s not accurate and makes a ridiculous assertion. Many of the claims we came across were floating around on Facebook. And many were related to the presidential race. But we found them everywhere — even down to the Milwaukee comptroller’s race.

Here’s a sample of claims that earned the Pants on Fire label. 

"Violent crime rates increased in all but two Wisconsin cities between 2008 and 2017."

-- State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin

Arguing for a series of tough-on-crime bills, Sanfelippo said in a statewide radio address that violent crime "increased in all but two Wisconsin cities between 2008 and 2017."

Almost every word of that was wrong.

Any comparison should have factored in the 2018 data, which was available at the time. The comparisons shouldn’t include the many places where reporting practices changed. And even the use of the word cities was wrong since the dataset includes towns and villages.

Most importantly, Sanfelippo misstated the claim he was trying to repeat. In actuality, there were more than 100 Wisconsin municipalities where the crime rate did not rise — more than half the communities included in the best available FBI data.

Says Deputy Comptroller Aycha Sawa "blocked an audit" of the Milwaukee lead program for three years that "put our children in danger" and spurred a criminal investigation.

-- Leaders for a Better Community

In an already bizarre year for Wisconsin politics, we naturally had a down-and-dirty race for Milwaukee comptroller. And this ad was a wild exaggeration at every turn.

Sawa’s oversight of city audits ended in 2015, well before any concerns with Milwaukee’s lead testing program publicly came to light. And, in any case, there was never any suggested or proposed audit brought forward that she could block.

Implying she continued blocking something for a three-year span was pure fiction — as was the claim that her actions spurred a criminal investigation. The investigation was of the health department, not Sawa or the comptroller’s office.

And, of course, an audit had in fact been done.

Says Jill Karofsky as a prosecutor "went easy on" a Madison man in a 1999 sexual assault case

-- Republican State Leadership Committee

Remember the state Supreme Court race?

Back in March, a pair of attack ads claimed Jill Karofsky — who went on to defeat Daniel Kelly in the April 7 election — was "soft" as a prosecutor because she allowed a man charged with child enticement and first-degree sexual assault of a child to get away with no jail time.

A plea agreement in Donald Worley’s case reduced both offenses to misdemeanors, and Worley was sentenced to three years probation with no jail time.

But Karofsky had no part in that. She didn’t become a prosecutor in the case until more than a year after the plea agreement. The ads were based on sloppy research that misunderstood the format and meaning of the online case records.

Says Joe Biden stuck a gun in an elderly woman’s mouth at a Wisconsin rally

-- Facebook post

A picture and caption that made the rounds on Facebook claimed to show Joe Biden, then a Democratic presidential contender, sticking a gun in a woman’s mouth at a 2019 rally in Wisconsin.

It was actually an altered photo from a 2008 event in Florida, with the gun digitally added, and had been circulating online for at least eight years. Plus, Biden didn’t even visit Wisconsin in 2019.

"The mainstream media pretended there was a deadly surge in COVID cases thanks to Wisconsinites voting."

-- One America News

The big question of the spring was whether Wisconsin’s April election, held in the early stages of the pandemic, would impact the state’s COVID-19 case numbers. The issue naturally fueled false and misleading claims, as well.

Liz Wheeler of the far-right One America News Network claimed in a May video posted to Facebook that "mainstream media pretended there was a deadly surge in COVID cases thanks to Wisconsinites voting" in the spring election.

We didn’t find a single traditional or "mainstream" news outlet that characterized the election-related cases as a surge or anything close to that — much less anything that would support this kind of sweeping generalization.

The reports prominently noted the caveat that officials couldn’t say for certain that the election caused the cases we were aware of, and they made no exaggerated claims about how large those numbers were.

So Wheeler was flat wrong in both her claim about coverage and the related implication from the use of "pretended" that something was reported wrong intentionally.

Says Gov. Tony Evers "is proposing a new plan, a 150 day shutdown of the state (5 MONTHS!) followed by a 120 day extension."

-- Facebook post

After the state Supreme Court threw out Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order in May, a Facebook post said Evers was proposing a five-month shutdown of the state, plus a 120-day extension.

At no time did the Evers administration suggest this. The Supreme Court ruling meant Evers had to turn to the emergency rulemaking process through the Legislature. That process includes limits and timetables for any such rule.

The Facebook post wrongly conflated that timetable with the governor’s plan to reopen the state. As such, it was entirely incorrect and went a step further by encouraging people to spread misinformation.

Says Gov. Tony Evers "removed the American flag from the Capitol building"

-- Facebook post 

A Facebook post claimed Evers ordered the U.S. flag removed from the state Capitol, posting as support a picture of an empty flagpole.

Our research found that photo was taken seven weeks before the Facebook post in front of the west wing of the Capitol, which is home to the state Assembly chambers. The flag only flies when the Assembly is in session, and it wasn’t that day.

"Actually, I won Wisconsin."

-- President Donald Trump

A lot of people spouted lies about the presidential election in Wisconsin, but this one took the cake. 

Trump made this claim during a December rally in Georgia despite a preponderance of evidence that President-elect Joe Biden won the state, such as Election Day tallies and a partial recount in Dane and Milwaukee counties.   

Meanwhile, judges from the circuit court level to the U.S. Supreme Court rejected repeated efforts by the Trump campaign to overturn Wisconsin’s election results. And there is no credible evidence that suggests Trump won here.

The president's claim was outlandish, to say the least. 


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