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Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks May 11, 2019, in Atlanta. She’s a woman, but 2023’s most-clicked social media fact-checks debunked claims that she isn’t. (AP) Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks May 11, 2019, in Atlanta. She’s a woman, but 2023’s most-clicked social media fact-checks debunked claims that she isn’t. (AP)

Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks May 11, 2019, in Atlanta. She’s a woman, but 2023’s most-clicked social media fact-checks debunked claims that she isn’t. (AP)

Matthew Crowley
By Matthew Crowley December 21, 2023

Once more, with feeling. Michelle Obama is not, never was a man, even if social media users argued otherwise all year long.

False statements about whether Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates was trying to poison people through produce, whether Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes used illegal drugs during the Super Bowl and whether Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., had become suddenly, wildly rich were among 2023’s most clicked-on fact-checks from social media.

Three checks involving Michelle Obama’s gender made the top 15, which included nine Pants on Fire rulings. Here they are, all the way to the most clicked-on social media fact-check of 2023: 

15. Instagram posts (translated from the Spanish): "In WhatsApp you can read all the conversations of your partner, "you just have to dial *785# their phone number* # and that’s it."

Our ruling: False

In May, an Instagram post in Spanish claimed to have a trick that would allow people to spy on other people’s WhatsApp messages, but there’s no such trick. Meta, WhatsApp’s owner, told PolitiFact that the code provided in the post is False and that WhatsApp’s technology does not allow a person to read someone else's conversations. End-to-end- encryption technology ensures that only you and the person or people you are communicating with can read and hear what has been sent. PolitiFact also tried the supposed trick; the phone screen turned gray and no conversation appeared. 

14. Facebook posts: Actor Isaac Kappy was murdered for exposing Hollywood pedophiles.

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

Social media users claimed actor Tom Hanks killed fellow actor Issac Kappy, whose movie credits include "Thor" and "Terminator: Salvation," to silence him. During a 2018 episode of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ radio show, Kappy had alleged without evidence that Hanks, among other Hollywood stars, was a pedophile. This claim made Kappy "a minor celebrity in Q-adjacent communities," Slate said. The Arizona Department of Public Safety said in 2019 that Kappy died that year after jumping off a bridge near Bellemont, Arizona.

13. Facebook posts: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul wants "quarantine camps" and "imprisonment" if you’re suspected of having a disease.

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

A Facebook post said New York’s Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, wanted "quarantine camps" and to "imprison people" suspected of having a disease because her administration was appealing a court decision about coronavirus pandemic isolation and quarantine procedures. Under a disputed New York state rule, quarantine and isolation settings can include temporary housing locations chosen by a public health authority, though in most cases, people would voluntarily isolate in their homes. New York state hadn’t operated camps for people infected with COVID-19, and experts said the state wouldn’t start.

12. Instagram post: Photo shows former first lady Michelle Obama as a man.

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

A May Instagram post purported to prove a conspiracy theory’s notion that Michelle Obama is a man. It showed former President Barack Obama with his arm around Michelle Obama, the former first lady, but the photo had been doctored to make her appear masculine.

11.  Facebook posts: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., "is now worth $29 million dollars."

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

A March Facebook post showed Ocasio-Cortez’s photo with the text: "A broke bartender elected to Congress … with a salary of $155,000 a year is now worth $29 million dollars?"  Congress members must file financial disclosures that list assets, liabilities and income sources beyond their salaries. Ocasio-Cortez’s September 2022 disclosure report showed assets of $4,004 to $60,000 (a savings account, a checking account, a brokerage account and a 401(k) plan, each valued at $1,000 to $15,000). The report also listed $15,001 to $50,000 in student loans under liabilities. This means Ocasio-Cortez’s liabilities could outweigh her assets — and that her net worth was far from $29 million.

10. Occupy Democrats: "Obama imposed stricter rules on trains carrying toxins. Trump killed them."

Our ruling: Mostly True

A freight train derailed in February in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling toxic chemicals and forcing residents to evacuate. Afterward, Facebook and Twitter posts claimed former President Barack Obama set tougher regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials that former President Donald Trump later repealed. The Obama administration enacted a rule in 2015 requiring high-hazard flammable unit trains to be outfitted with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes by 2023. In 2018, the Trump administration repealed this rule, citing government reports that found the cost of requiring these kinds of brakes was not economically justified.

9. Instagram posts: An Instagram video shows a man confronting President Joe Biden about an inappropriate relationship with a 13-year-old girl.

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

An Instagram video appears to show a man confronting Biden about an inappropriate relationship with a 13-year-old girl. The video spliced together an interview of Biden discussing his performance at a Democratic presidential debate in 2019 and clips from the Dateline NBC reality show, "To Catch a Predator," which television journalist Chris Hansen hosted. Biden has been the target of pedophilia attacks for years, but we’ve found no credible evidence to support such claims. 

8. Instagram posts: "The day before 9/11 the Pentagon reported $2.3 trillion missing."

Our ruling: False

Social media resurfaced a conspiracy theory linking the Defense Department to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. One post included a clip of Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, saying, "According to some estimates we cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions." But that quote is taken out of context. Long before 9/11, government records, news reports and an official’s testimonies detailed accounting entries totaling that amount that lacked adequate audit trails. Rumsfeld mentioned this during a Sept. 10, 2001, speech about Defense Department bureaucracy. "Our financial systems are decades old. By some estimates, we cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions. We cannot share information from floor to floor in this building because it's stored on dozens of technological systems that are inaccessible or incompatible."

7. Instagram posts: Bill Gates is coating your organic produce with a "dangerous chemical."

Our ruling: False

Health-minded grocery shoppers might have rejoiced when California tech startup Apeel Sciences created an edible coating, made of purified monoglycerides and diglycerides, to improve fresh produce’s shelf life. But some social media users weren’t impressed, and spread unfounded claims about the product’s safety. An April Instagram post shared what it said were safety sheets warning of Apeel’s perils. But those sheets were from Evans Vanodine, a United Kingdom company unrelated to Apeel Sciences that sells a hard surface cleaning product also called Apeel. And though the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, co-founded by Microsoft Corp.’s co-founder, Bill Gates, gave money to Apeel Sciences, experts said there’s no evidence that the plant-based product is dangerous.

6. Facebook posts: A fact-check proves Michelle Obama is "a he."

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

A Facebook post cited a Sept. 22 Snopes fact-check of claims that newly released images showed the former first lady pregnant. The pictures are clearly fabricated; the face looks different from one image to the next and doesn’t resemble Obama. In one image, a hand has six fingers. The post didn’t corroborate the long unfounded claim that Obama is a man.

5.  Instagram posts: Elon Musk said a new Tesla feature can scan testicles and use that information "to biometrically unlock and start the car."

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

A March Instagram video claims to show Elon Musk announcing a new feature on the electric cars Tesla, one of his companies, makes. "Yeah, so the newest Tesla feature is that the seat will take a high resolution scan of your balls," Musk appears to say in the March video. "You can then use your ball print to biometrically unlock and start the car. We call the tech ‘particular testicular detection.’" But this video is a deepfake. A reverse-image search traced the image to Musk’s March interview at the World Government Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In the real video, Musk discussed misinformation on X and the search for a new X CEO. He never mentioned "particular testicular detection."

4. Facebook posts: "MMA fighter Victoria Lee died because of a COVID-19 vaccine."

Our ruling: False

Eighteen-year-old mixed martial arts fighter Victoria Lee died in December 2022. In January, her sister, Angela Lee, shared on Instagram that Lee had died on Dec. 26, 2022. She gave no cause of death, but urged people to "check on your loved ones." But some social media posts suggested Lee died because of a COVID-19 vaccine. "Murdered by injection," a Facebook post said. Lee’s sister and the funeral home that published her obituary didn’t answer our request for comment at press time, but remembrances her family or friends shared didn’t mention the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said reports of people dying after they receive a COVID-19 vaccine are rare, and doctors and experts have said that the vaccine is safe and effective in preventing disease, hospitalization and death. In September, Angela Lee, also an MMA fighter, shared in a first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune that Victoria had died by suicide. 

3. Instagram posts: Joan Rivers was killed for revealing that Barack Obama is gay and Michelle Obama is transgender.

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

This check, featuring a video of a 2014 interview with comedian Joan Rivers, posited that Rivers was killed for revealing a "truth" about the Obamas’ sexual orientations. In the video, an interviewer asks about a gay wedding Rivers officiated and says, "Do you think that the United States will see the first gay president or the first woman president?" Rivers replies, "Well, we already have it with Obama, so let’s just calm down. You know Michelle is a  … transgender. We all know." But the Obamas aren’t gay or transgender. And Rivers, who died in September 2014, wasn’t murdered; she died from complications after a medical procedure to evaluate her vocal cords.

2. X posts: The Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl win has been "put on hold as NFL plans to launch an investigation on possible (performance-enhancing drug) use by Patrick Mahomes during halftime."

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

In February, the Kansas City Chiefs erased a first-half deficit and defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. But an X poster claimed the result could be ruled illegitimate, because the National Football League would investigate Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes for using performance enhancing drugs at halftime. "Sources confirm his rapid postgame drug test came back POSITIVE and if guilty the Chiefs could be stripped of the win," the post claimed. An account labeled Simon Charles, "esteemed sports journalist," made the post. But the account’s profile picture came from a blog post about headshots, and though the Boston Globe logo looms behind the profile picture, the newspaper’s staff directory listed no Simon Charles. There was no evidence the NFL was investigating players, including Mahomes, for suspected use of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs.

1. Facebook posts: "Official govt docs expose Michelle Obama’s 14 year history as a man."

Our ruling: Pants on Fire

Michelle Obama. Again. A February Facebook post cited what a July 2022 News Punch blog post described as "official documents obtained from the Illinois State Board of Elections" that supposedly "reveal Obama officially changed her sex to female." The image in the blog and Facebook posts appeared to show a voter registration card for Michelle Obama. "M" is circled In the space for the applicant’s sex. Obama’s maiden name is misspelled in a section for the applicant’s name, if changed: "Michelle L Robison." Her maiden name is Robinson. An Illinois State Board of Elections spokesperson told PolitiFact his agency doesn’t keep original voter registration cards like the one in the posts. He said that for Michelle Obama, "We have no record of this voter’s record ever indicating any gender other than female."  

PolitiFact Staff Writer Maria Briceño contributed to this story.

CORRECTION, Jan. 3, 2024: We updated this article with the accurate year of Victoria Lee's death. 

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