Not Real News: A look at what didn’t happen in recent weeks

click to enlarge Not Real News: A look at what didn’t happen in recent weeks
AP Photo/George Walker IV, File
Customers make their way through the parking lot of a Target store. The Associated Press recently reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming photos of a goat-headed store mannequin and a girl wearing a black shirt with a pentagram design show Target is selling a line of satanic-themed children’s clothing.

Not Real News is a weekly fact check of widely circulated but inaccurate stories.

Target isn’t selling satanic children’s clothes

FALSE CLAIM: Photos of a goat-headed store mannequin and a girl wearing a black shirt with a pentagram design show Target is selling a line of satanic-themed children’s clothing.

THE FACTS: The images were generated with an artificial intelligence text-to-image tool, according to the artist who created them. Target also confirmed it has never sold the merchandise.

Still, amid criticism of the beleaguered retail giant over its LGBTQ+ merchandise for Pride month, social media users circulated the set of synthetic images to claim Target also is selling a new line of children’s clothes featuring satanic imagery. The collage includes a blood red, goat-headed mannequin and a young girl wearing a black shirt with a pentagram.

Another image shows two other children wearing red sweaters, each featuring a white goat’s head with eyes made to resemble Target’s familiar red and white bullseye logo. “If you are still supporting Target... did you KNOW THIS about them?” wrote a Facebook user who shared the image last week. “Selling satanic symbols on children’s apparel???”

But Dan Reese, a software developer in Hellertown, Pa., confirmed in Facebook messages to the AP last Thursday that he created the images over two days last week using a generative AI program developed by Midjourney, a San Francisco-based independent research lab. His Facebook post from May 26 includes the red goat mannequin and other images being widely shared, as well as about a dozen others of children or mannequins dressed in apparel featuring devils, pentagrams and similar imagery.

Reese said he was inspired to create the images following false reports that Target was selling satanic-themed children’s clothes as part of its Pride collection.

“I am a Satanist myself so I thought it would be fun to use AI to explore what Satanic themed kids fashion might actually look like,” he wrote in his Facebook message to the AP.

The focus of the former claims revolved around Target’s inclusion of the brand Abprallen, a London-based company that sells some occult- and satanic-themed LGBTQ+ clothing and accessories, such as popular pins and shirts featuring the phrase “Satan respects pronouns.”

Erik Carnell, the creator of the brand, stressed in a statement posted on Instagram week before last that the company had just three items featured in Target’s collection, and none bore satanic references. The items included a sweatshirt featuring a pastel-colored image of a serpent wrapped around a winged staff with the slogan “Cure Transphobia, Not Trans People;” a messenger bag with a UFO image and the phrase “Too Queer for Here;” and a tote bag with images of planets and the line “We Belong Everywhere,” according to a Carnell’s statement and an announcement ahead of the launch.

Target, a big-box retailer based in Minneapolis, didn’t respond to requests for comment on the removal of the Abprallen items last Thursday, but in a statement the week before said it was removing some items because threats against the company were impacting worker safety and wellbeing.

Target did confirm to the AP that the red goat-headed mannequin and other items portrayed in the images circulating this week aren’t offered in its nearly 2,000 stores nationwide. A review of Target’s website also didn’t turn up any of the purported merchandise.

“Target has never sold these items,” the company wrote in an email.

— Philip Marcelo

Florida permitless carry law hasn’t taken effect, contrary to claims after beach shooting

FALSE CLAIM: A Florida bill signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which allows people to carry concealed weapons without a government permit, went into effect in April.

THE FACTS: DeSantis signed the bill in April, but the new law won't take effect until July 1. Yet following a Memorial Day shooting at a beach near Hollywood, Fla., that injured nine people, some social media users wrongly suggested a connection to the concealed carry legislation.

One tweet that reported news of the May 29 Hollywood Beach shooting states that “in April, DeSantis’ permitless carry went into effect.” It continues: “Let’s be clear: this shooter did not act alone. He was aided by spineless Republicans who refuse to protect us. When will enough be enough?”

But while DeSantis did sign a bill April 3 that will allow anyone who can legally own a gun in Florida to carry one without a government-issued permit, the law doesn't go into effect until next month. The new law means that training and a background check will no longer be required to carry concealed guns in public, though it will still be possible to obtain a permit. While a background check and three-day waiting period will still be required to purchase a gun from a licensed dealer, they already aren't needed for private transactions or exchanges of weapons.

Police launched a search May 30 for three suspects they believe to be the gunmen who opened fire along the crowded Hollywood Beach promenade. The shooting began as a group of people fought in front of a busy stretch of shops at about 7 p.m. on Monday. Two people involved in the altercation were arrested on firearms charges. Nine people were injured in the shooting, including four children. Six of those shot remain hospitalized in stable condition, while three have been released, the AP has reported.

— Melissa Goldin

European Union didn’t advise against COVID vaccines for pregnant women

FALSE CLAIM: The European Union now is advising that pregnant women shouldn't receive COVID-19 vaccines because of the risk of infertility and miscarriage.

THE FACTS: The European Medicines Agency continues to support COVID-19 immunizations for pregnant women, the agency confirmed. An announcement that concerns menstrual bleeding, which is being cited to spread the false claim, is from October 2022 and explicitly stated that the vaccines still are safe before and during pregnancy.

But social media users last week falsely asserted the European Union had changed its tune on the vaccines. “The European Union is now warning pregnant women not to get the COVID-19 vaccine due to the possibility of infertility and miscarriage,” reads one popular tweet that also was shared on Instagram. But there was no such announcement, the EMA confirmed to the AP.

“The claims circulating online alleging that EMA is advising pregnant women not to receive COVID-19 vaccines as these would ‘cause infertility’ are false,” the agency said in a statement. In fact, the agency’s website currently states: “People who are pregnant or who might become pregnant soon are encouraged to receive COVID-19 vaccines in line with national recommendations.”

The Twitter account sharing the claim cited a statement from the EMA that said its risk assessment committee had “recommended that heavy menstrual bleeding should be added to the product information as a side effect of unknown frequency of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines Comirnaty and Spikevax,” referring to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, respectively. That announcement, while accurate, is from October 2022 and actually said the data at the time continued to provide “reassurance” about using the vaccines both before and during pregnancy.

“After reviewing the data, the Committee concluded that there is at least a reasonable possibility that the occurrence of heavy menstrual bleeding is causally associated with these vaccines and therefore recommended the update of the product information,” the EMA said. “The available data reviewed involved mostly cases which appeared to be non-serious and temporary in nature.”

The announcement added: “There is no evidence to suggest the menstrual disorders experienced by some people have any impact on reproduction and fertility. Available data provides reassurance about the use of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines before and during pregnancy.”

Some online suggested heavy menstrual bleeding was in and of itself evidence the vaccines cause fertility issues. But experts say that’s not the case.

“While certain causes of heavy menstrual bleeding can affect fertility, such as fibroids, heavy bleeding, on its own, does not affect fertility,” Dr. Katharine White, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University, told the AP in an email. “Any heaviness of a menses after the COVID vaccine is likely to be a short-term change, and thus, there’s no reason it should affect the chances of getting pregnant.”

White said menstrual cycle disruptions in general “may affect fertility, in that if cycle timing is inconsistent (some cycles long, some short), it can be harder to time intercourse with ovulation.”

But that can be overcome by increasing the frequency of sex when trying to conceive, she added.

— Associated Press writers Angelo Fichera in New Jersey and Melissa Goldin in New York contributed this report.

Nothing ‘secret’ about Arizona voting machine testing shown on video, officials say

FALSE CLAIM: Newly released video shows election officials in Arizona’s Maricopa County illegally conducting “secret” voting equipment tests ahead of last November’s contested midterms.

THE FACTS: The video comes from the county’s live broadcast of the election process last fall and isn’t new footage. Election officials say it shows the installation and testing of new memory cards on ballot counting machines just days before the November election. But social media users are falsely suggesting the video is new evidence of ballot rigging in the contested November election in the county, which covers the Phoenix area.

The video shows a small group of election staffers working on vote tabulation machines in a large warehouse-like space. “New *video evidence* of Maricopa election officials illegally breaking into sealed election machines after they were tested, reprogramming memory cards,” wrote one Twitter user in a post that had been liked or shared more than 133,000 times as of last Thursday.

“This is the story of a sabotage,” tweeted the campaign of Kari Lake, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Arizona governor, sharing the video.

But there’s nothing new about the clip and it doesn’t show anything clandestine, say election officials and experts. Matt Roberts, a spokesperson for Maricopa County Election Department, said the video clips are from the county’s own livestream of its ballot tabulation center on Oct. 14, 17 and 18. He said workers in the video are installing new memory cards into the machines and then running test ballots to make sure the system is operating properly, a process that happens before every election. The county government also responded to the claims on Twitter, noting the idea that voting machines were secretly tested prior to the election came up in Lake’s lawsuit challenging the election, and that the judge found it “unconvincing.”

Lake’s campaign argued in a legal filing earlier this month that 260 of the 446 vote center tabulators registered errors during this purportedly secret testing process, foreshadowing problems that would occur on Election Day, leading her to lose the governor’s office by some 17,000 votes.

“They know they’re in hot water, the county’s own system logs tell the true story,” the campaign wrote in an email to the AP, referencing the argument.

But the county, in a response filed in the court case, argued that Lake was misinterpreting the machine logs, assuming every instance when they noted a “ballot misread” or “paper jam” error represented a serious malfunction. The county said a range of situations could lead to the error messages, such as a ballot that’s inserted slightly askew.

“These entries do not indicate failure; rather, they are a normal part of both testing tabulators and voting on them,” the county wrote in its filing.

Weeks later, Maricopa County Superior Court judge dismissed Lake’s suit and affirmed the election of Democrat Katie Hobbs as governor, writing that “the evidence presented falls far below what is needed to establish a basis for fraud.”

Paul Smith-Leonard, a spokesperson for the Arizona Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections statewide, confirmed that the county’s description of its pre-election preparations was accurate. Tammy Patrick, CEO of programs at the National Association of Election Officials and a former officer in the Maricopa County Elections Department, agreed, stressing there’s nothing secret about the ballot counting process.

“The live feed starts with the initial logic and accuracy testing and remains up until equipment is tested post-election,” Patrick explained in an email. “It is live for weeks in advance, 24X7, has been that way for every election, for YEARS.”

— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in New York contributed this report.

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