This year was atypical, dominated by the emergence of the novel coronavirus, which caused a global pandemic and led a large part of the planet's population to get used to a new reality of lockdowns, social distancing measures and the use of face coverings. The health crisis caught the world off guard and found fertile ground for the profusion of a series of false news, from the emergence of the virus to methods of prevention and supposed cures.

Not everything, however, was new this year, and old habits remained, like Donald Trump’s use of social media to spread false claims. Running for a second term as President of the United States, Trump claimed - without evidence - a series of frauds in the American voting system, culminating in his refusal to accept the victory of the elected president, the Democrat Joe Biden.

New in this story was the move by mainstream social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, to start flagging some of Trump’s content as “potentially misleading.” The new feature, however, did not apply only to the American president, representing an important step in the fight against Fake News on social media.

The year 2020 also saw fact-checking services becoming vital tools in this fight against the so-called infodemic. As part of this effort, Blasting News created the project It’s not true, which brings to our readers a weekly selection of the most shared fake news on social media in four languages: English, Portuguese, French, and Italian.

Check out below ten of the most important false claims around the globe during this year.

United States

Claim: Mail-in voting is rife with fraud

Fact: In a series of tweets on May 26, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, has claimed that mail-in voting is “substantially fraudulent” and that the ballots in California would go to “anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there.” Later that day, during a news conference, Trump repeated his claim and said that “people that aren't citizens, illegals, anybody that walks in California is gonna get a ballot.”

Truth: Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and an expert in constitutional law and the law of democracy, reviewed U.S.

general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 to 2014 and found 31 incidents of voter fraud. According to him, in an article published on The Washington Post on August 6, 2014, in general, and primary elections alone, more than 1 billion ballots were cast in that period.

In an interview with CNN, Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, said that while “absentee ballot fraud happens at relatively higher rates than other kinds of election fraud,” that overall rate is still “quite low.”

Twitter labeled Trump's tweets for containing “potentially misleading information” and added a “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” link below the president’s words.

In response, Trump has threatened to regulate or close down social media platforms which “silence conservative voices.”

United States

Claim: George Floyd’s death has been staged and Derek Chauvin is an actor

Facts: Rumours about George Floyd's death being staged circulated on social media in May. A video claimed Floyd was never killed and that Derek Chauvin – the Minnesota police officer who was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death – was an actor.

On May 29, the YouTube conspiracy channel JonXArmy shared a video claiming that George Floyd’s death was staged. The video was shared nearly 100 times on Facebook, reaching 1.3 million people. On Twitter, shared hundreds of times tweets claiming that “George Floyd is not dead.”

Truth: Geroge Floyd was killed by police on May 25, 2020. Derek Chauvin, the agent who was kneeling on Floyd’s neck, was fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. YouTube removed the video posted by JonXArmy, citing its policy on hate speech.

World

Claim: WHO concluded that asymptomatic patients do not transmit Covid-19

Facts: Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization's technical lead for coronavirus response and head of the emerging diseases and zoonoses unit, said during a media briefing in Geneva on June 8: “From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual.” After this statement, the misinterpretation that asymptomatic patients do not transmit the new coronavirus began to circulate on social media.

Truth: On June 9, during a social media Q&A, Van Kerkhove said: “I used the phrase ‘very rare’ and I think that it’s a misunderstanding to state the asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare. What I was referring to was a subset of studies. I was also referring to some data that isn’t published.” “We do know that some people who are asymptomatic, or some people who don't have symptoms, can transmit the virus on. So what we need to better understand is how many of the people in the population don't have symptoms and separately how many of those individuals go on to transmit to others,” she concluded. During the same Q&A session, Dr Michael Ryan, director of the WHO's health emergencies programme, also said he was “absolutely convinced” asymptomatic transmission was occurring, and that the question is how much.

United Kingdom

Claim: Injecting RNA with coronavirus vaccine can alter human DNA

Facts: Posts on social media in December claim that the coronavirus vaccine can alter the DNA of human cells. This claim followed the announcement of the approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in the United Kingdom.

Truth: Some of the candidate vaccines, including the UK approved one developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, use a fragment of the virus’ genetic material called messenger RNA that produces a protein.

The body uses it to build its own copies so the immune system can respond by producing antibodies fighting this protein. “Injecting RNA into a person doesn’t do anything to the DNA of a human cell,” said Professor Jeffrey Almond of Oxford University, reports the BBC.

Nigeria

Claim: Italy’s Ministry of Health declared that doctors found that COVID-19 is caused by bacteria

Facts: A video was shared more than 1,000 times in Nigeria on WhatsApp in June claiming the Italy's Ministry of Health stated that: “Italian doctors disobeyed the world health law WHO, not to do autopsies on the dead of the Coronavirus and they found that it is NOT a VIRUS but a BACTERIA that causes death.”

Truth: As AFP Fact Check reports, the video is a “text-to-speech dictation from the false post with still and moving images.” Indeed, the AFP Fact Check discovered the same images on Facebook.

Moreover, a spokeswoman for the Italian health ministry told AFP Fact Check that the video “is a hoax.” On a medical and scientific point of view, leading health authorities including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control have rejected rumors that antibiotics can be used to cure COVID-19 because it is not caused by bacteria.

Peru

Claim: Infrared thermometer guns can damage the retina

Facts: A video shared more than 28,000 times on Facebook in June warns of the supposed risks that people are exposed to by having their temperatures checked with an infrared thermometer.

“Do not allow them to take your temperature with a laser thermometer gun directly to your face, because if the laser beam touches your eyes it could cause a problem in your retina,” says the video.

Truth: Contrary to what the video says, infrared thermometers do not emit radiation. They are responsible only for capturing the energy emitted by the human body. In an interview with the Peruvian newspaper La Repubblica, specialist in ophthalmology and retinal surgery Héctor Palacios said: “thermometers are used to capture radiation from the body, not to send you a laser beam.” “That red dot seen on infrared thermometers is an indicator of where you are pointing, but it is not damaging the eye or the retina,” he added.

Brazil

Claim: Swabs used to test for COVID-19 can cause brain damage

Facts: An image posted in a Brazilian Facebook account in July and shared more than 1,500 times states that the nasal swabs being used in the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 draw samples from the blood-brain barrier, which if compromised can lead to brain inflammation and death.

The post has the following caption: “Did anyone get scared by the size of this 'swab'? The place where they go to get a sample for the Covid-19 test is called a blood-brain barrier. It is a single layer of cells that protects your brain from heavy metals, pesticides and other toxic substances that are usually kept out. It's how vital nutrients, like oxygen, get to the brain. If your blood barrier is compromised in any way, it becomes an escape brain barrier, which is an inflamed brain!”

Truth: The claim that COVID-19 tests need to collect samples from the blood-brain barrier is false. In an interview with CBN radio, infectologist Ingrid Cotta, from the Beneficência Portuguesa Hospital in São Paulo, said that “the swab is relatively large, but it only penetrates the nasopharynx.

The discomfort it can cause generates some fears. But we need to remember science classes at school: between the nasopharynx and the brain, there are several structures, the nasal mucosa, the skull bone, the blood-brain barrier and the cerebrospinal fluid. The ‘swab’ is not able to pierce the barrier or the skull bone.”

Germany/France

Claim: German high school student died because of the mandatory use of face mask

Facts: German right-wing deputy Birgit Malsack-Winkemann questioned on her Facebook in September the death of a German high school student. She wondered if this was not the “first mask death” and urged “to stop this madness.” Headlines followed after this post such as “Tragic: 13-year-old schoolgirl reportedly dies in Germany over demand for mask,” published on the French poet Guy Boulliane’s website.

Truth: On September 7th, a German girl died after leaving her bus school. The first autopsy results did not provide convincing answers. Experts investigated whether the girl had any underlying health problems but wearing the mask was not cited as a possible cause, says Le Monde. The mask’s side effects are known to be limited to dermatological problems, conjunctivitis and headaches, as Le Monde reports. However, none of them are fatal. Birgit Malsack-Winkemann was asked to delete her post and apologized by her regional party leader, Uwe Junge.

Spain

Claim: Pope Francis asks European women to reproduce with Muslim immigrants to combat low birth rate

Facts: Posts shared on Facebook in June claim that Pope Francis said, in a 2016 interview with the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, that European women should reproduce with Muslim immigrants to combat the low birth rate in Europe.

Truth: According to information from the Spanish fact-checking agency Maldita, this statement is false. The pope did in fact grant an interview to the newspaper La Croix in 2016, in which he spoke about the need for integration of immigrants arriving in Europe and said: “this integration is even more necessary today that Europe suffers from a serious problem of negative birth rates.” The Pontiff, however, at no time says that relations should be between European women and Muslim immigrants.

China

Claim: Image shows Australian soldier killing Afghan child

Facts: In a Twitter post on November 30, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, shared an image of an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife around the neck of a child with a lamb in his arms. “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, call for holding them accountable,” reads the message that follows the post.

Truth: According to information from several fact-checking outlets, the shared image was digitally manipulated. In response to Lijian's post, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, demanded an apology from the Chinese government and said Beijing should be “ashamed” for sharing a “disgusting” image. Lijian's post came after the Australian Defense Force announced it had found “reliable information” that 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the murder of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013.

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