On September 8, 2023
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:
CLAIM: Officials confirmed an Ebola outbreak at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, where a national emergency was declared.
THE FACTS: Federal health officials told the AP they have not received any reports of Ebola cases at the Nevada event. A screenshot of a supposed post from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirming such cases was fabricated. And there is no record of a national emergency being declared. The claims emerged after summer storm left muddy roads flooded, stranding tens of thousands of partygoers; event organizers let traffic flow out of the main road Monday afternoon. “So it was announced earlier that Burning Man was declared a national emergency because it was flooded, and so they sent in FEMA,” a woman claims in a TikTok video shared on Instagram, suggesting the development was suspicious. The AP found no record, including on federal websites and in White House announcements, of a national emergency declaration and FEMA confirmed that it was not involved in the situation. “No FEMA personnel or assets have been deployed to the Burning Man festival and there are no requests from local or state authorities for our assistance,” FEMA spokesperson Jeremy Edwards said in an email. The TikTok video, like other posts, goes on to relay baseless rumors of reported cases of Ebola, whose occasional outbreaks in humans primarily occur in Africa, at the festival. Some posts also shared an image made to appear that the CDC confirmed the supposed outbreak on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. The purported X post from the agency reads, “Ebola outbreak confirmed at Black Rock City, NV. It is recommended that all Burning Man attendees remain in their dwellings until further notice. Current State of Emergency in progress.” But the CDC’s X account published no such post. “CDC has not received any reports of Ebola at the Burning Man Festival and has not issued any warnings or had any requests for assistance from the state and local health departments either,” agency spokesperson Scott Pauley said in an email. Reverse image searches further show that a graphic about Ebola used in the fictitious CDC post was published by the agency in 2016, but elements of it were changed. For example, the original graphic asks, “Recently in West Africa?” But the version used in the made-up X post asks, “Recently in Nevada?” Referencing more online rumors, Pauley also noted the CDC had not received reports of mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, or Marburg, a rare but severe hemorrhagic fever, in relation to Burning Man. A representative for the Burning Man Project organization also refuted the online claims. “Quite simply, the online rumors of transmissible illnesses in Black Rock City are unfounded and untrue,” Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley said in an email. The festival had been closed to vehicles after more than a half-inch (1.3 centimeters) of rain fell Sept. 1, causing flooding and foot-deep mud, as the AP reported. The annual gathering, which launched on a San Francisco beach in 1986, attracts nearly 80,000 artists, musicians and activists for a mix of wilderness camping and avant-garde performances.
— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in New Jersey contributed this report.
CLAIM: Arkansas is switching to election ballots that are marked by hand rather than by machine.
THE FACTS: There’s been no statewide change in how voters cast ballots, elections officials and voter rights groups in Arkansas say. Residents will still continue to use voting machines in nearly every county in the state. One rural county recently approved a plan to start using paper ballots that voters must mark by hand, and a final vote on that decision is expected later this month. But social media users are claiming Arkansas as a whole is ditching voting machines. “BREAKING: Arkansas will use hand-marked paper ballots in all future elections,” one user wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. Chris Powell, a spokesperson for Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston’s office, in an email called the claim “100% false information.” The vast majority of the state will continue to use the ES&S ExpressVote system for upcoming elections, he said. Under the current process, voters select their candidates on a touch-screen display. The machine then makes corresponding marks on a paper ballot, which is printed out and run through a ballot scanner, which tabulates the vote. Conrad Reynolds, CEO of the Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative, a local group that’s been pushing for counties to switch to hand-marked and hand-counted ballots, confirmed the posts are spreading misinformation. “There is no law or anything at this point saying that the state will go to a paper ballot, period,” he said by phone. Efforts to bring back hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots gained momentum after the 2020 election, fueled by conspiracy theories that voting systems were manipulated, leading to former President Donald Trump’s defeat. But election experts say hand counts take longer and are far less reliable than counting with machines. In Arkansas, just one of the state’s 75 counties has so far decided to switch back to more traditional voting methods, according to Powell and Reynolds. Election commissioners in Searcy County, a rural district with a population of less than 8,000, voted last month to begin using paper ballots that voters fill-in by hand. However that decision still requires a second vote to be finalized. Meanwhile, Cleburne County voted earlier this year to adopt a similar hand-marked ballot process, but the county of nearly 25,000 residents rescinded the decision just months later. Arkansas lawmakers also passed a law this year requiring any counties that switch to hand-marked paper ballots to first tally ballots by machine in order to quickly turn around the initial election results. The ballots can be counted by hand later for the official results.
— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in New York contributed this report.
CLAIM: Vaccines for the flu, measles, mumps and rubella were developed decades ago, yet the diseases haven’t been eradicated, proving that the immunizations don’t work.
THE FACTS: Cases of measles and rubella have been virtually eliminated in the U.S., thanks to vaccines, according to public health agencies and experts. Flu and mumps vaccines, meanwhile, have helped drastically reduce the incidence of serious illness and death from those diseases. Other once-deadly illnesses, such as smallpox and polio, have also all but been eliminated in the country by vaccinations. Still, social media users are casting doubt on the COVID-19 vaccine by sharing a misleading meme that suggests the flu, measles, mumps and rubella still exist even though inoculations against those diseases have been around for decades. “The flu vaccine was invented 78 years ago. The MMR vaccine was invented 60 years ago,” the meme reads. “I might not be a smart man, but I don’t think those vaccines are working.” “How many years will we continue to pretend the COVID (vaccine) works, too?” wrote an Instagram user who shared the meme, using an image of a syringe instead of the word ‘vaccine.’ But the notion that vaccines haven’t had an effect on the four diseases doesn’t hold up. For one thing, measles and rubella have been considered eliminated in the U.S. for almost two decades now because most people in the country are vaccinated against the illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile mumps cases have dropped markedly since the country rolled out vaccines, from more than 150,000 cases a year in 1968 to about 320 last year, according to the CDC. The flu has been more challenging for vaccine developers, because the virus constantly mutates and there are multiple strains of it circulating during any given year, said William Schaffner, a spokesperson for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. But that doesn’t mean the shot is ineffective. “So what we have is a vaccine that can mitigate the worst aspects of influenza, but cannot eliminate the infection completely,” Schaffner explained. The widely shared meme plays on a common misconception that for vaccines to be effective, they must fully eradicate a disease, says Nicholas Pullen, a biology professor at the University of Northern Colorado. Fundamentally, vaccinations are meant to reduce the likelihood of someone getting the disease and lessen its severity and prevent death if contracted, he said. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center, argued that research has demonstrated that the flu vaccine is effective in both regards. During the 2019-2020 flu season, which was the last one before the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines prevented an estimated 7.5 million influenza illnesses and 6,300 influenza-associated deaths, she said, citing CDC data. Flu vaccination has also been shown to reduce severity of illness, Assoumou said, citing a 2021 study in the journal Vaccine, which showed that vaccinated flu patients had a 31% lower risk of death from flu compared with those who were unvaccinated. What’s more, by narrowly focusing on the flu and MMR shots, the social media posts are conveniently ignoring the role vaccines played in virtually eliminating in the U.S. two other once deadly illnesses: smallpox and polio, said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “In short, no it is not a fair argument,” said Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization. “Vaccines work very well, but they only work if they are in arms, not on shelves.”
This piece was republished from The Associated Press.