FactCheck

Survey Says: Trump Misleads on Debate Performances

Railing against a Fox News guest who said Donald Trump won the presidency despite poor debate performances, Trump held up a series of opt-in online surveys to misleadingly claim that “polls” showed he “won every single debate.” Scientific polls showed otherwise.

In an extended riff that lasted more than 10 minutes during a rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Feb. 20, Trump took issue with comments made by Real Clear Politics Associate Editor A.B. Stoddard, who cautioned viewers not to count out Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg even though the former New York City mayor looked “uncoachable” and committed “many blunders” in the Democratic debate on Feb. 19.

“I think that Donald Trump had disastrous debate performances. Many answers were so cringeworthy, you just couldn’t even believe he was still standing on the stage, and he’s president,” Stoddard said on Neil Cavuto’s Fox News program on Feb. 20.

Trump initially lashed out on Twitter saying that “I won every one of my debates,” and challenged Stoddard and Cavuto to “[c]heck the polls taken immediately after the debates.”

Could somebody at @foxnews please explain to Trump hater A.B. Stoddard (zero talent!) and @TeamCavuto, that I won every one of my debates, from beginning to end. Check the polls taken immediately after the debates. The debates got me elected. Must be Fox Board Member Paul Ryan!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2020

Trump expounded on that during the rally in Colorado a few hours later, again referencing the segment on Cavuto’s show but refusing to use Stoddard’s name.

“And I said, wait a minute, I won every debate, it’s true,” Trump said. “And we sent them polls. Poll after poll after poll. Not only won them, but I won them by a lot. … I’m just saying, every poll — you you know they do those polls right after 3, 4, 500,000 people. Time magazine.'”

Two minutes later, Dan Scavino, the Trump campaign’s social media manager, handed Trump a stack of news clippings. Trump then spent the next 10 minutes reading numbers from what he called “polls” taken by Time, CNBC, Drudge and others immediately after the debates that indicated the public overwhelmingly believed Trump won all of the primary and general election debates.

“I won every single debate,” Trump said. “Then three and a half, four years later, I have to listen to a person saying how we didn’t do well. Because these people [Trump then pointed toward the press] are among the most dishonest people anywhere in the world.”

We reached out to the Trump campaign for details about which polls specifically Trump was citing, but we did not get a response.

However, from the ones that Trump held up, we could see that he was referring to online opt-in surveys such as these from Time and CNBC, in which readers are asked to respond or vote online for who they thought won the debate. They are not scientific polls, and they carry disclaimers making that clear.

  • From a Time survey after the second Republican primary debate, published on Sept. 17, 2015: “DISCLAIMER: This web poll is informal, not scientific. It reflects opinions of site visitors who voluntarily participate. Results may not represent the opinions of the public as a whole.”
  • From a Time survey after the 12th Republican primary debate, published on March 11, 2016: “A disclaimer: Online reader polls like this one are not statistically representative of eligible primary voters. They are a measure, however imprecise, of which candidates have the most energized online supporters, or most social media savvy fan base.”
  • From a CNBC survey after an Oct. 28, 2015, Republican primary debate: “Disclaimer: This is an informal poll. Results are not scientific and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the public as a whole.”

After the first general election debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton on Sept. 26, 2016, Trump tweeted the results of more than a half dozen of such informal polls, commenting, “Such a great honor. Final debate polls are in – and the MOVEMENT wins!” At the rally, Trump read the results from three of those polls — including two from the conservative outlets Breitbart and Drudge, both of which showed more than 75% of respondents thought Trump won the debate.

But those opt-in, online surveys stand in stark contrast to the result of scientific polls. Here’s a sampling of those polls on who won the first debate:

CNN/ORC International: Clinton 62%, Trump 27%.

Public Policy Polling: Clinton 51%, Trump 40%.

YouGov: Clinton 57%, Trump 30%.

Politico/Morning Consult: Clinton 49%, Trump 26%.

Echelon Insights: Clinton 48%, Trump 22%.

Reuters/Ipsos: Clinton 56%, Trump 26%.

NBC News/Survey Monkey: Clinton 52%, Trump 21%.

Gallup: Clinton 61%, Trump 27%.

Fox News: Clinton 61%, Trump 21%.

Washington Post-ABC: Clinton 53%, Trump 18%.

The statistical website FiveThirtyEight, which is owned by ABC News, wrote on Sept. 28, 2016: “Every scientific poll we’ve encountered so far suggests that voters thought Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Monday night’s debate.”

Experts at the American Association for Public Opinion Research warn that opt-in internet surveys are notoriously unreliable, and they have cautioned that self-selection into a survey means that it is not randomized “making it impossible to know the probability or likelihood of any particular individual being included in a study.”

After several Fox News hosts cited online opt-in surveys to suggest that Trump won the debate, Fox News’ vice president of public-opinion research, Dana Blanton, sent a memo to producers and the politics team reminding them that such polls “do not meet our editorial standards.”

In the memo — obtained by Business Insider — Blanton wrote that “online ‘polls’ like the one on Drudge, Time, etc. where people can opt-in or self-select … are really just for fun.”

“News networks and other organizations go to great effort and rigor to conduct scientific polls — for good reason,” Blanton wrote. “They know quick vote items posted on the web are nonsense, not true measures of public opinion.”

“As most of the publications themselves clearly state, the sample obviously can’t be representative of the electorate because they only reflect the views of those Internet users who have chosen to participate,” Blanton wrote. “Another problem — we know some campaigns/groups of supporters encourage people to vote in online polls and flood the results.”

Indeed, The Daily Dot, which covers internet culture, reported after the first general election debate in 2016 that Trump supporters used sites like Reddit and 4Chan to bombard the online surveys and manipulate the results in Trump’s favor. Whether that happened, or to what degree, is impossible to know, but the fact that it could have happened points to the unreliability of such surveys.

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Sanders Didn’t Call for 52% Tax on $29,000 Incomes

Quick Take

A viral post claims, falsely, that Sen. Bernie Sanders at a recent debate called for a tax rate of 52% on incomes of $29,000 or more to pay for his Medicare for All plan. He didn’t. That figure was floated as a potential marginal tax rate for income above $10 million.

Full Story 

A viral post on social media falsely claims that presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders recently proposed a 52% tax rate for those making $29,000 annually.

The post, titled “Bernie Sanders Insane Policies,” correctly notes that Sanders said “at the debate last night” — presumably the Feb. 19 Democratic debate in Las Vegas — that he wants the minimum wage to rise to $15 per hour (a position he’s long held). But it invents a supposed “answer” that Sanders provided in response to a question about how he would pay for Medicare for All, his proposal for a universal government-run health insurance system.

The claim spread rapidly on Facebook and Twitter after the most recent debate and was propelled by the well-followed Twitter account of the actor James Woods, a supporter of President Donald Trump.

“His answer was raise taxes to 52% on anybody making over $29,000 per year,” the post erroneously says, before diving into a math equation intended to show that such an exorbitant tax rate would render a higher minimum wage ineffective.

But Sanders didn’t call for a 52% income tax rate for those making $29,000 at the debate, the transcript shows, or elsewhere that we could find.

Sanders has put forth several ways to raise revenue to pay for Medicare for All. In one document posted by Sanders, he suggested a potential marginal tax rate of 52% on income above $10 million — meaning taxable income earned after the first $10 million would be taxed at that rate.

Another Sanders document on financing the plan, from last year, suggests that the rate could be higher for income above $10 million. It suggests “[m]aking the federal income tax more progressive, including a marginal tax rate of up to 70 percent on those making above $10 million, taxing earned and unearned income at the same rates, and limiting tax deductions for filers in the top tax bracket.”

As for the $29,000 figure, the same financing proposal calls for a potential “4 percent income-based premium paid by employees, exempting the first $29,000 in income for a family of four.” Under a Medicare for All system, health care costs currently paid by individuals, employers, private insurers, and state and local governments would shift to the federal government.

Sanders has come under criticism from some of his Democratic competitors over the costs of his universal health care plan and how to pay for it. As we’ve explained before, there have been various estimates — including one study published by his 2016 presidential campaign that said the plan would reduce national health spending by $6.3 trillion over 10 years. Others have found national spending would increase by $6.6 trillion over 10 years.

A recent Yale study — the lead author of which disclosed that she was an “informal unpaid adviser” to Sanders’ office for his 2019 Medicare for All Act — concluded the plan could reduce national health care spending by more than $450 billion annually.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Financing Medicare for All.” Office of Sen. Bernie Sanders. 2019.

Full transcript: Ninth Democratic debate in Las Vegas.” NBC News. 20 Feb 2020.

Kiely, Eugene, et. al. “FactChecking the New Hampshire Democratic Debate.” FactCheck.org. 8 Feb 2020.

Robertson, Lori. “The Facts on Medicare for All.” FactCheck.org. 24 Apr 2019.

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Family Separation Spin in Nevada

A misleading Spanish-language TV ad from a group backing President Donald Trump claims that then-President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden “separated families and put children in cages” while it shows images of minors who were temporarily detained after crossing the southern border on their own — without a parent or guardian.

Immigration experts say that some families who illegally migrated to the U.S. together were separated under the Obama administration, but there was no blanket policy to criminally prosecute the parents and, therefore, separate them from their children, which is what happened early in the Trump administration. A 2019 report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general also said that “historically” such family “separations were rare and occurred because of circumstances such as a parent’s medical emergency or a determination that the parent was a threat to the child’s safety.”

The Committee to Defend the President, a pro-Trump hybrid group that can operate as a super PAC and a traditional political action committee, reported spending $225,000 to run the ad attacking Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, in Nevada starting on Feb. 19, just three days before the state’s Democratic caucuses. As of Feb. 21, it had aired at least 70 times combined in Las Vegas and Reno, according to Advertising Analytics.

The Census Bureau estimates that about 30% of Nevadans are Hispanic or Latino.

https://cdn.factcheck.org/UploadedFiles/committeetodefendthepresident_alreadylied.mp4

 

As a female narrator speaks in Spanish, viewers see a translation that reads: “Barack Obama & Joe Biden promised to reform immigration. We didn’t know, it was a lie. They separated families and put children in cages. Barack Obama & Joe Biden failed. Now, Joe Biden is promising to reform immigration… is he lying again?”

At the same time, black and white images on screen show young people, some with foil blankets, sleeping on thin mats inside of chain link enclosures. However, the images are not of children whom Obama-era border officials separated from their families, as the ad could lead voters to believe. Instead, the Associated Press images — which were originally in color — show some of the tens of thousands of mostly Central American minors who were apprehended while crossing into the U.S. from Mexico without any parent in 2014.

The unaccompanied children were taken to a “makeshift border-town processing center” in Nogales, Arizona, according to a June 2014 story in the Arizona Republic that included the photos of them “behind 18-foot-high chain-link fences topped with razor wire.”

“The Nogales facility is a way station where the children are identified, examined for health problems by the U.S. Public Health Service, vaccinated and then moved to other facilities in Texas, Oklahoma and California until they are placed with relatives already in the country to await their day in Immigration Court,” the article explained.

Jeh Johnson, who was the secretary of the Department Homeland Security at the time, said in June 2019 that such facilities were erected quickly because the administration needed a place to temporarily hold the children who were coming in such large numbers. And “they put those chain link partitions up,” he said, “so you could segregate young women from young men, kids from adults, until they were either released or transferred to HHS,” or the Department of Health and Human Services, as required by law.

While the narrator of the anti-Biden commercial says that Obama and Biden “separated families and put children in cages,” a citation at the top of the screen reads, “Source: AP News 5/30/18.” An AP fact-check published that day said that critics of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that resulted in family separations at the border had wrongly circulated the photos taken at the Arizona border facility in 2014, under Obama, as if they were from 2018, under Trump.

But even that fact-check noted that an AP caption on the photos “refers to U.S. efforts to process 47,000 unaccompanied children at the Nogales center and another one in Brownsville, Texas.”

Immigration experts previously told us that family separations did occur under Obama, but not at the same scale as they did under Trump. One of those experts was Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

In an explainer piece for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s website in June 2018, Brown and her co-author, Tim O’Shea, wrote that prior to Trump: “Some children may have been separated from the adults they entered with, in cases where the family relationship could not be established, child trafficking was suspected, or there were not sufficient family detention facilities available. … However, the zero-tolerance policy is the first time that a policy resulting in separation is being applied across the board.”

That was later confirmed by the HHS inspector general’s January 2019 report, which found that such separations were “rare” and had largely occurred if the parent had a “medical emergency” or was deemed a “threat to the child’s safety.” That changed under Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, which “separated large numbers of alien families, with adults being held in Federal detention while their children were transferred to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS),” the report said.

But the anti-Biden ad by the pro-Trump group mentions none of that, and instead misleadingly uses images of unaccompanied minors to illustrate a claim about Biden separating families.

The Trump administration has identified more than 4,300 children it says were affected by its policies, according to a Jan. 13 court filing in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. DHS couldn’t provide us with any statistics on how many children may have been separated from their parents under the Obama administration.

The HHS inspector general said that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that assumes responsibility for the children once they are separated from their parents, had only “begun informally tracking separations in 2016.”

The post Family Separation Spin in Nevada appeared first on FactCheck.org.

Misinformation Outlasts Virginia Gun Bill

Quick Take

A Virginia bill that would have banned the sale of “assault firearms” has been tabled for a year, but misinformation about it continues to circulate online — including a false claim that the state will confiscate guns.

Full Story

Thousands of demonstrators from around the country, some of them heavily armed, descended on Virginia’s Capitol last month to protest a bill there that would have banned the sale of guns defined as “assault firearms.” Concerns about the protest prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency, but the demonstration was ultimately peaceful and without serious incident.

The bill grew into a lightning rod for the gun-control debate as national attention turned to Virginia following an election in November that gave Democrats control of both chambers in the state legislature for the first time since 1993.

During a press conference the day after the election, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, committed to passing what he termed “common-sense gun legislation.” Referring to gun violence, he said, “I really think a large part of the results that we saw yesterday were Virginians saying that they’ve had enough.”

Northam had proposed a package of gun control measures in July, about a month after a shooting killed 12 people at a municipal building in Virginia Beach. Among the proposed measures was a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and silencers.

The bill introduced in Virginia’s House of Delegates on Jan. 7 came from that proposal. It passed Virginia’s House of Delegates on Feb. 11, but stalled a week later in the Senate, where the judiciary committee shelved it for a year and sent it to the state’s crime commission for review.

While the bill was working its way through the legislature, it attracted national attention and generated coverage that got the details wrong as it spread widely on social media.

For example, President Donald Trump last month weighed in on Twitter, saying, “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!”

The bill did not include a provision that would “take” anyone’s gun away. But the idea that it did has circulated online, ranging from memes with the false claim that the state would confiscate guns to suggestive headlines, like, “Virginia Dems Officially Force Through ‘Assault Weapons’ And Magazine Confiscation Law.”

One YouTube video, which has received more than 70,000 views, carries a headline that says, “Virginia To Confiscate All Guns…Is The Rest Of America Next?”

First of all, the bill has not become law; it passed only one chamber of the legislature. Also, it had no gun “confiscation” provision.

Here’s what it actually proposed: Making the sale and purchase of “assault firearms” illegal. It defined an “assault firearm,” largely, as a semi-automatic rifle, pistol, or shotgun.

Those who already owned such a weapon wouldn’t have been affected, except for restrictions on the sale or transfer of such weapons. The bill would have banned sales and laid out several rules governing the transfer of an “assault firearm,” such as giving it as a gift to a family member, conveying it as part of an estate, or transferring it to avoid “imminent death or great bodily harm.”

Exempted from the ban were police and military personnel who use the weapons in the course of their work.

While the bill never included a ban on the possession of already owned “assault firearms,” it did include a ban on the possession of high-capacity magazines. Those were defined as holding more than 12 rounds of ammunition.

Selling or purchasing such a magazine would have been a felony offense, while possessing one would have been a misdemeanor.

The bill laid out various options for those who already own such a magazine: Owners could render it inoperable, transfer it to someone in another state where its possession is legal, take it out of the state, or turn it in to police.

Those found in possession of a working high-capacity magazine, however, would have been subject to an already existing state law that says illegally held weapons “shall be forfeited to the Commonwealth.” That law currently applies to a type of shotgun commonly called a “streetsweeper,” plastic firearms, and weapons brought into prohibited areas, like schools, courthouses, and airport terminals.

In addition to those two often cited provisions, the bill proposed to ban bump stocks, which increase the rate of fire from semi-automatic weapons and have already been banned on the federal level. The bill also banned the purchase and sale of silencers, although possession of a silencer would still have been legal.

A short-lived bill introduced in the state Senate in November may have contributed to some of the misconceptions about the House bill. The proposed law in the Senate would have banned the possession of “assault firearms,” drawing ire from the National Rifle Association. But Northam made it clear in December that he would support legislation only if it included a grandfather clause. The sponsor withdrew his bill on Jan. 13.

Virginia’s bill isn’t the first of its kind. There was a federal ban on such firearms in effect from 1994 to 2004 and similar laws have been on the books for decades in other states. California, for example, passed an “assault weapon control act” in 1989. Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Washington all have various bans on semi-automatic guns. Puerto Rico bans them, too, and Washington, D.C. effectively bans them since it doesn’t allow them to be registered. Hawaii has banned “assault pistols.”

Some counties and municipalities have also instituted bans on what are often termed “assault weapons.” For example, both Chicago and Cook County, where the city is located, have bans, as does the Chicago suburb of Highland Park.

Also, legislation related to “assault weapons” was introduced in 13 states in 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The NCSL has counted the number of states with a ban on high-capacity magazines, too. There are nine — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont — plus Washington, D.C. Those state laws typically define a high-capacity magazine as holding 10 or more rounds of ammunition, but they vary from as low as seven rounds to as high as 15 rounds.

Delegate Mark Levine, who sponsored the Virginia bill, said in an interview with FactCheck.org, he looked primarily to the federal legislation when drafting it, but took into account other states’ laws. Asked if he expects to propose similar legislation next year, Levine said, “My plan is to come back. I haven’t changed my views on this.”

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Virginia House of Delegates. “HB 961 Assault firearms, certain firearm magazines, etc.; prohibiting sale, transport, etc., penalties.” (as passed by the House 11 Feb 2020).

Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!” Twitter. 17 Jan 2020.

U.S. House. “H.R.3355 – Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.” 13 Sep 1994.

Governor Northam Unveils Gun Violence Prevention Legislation Ahead of July 9 Special Session.” Press release. Ralph Northam. 3 Jul 2019.

The City of Virginia Beach: An Independent Review of the Tragic Events of May 31, 2019.” Hillard Heintze. 13 Nov 2019.

Levine, Mark. Delegate, Virginia House of Delegates. Interview with FactCheck.org. 18 Feb 2020.

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No Link Between Harvard Scientist Charles Lieber and Coronavirus

Q. Is it true that federal agents arrested Harvard professor Charles Lieber for creating the coronavirus?

A: No. Lieber, a nanoscientist, was charged for lying about his participation in a Chinese recruitment program and his affiliation with a Chinese university. He is not accused of being a spy and has no connection to the new coronavirus.

FULL QUESTION

Did Charles Lieber and two Chinese students get arrested for creating the virus?

Did Dr. Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s Dept of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, get caught lying to the Dept of Defense about paying money to China surrounding the Coronavirus?

Is the story about federal agents arresting Dr. Charles Lieberman true? It also alleges the Coronavirus started at the location of a biological warfare development lab in China. Is that true?

FULL ANSWER

We’ve received more than a dozen inquiries asking about the veracity of social media posts and memes that tell the story of Charles Lieber, a prominent Harvard scientist who was charged by the Department of Justice on Jan. 28 for repeatedly making false statements about his ties to China.

The posts, some of which have been shared upwards of 6,500 times on Facebook and are accompanied by a photo of Lieber, make a series of statements that falsely suggest the Harvard scientist is linked to the COVID-19 outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019.

Facebook post: In case you missed it, yesterday, Federal Agents arrested Dr. Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, with lying to the Department of Defense about secret monthly payments of $50,000.00 paid by China and receipt of millions more to help set up a chemical/biological “Research” laboratory in China.  Also arrested were two Chinese “Students” working as research assistants, one of whom was actually a lieutenant in the Chinese Army, the other captured at Logan Airport as he tried to catch a flight to China – smuggling 21 vials of “Sensitive Biological Samples” according to the FBI.

Oh, almost forgot.  The research lab the good professor had helped set up? It’s located at the Wuhan University of Technology.  Wuhan China is ground zero to the potentially global pandemic known as the “Coronavirus”which is both spreading rapidly and killing people.

This is Stephen Coonts international spy novel stuff happening in real life – and it has barely made the news.

While each individual statement of the post is largely accurate, the main takeaway — that Lieber, possibly working with two students, had something to do with the new coronavirus  — is false.

In fact, neither Lieber nor the two other individuals, each of whom were charged in separate cases in connection with aiding the People’s Republic of China, have any known link to the new virus. And as we have written before, there is no evidence that the novel coronavirus was engineered in a lab.

What Happened With Lieber

On Jan. 28, the Department of Justice announced the charges against Lieber and the two Chinese nationals in a single press release. But as the title of the release says, the three cases are “separate.”

As chair of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department, Lieber is the most high-profile of the three. According to the complaint, Lieber lied to both the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health about his affiliation with Wuhan University of Technology, or WUT, and his involvement with China’s “Thousand Talents Plan,” a program designed to recruit Chinese ex-pats and foreign scientists to China. 

Lieber also allegedly failed to disclose large sums of money he received from the Chinese government, including more than $1.5 million to start a lab at WUT and a salary of up to $50,000 per month, plus living expenses for his work at WUT.

The post’s summary gets most of this right, but suggests with quotation marks that Lieber’s lab in China may not have been focused on legitimate research. There is no evidence that’s true.

According to the charging document, Lieber’s three-year Thousand Talents contract required him to carry out the typical job functions of academic scientists, such as publishing in top journals, advising students and organizing conferences.

The concern for investigators, as a Science magazine article details, is not that Lieber was acting as a spy, but that he could be vulnerable to Chinese pressure in the future. “It was the amount of money involved that drew our attention,” Andrew Lelling, one of the prosecutors leading the case, told Science. “That is a corrupting level of money.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with Lieber participating in the Chinese program, but he needed to disclose those relationships and funds to Harvard and when receiving grant money from U.S. agencies. Lieber allegedly failed to do so on multiple occasions, including when he was asked about his Chinese ties from curious investigators. Lieber has not been charged with sharing intellectual property with the Chinese.

The social media post goes on to imply that Lieber is somehow connected to the new coronavirus because the Chinese university he was involved with was located in Wuhan, where the COVID-19 outbreak began. But there is no evidence that is anything more than a coincidence. When we asked about any connection between Lieber and the new coronavirus, a DOJ spokesperson told us in an email, “The Department of Justice has made no such allegation.”

Lieber is a nanoscientist who studies and develops extremely small materials on the nanometer scale. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; a strand of DNA is about 2.5 nanometers thick.) While his work has recently focused on coming up with novel ways of using nanowires in cells, he is not a biologist, nor does he have expertise in viruses.

Lieber’s affiliated school, Wuhan University of Technology, also does not appear to do work with viruses, according to a list of research projects on its website. WUT is primarily an engineering school, focused on subjects such as material science, transportation and logistics. 

Furthermore, Lieber is charged with making false statements to the Department of Defense in 2018 and to the NIH in January 2019, well before the COVID-19 outbreak at the end of last year. The timing of the announced charges just happened to overlap with news of the outbreak.

Two Unrelated Cases Also Have No Link to Coronavirus

Neither of the other cases the Department of Justice announced on Jan. 28 has a connection to the new coronavirus, either. 

In one, Yanqing Ye, a 29-year-old who studied at Boston University from October 2017 to April 2019, admitted to being a lieutenant in the Chinese army. She allegedly lied about her ongoing position in the military to get her visa, and while in the U.S. researched American military projects and compiled online information about two professors working in the fields of computer security and intelligent robotics. Ye was indicted on four counts, including visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy.

As with Lieber, Ye, who is currently in China, does not have expertise in virology. The single paper we found that Ye published as a researcher at Boston University’s Center for Polymer Studies was about a computational method for analyzing data; it has nothing to do with viruses.

The other case involves Zaosong Zheng, a 30-year-old Chinese national who had conducted cancer research at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and attempted to smuggle 21 vials of biological specimens out of the country. 

On Dec. 9, 2019, Zheng allegedly tried to fly to Beijing with the vials hidden in a sock in his luggage. Federal agents at Boston’s Logan airport, however, stopped him, and Zheng eventually admitted that he had stolen the vials from a Beth Israel lab. He told officers that he planned to continue doing research with the samples in his own lab in China, taking credit for the results and publishing under his name. 

Zheng was charged with smuggling goods from the U.S. and making false statements to Customs and Border Protection officers. He remains in custody, according to the DOJ release.

The post claims that Zheng smuggled 21 vials of “Sensitive Biological Samples,” but the word “sensitive” does not appear in the charging document or the FBI agent’s affidavit. The affidavit notes that the vials contained a brown liquid and that Zheng said he had stolen eight of the vials from the lab and then worked to replicate the remaining 11 without the knowledge of Beth Israel.

The Beth Israel lab in which Zheng had worked is focused on basic research about cancer, and studies, for example, the molecular details of how cancerous cells are able to overcome the normal checks on the cell cycle to form tumors.

Oddly, the post concludes by saying, “This is Stephen Coonts international spy novel stuff happening in real life – and it has barely made the news.” In fact, each of the stories has received considerable news coverage, including in-depth reporting in science news outlets on Lieber and a New York Times story devoted to Zaosong Zheng’s airport antics.

Of course, there has been no mention of the coronavirus in these news stories because there is no legitimate connection to the new virus. While the social media post for the most part does not overtly misstate the facts, the prevailing message it sends is false.

Sources

Harvard University Professor and Two Chinese Nationals Charged in Three Separate China Related Cases.” Press release. Department of Justice. 28 Jan 2020.

McDonald, Jessica. “Baseless Conspiracy Theories Claim New Coronavirus Was Bioengineered.” FactCheck.org. 7 Feb 2020.

Charles M. Lieber. Lieber Research Group website. Accessed 20 Feb 2020.

Jia, Hepeng. “China’s plan to recruit talented researchers.” Nature. 17 Jan 2018.

Mervis, Jeffrey. “U.S. prosecutor leading China probe explains effort that led to charges against Harvard chemist.” Science. 3 Feb 2020.

Brumfiel, Geoff. “Harvard Professor’s Arrest Raises Questions About Scientific Openness.” NPR. 19 Feb 2020.

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. World Health Organization. Accessed 20 Feb 2020.

Lieber Research Group. Accessed 20 Feb 2020.

Raimondi, Marc. National Security Spokesman, U.S. Department of Justice. Email sent to FactCheck.org. 21 Feb 2020.

Nanoscience.” National Science Foundation. Accessed 20 Feb 2020.

Size of the Nanoscale.” National Nanotechnology Institute. Accessed 20 Feb 2020.

Service, Robert F. “Why did a Chinese university hire Charles Lieber to do battery research?” Science. 4 Feb 2020.

Wuhan University of Technology. Accessed 20 Feb 2020.

Ye, Yanqing et. al. “Heterogeneous Graph Based Similarity Measure for Categorical Data Unsupervised Learning.” IEEE Access. Vol. 7, 2019.

Spice, Kara D. Affidavit for case no. 19-mj-4532-DHH. 10 Dec 2019.

Phillips, Kristine. “DOJ: Harvard University professor lied about work for the Chinese government.” USA Today. 28 Jan 2020.

U.S. charges target alleged Chinese spying at Harvard, Boston institutions.” Reuters. 28 Jan 2020.

Barry, Ellen. “U.S. Accuses Harvard Scientist of Concealing Chinese Funding.” New York Times. 28 Jan 2020.

Fernandes, Deirdre. “Chinese medical student accused of trying to smuggle cancer research material out of Boston.” Boston Globe. 30 Dec 2019.

Subbaraman, Nidhi. “Harvard chemistry chief’s arrest over China links shocks researchers.” Nature. 3 Feb 2020.

Halford, Bethany and Andrea L. Widener. “Harvard chemist Charles Lieber charged with fraud.” Chemical & Engineering News. 28 Jan 2020.

Barry, Ellen. “Stolen Research: Chinese Scientist Is Accused of Smuggling Lab Samples.” New York Times. 31 Dec 2019.

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Story Misrepresents Abrams’ Remarks on Electoral College

Quick Take

A story circulating online misleadingly claims Stacey Abrams “boasted that Democrats can ‘jerry-rig the system and go around the Constitution’ to win the 2020 election.” Her comments about moving to a national popular vote system were not about the 2020 election or securing a Democratic victory.

Full Story 

Stacey Abrams, the Democrat and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, appeared on an episode of ABC’s “The View” that aired Feb. 17 and discussed several issues — including her voting rights organization and speculation that she could be tapped to run for vice president.

In a clip not aired on TV but posted by the show’s official Twitter account, Abrams was asked about her opposition to the Electoral College. The question led to a discussion about an effort to shift the country to a popular-vote system without having to change the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College.

But a story published by the website NewsPunch.com and shared by thousands on Facebook distorts what she said by claiming, “Stacey Abrams Boasts Dems Can ‘Jerry-Rig System’ and ‘Go Around Constitution’ To Win 2020 Election.” That’s misleading.

Abrams’ comments were not in reference to the 2020 election or about securing a victory for the Democrats in November.

Abrams, Feb. 17: [The Electoral College] is a classist, racist system whose time has passed and we need to get rid of it.

Joy Behar: But it’s going to be very hard to do, especially with Republicans in power.

Abrams: And I want to be clear, I’ve been opposed to the Electoral College for a very long time. I introduced legislation when I was in the state legislature. I co-sponsored it with a Republican to eliminate the Electoral College and to do the national popular vote. Because I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, I’m an American and my voice should count and my vote should count and I don’t need anyone to intercede.

Behar: It requires an amendment though, it’s a big deal.

Abrams: It does. It does. Although the National Popular Vote movement, what that would do is get each state to agree to just cast their electors based on the national vote, so we can basically jerry-rig the system and go around the Constitution. I would prefer we actually fix it at the source but, you know, I don’t have that kind of time.

Abrams didn’t characterize the effort as a method of securing a Democratic a victory in 2020 — and she correctly made clear that the proposal isn’t new.

The National Popular Vote movement began in 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The initiative seeks to have states approve legislation to agree to a “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,” pledging that the state’s electoral votes will be awarded to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide — rather than the candidate who wins the vote in just that state. Proponents argue that the Constitution empowers states to choose how to award their electoral votes, but others claim the compact is unconstitutional.

While 15 states and the District of Columbia have enacted such legislation since 2007, none will go into effect until the states that are part of the compact have 270 electoral votes — the minimum required to win the presidency. Abrams, as a Georgia state representative in February 2016, did indeed sponsor a bill to have the state join the compact. It was co-sponsored by several Republican colleagues, but was not passed.

The Virginia House recently approved such legislation. If the state ultimately enacts the measure, the compact would have states worth 209 electoral votes. The compact has a July 20 deadline in order to go into effect for November’s general election — which is an unlikely scenario.

Getting more states on board to secure the other 61 votes needed would be a “steep climb,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board recently wrote. The board opined that the path there is potentially conceivable if there is a “Democratic statehouse sweep in 2020” — meaning after the election — and even then, lawsuits would likely follow.

The NewsPunch story also misleadingly suggests “The View” clip was deliberately hidden: “Strangely, the segment where Abrams talks about the jerry-rigging was cut from the main show,” it reads, adding that “[l]uckily, the footage surfaced on social media.” A Facebook page associated with the website also shared the story and asserted that Abrams was “caught,” calling the clip “incriminating.”

Lauri Hogan, a spokeswoman for ABC, said Abrams’ interview was pre-taped prior to Monday and that the segment was trimmed from the final cut for timing purposes — but said, as we noted, that the clip was posted by the show’s verified Twitter account.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote.” National Popular Vote. Accessed 19 Feb 2020.

Hogan, Lauri. Spokeswoman, ABC. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 20 Feb 2020.

National Popular Vote.” National Conference of State Legislatures. 27 Jan 2020.

The View (@TheView). “.@staceyabrams explains why she says the Electoral College is a “classist racist system whose time has passed and we need to get rid of it.” Twitter. 17 Feb 2020. 

Virginia General Assembly. “House Bill No. 177, A BILL to amend the Code of Virginia by adding in Chapter 2 of Title 24.2 an article numbered 2.1, consisting of sections numbered 24.2-209.1 and 24.2-209.2, relating to the presidential electors and the Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote Compact.” (as introduced 8 Jan 2020)

Wall Street Journal Editorial Board. “Will Virginia Drop the Electoral College?” Wall Street Journal. 17 Feb 2020.

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Video: The Ninth Democratic Debate

We examine four claims from the Feb. 19 Democratic debate in this video:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden wrongly said of the stop-and-frisk policing policy under former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg: “The reason that stop and frisk changed is because Barack Obama sent moderators to see what was going on.” But the number of stops had already declined by 71% from the first quarter of 2012 to the second quarter of 2013, before the Obama administration made its first official intervention in the case.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren falsely accused Bloomberg of “blaming African Americans and Latinos” for the 2008 housing crash. Bloomberg’s 2008 remarks blamed politicians, bankers, the Federal Reserve, home builders and Wall Street. He talked about “redlining,” but described banks lending to “everyone,” including those who were poor credit risks, not any racial group.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders said CEOs in the health care and pharmaceutical industries “are contributing to Pete’s campaign,” referring to former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. That’s true, but Sanders also has received such contributions. The amounts for both are small compared with their total donations.
  • Buttigieg used the disputed talking point that companies “like Amazon or Chevron” are “paying literally zero on billions of dollars in profits.” That’s based on a left-leaning think tank’s analysis last year. But the companies’ tax returns are private under federal law, and the Wall Street Journal estimated an 8% tax rate for Amazon over the 2012-2018 tax years. 

For more on these claims and others in the debate, see our story “FactChecking the Las Vegas Democratic Debate.”

 

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