Mass rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines has been the defining story of 2021, yet for all its success, vaccination rates remain stubbornly low in some populations.
As with all things in American life these days, partisanship has played an outsized role: an estimated four in 10 Republicans, for example, remain unvaccinated, according to a November Kaiser Family Foundation survey. With more than 400 million doses administered to date, the vaccines have proven to be very safe and effective — especially at preventing hospitalization and death — yet misinformation continues to drive vaccine hesitancy among many Americans.
At FactCheck.org, we spent much of our efforts in 2021 addressing vaccine misinformation, and so as we consider our whoppers of the year, those stories come to the forefront of the discussion.
Another prominent line of misinformation is a carry-over from 2020, former President Donald Trump’s continued insistence that massive voter fraud caused him to lose the 2020 election. The president’s false claims came to a head in a fact-challenged Jan. 6 speech in Washington, D.C. that preceded a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol while Congress was meeting to certify then-President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Despite fact-checkers’ best efforts to meticulously debunk many of the former president’s baseless election claims, the idea has gained traction among a majority of Republicans and has been used to justify new election laws in many GOP-led states.
And, of course, we fact-checked numerous claims made by, and about, the new Biden administration, which took office this year. Among the false claims: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s statement that “all” Americans who wanted to leave Afghanistan were evacuated by early September, and Republican claims that Biden had plans to drastically cut U.S. red meat consumption and force families to sell their farms.
On Dec. 14, 2020, a registered nurse in New York City became the first U.S. resident to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial. Reflecting the hope that many people felt at the time, Sandra Lindsey told ABC News, “I see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
It has been a year since the first vaccine was administered and, as of Dec. 14, more than 480 million vaccines have been given to nearly 240 million people in the U.S. — 72.1% of the total U.S. population.
This has been the year of the COVID-19 vaccine.
But 2021 was also the year of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. The vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective, and yet anti-vaxxers twisted the facts and in some cases made up fanciful and fictional accounts of how the vaccines were dangerous and deadly.
Misusing VAERS. One of the most common deceptions about the safety of the vaccines stems from the repeated misuse of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, an online database that contains unverified reports of potential side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines. The reports can be submitted by anyone, are not vetted for accuracy, nor do they mean that the vaccine necessarily caused the reported event. Submissions are encouraged even when a person does not think the event was vaccine-related.
The government reporting system is managed by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration and used to detect possible safety issues in vaccines. VAERS has worked as intended, providing federal public health officials with the information they need to evaluate and address safety concerns that are so rare that they weren’t detected in clinical trials. For example, the CDC and FDA in April recommended a pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine after it was associated with a few cases of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome.
This safety tool has been used as a weapon against the vaccines on social media and by conservative commentators. Fox News host Tucker Carlson had falsely suggested to his viewers in May that more than 3,000 people have died from the COVID-19 vaccines. “The actual number is almost certainly higher than that,” he said. “Perhaps vastly higher than that.”
But, as CDC says on its website, “Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem.”
The system works like this, as explained by the CDC: Healthcare providers are required to “report any death after COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS, even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause.” CDC clinicians review medical records, autopsies and death certificates for all of those reported deaths. The results: After more than 485 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, “VAERS received 10,483 reports of death (0.0022%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine,” as of Dec. 8, and found “a causal relationship” between the J&J vaccine and TTS, including “a total of nine deaths” that were “causally associated” with the J&J vaccine, as Dec. 13.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 vaccines have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, according to researchers at the Yale School of Public Health.
Foreign reporting systems misused, too. Other countries have adverse reporting systems, too, that have been misused.
In one case we wrote about, a retracted peer-reviewed paper published in Vaccines, a journal based in Switzerland, and shared widely online — including by conservative commentator Liz Wheeler — falsely claimed that COVID-19 vaccines cause two deaths for every three lives saved. The authors presented data from a Dutch reporting system, maintained by the Netherlands Pharmacovigilance Centre, known as Lareb, “to extract the number of cases reporting severe side effects and the number of cases with fatal side effects.”
But the paper was retracted by the journal, which said the authors inaccurately presented the reported adverse events in the database as being caused by the vaccines. “In The Netherlands, healthcare professionals and patients are invited to report suspicions of adverse events that may be associated with vaccination,” the retraction stated. “For this type of reporting a causal relation between the event and the vaccine is not needed, therefore a reported event that occurred after vaccination is not necessarily attributable to vaccination.”
Dr. Eugène van Puijenbroek, head of science and research at Lareb, told us: “As clearly stated on our website, but not taken [into] account in the method applied in this article, death after vaccination does not imply that the adverse event is indeed the actual cause of death.”
Distorted claims of “medical racism.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccination organization, Children’s Health Defense, produced an hourlong video, called “Medical Racism: The New Apartheid,” that targeted the Black community with misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines. The film repeated misrepresentations about vaccines, generally, and exploited historical cases of unethical medical conduct involving Black people to suggest without evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe.
Similarly, Dr. Simone Gold made bogus claims about the COVID-19 vaccines in a speech at a Pentecostal church in Florida that falsely accused the government of “pure racism” for “push[ing] this [vaccine] heavily on Blacks and browns.” Gold, who has a history of spreading dubious claims during the pandemic, supported her false claim of racism by misrepresenting advice from public health experts who have advocated prioritizing vaccine distribution in the communities most severely impacted by the pandemic, which include Black and Latino people.
No evidence for vaccine “shedding” claims. COVID-19 vaccines do not contain a live virus, so there isn’t a biological path for a vaccinated person to “shed” the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to those around them. Nor is there any evidence the vaccines cause reproductive problems. But that doesn’t stop some people on social media from making baseless claims that “shedding” causes reproductive issues in unvaccinated people.
In one video that has been viewed over 100,000 times and its accompanying blog post, herbal medicine author Dr. Cass Ingram falsely claimed that the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines can “cause death and disease through GMO shedding.”
Dr. Christopher M. Zahn, an obstetrician-gynecologist and vice president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, responded to the shedding claims in a statement sent to FactCheck.org that read in part: “This is a conspiracy that has been created to weaken trust in a series of vaccines that have been demonstrated in clinical trials to be safe and effective and that are our single best tool for confronting a global pandemic that has taken 600,000 lives in this country alone.”
Animals didn’t die from vaccines in clinical trials. A Texas state lawmaker falsely claimed at a public hearing before the Texas State Senate Committee on State Affairs that animal trials for the COVID-19 vaccines were “stopped” because “the animals were dying.” Hall’s remarks — which were widely spread in social media posts seeking to discredit vaccines — were made during the committee’s consideration of his bill to prohibit COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
The fact is, successful testing on both animals and humans was conducted before the COVID-19 vaccines were granted emergency use authorization by the FDA.
In the development of Moderna’s vaccine, a preclinical study published in July 2020 showed vaccinated monkeys that were challenged with the SARS-CoV-2 virus rapidly cleared the pathogen from their bodies. And a study published the following month found that in mice, the vaccine successfully prevented infection in the lung and nose. Similarly, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine underwent preclinical testing in both mice and monkeys, as is noted in an FDA memo laying out the information considered in authorizing the vaccine for emergency use.
None of these experiments were “stopped” because animals were dying because of being vaccinated.
In another example of misusing VAERS data, Dr. Angelina Farella, a pediatrician who testified at the hearing, wrongly claimed that “we have in excess of 4,000 deaths and this thing has not been pulled yet.” (See our item on VAERS above.)
Baseless claims of long-term effects of vaccine. Dolores Cahill — a professor in Ireland who had been the chair of the right-wing Irish Freedom Party — baselessly claimed in a viral video that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines will cause widespread deaths in the coming years. Without offering any evidence for her warnings, Cahill said “anyone who’s over 70 who gets one of these mRNA vaccines will … sadly die within about two to three years,” and those in their 30s will have their life expectancy reduced by “five to 10 years.”
But, as we reported in an article and video, there is no medical evidence for such claims. Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines, and Virotherapy at Arizona State University, told us at the time that while “we do not yet have long-term data in humans,” there “are no scientific reasons to predict complications in these new vaccines in the coming years.”
The “Stanford study” that wasn’t. False claims about face masks were also common. In one case, we wrote about viral articles that falsely claimed a “Stanford study” showed that face masks are unsafe and ineffective against COVID-19. The Gateway Pundit, a conservative website known for spreading misinformation, was among those that touted the paper in an April blog post that carried the headline, “Stanford Study Results: Facemasks are Ineffective to Block Transmission of COVID-19 and Actually Can Cause Health Deterioration and Premature Death.”
But it wasn’t a “Stanford study” at all. The paper, which was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, was a hypothesis, not a study, from someone with no current affiliation with Stanford. The kicker: The paper was retracted.
The paper’s author, Baruch Vainshelboim, is listed in the paper as being affiliated with the “Cardiology Division, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System/Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, United States.” But Stanford Health Care and the university’s School of Medicine told us “[t]he author’s affiliation is inaccurately attributed to Stanford, and we have requested a correction.”
The substance of the paper, too, was challenged. In its retraction, Elsevier, publisher of Medical Hypotheses, writes: “A broader review of existing scientific evidence clearly shows that approved masks with correct certification, and worn in compliance with guidelines, are an effective prevention of COVID-19 transmission.”
Trump continued to press a litany of untrue claims about widespread voter fraud costing him the 2020 election. Despite many of his claims being repeatedly debunked, the idea has gained a foothold among Republican faithful and has animated numerous new election laws.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in GOP-led states have used the false predicate of widespread voter fraud to propose or enact new election laws that ostensibly are designed to enhance election security, but which opponents say will simply make it harder for some people to vote.
Trump’s false election fraud claims came to a head on Jan. 6 during a speech at the “Save America” rally, as Trump repeatedly talked about a “rigged” or “stolen” election and exhorted the crowd to march to the Capitol to discourage legislators from certifying the election results. Protests at the Capitol turned violent, temporarily delaying certification of the election results. Since then, according to a USA Today tally, more than 600 people have been charged with participating in the riot, some of whom later said they believed they were acting on Trump’s guidance, and in response to some of the false claims he made about voter fraud.
Although Trump claimed in his Jan. 6 speech to have “amassed overwhelming evidence about a fake election,” his claims did not stand up to scrutiny. Here is a sampling of the misinformation from Trump that day.
Vice president’s power. Trump wrongly claimed that his vice president, Mike Pence, who had a ministerial role in the congressional counting of the electoral votes, had the “absolute right” to “send it back to the states to recertify, and we become president.” Pence, who at the time served as president of the Senate, said he did not have the right to do it, and constitutional scholars we spoke with agreed.
In a statement released on Jan. 6, while Trump was speaking, Pence said: “Our Founders were deeply skeptical of concentrations of power and created a Republic based on separation of powers and checks and balances under the Constitution of the United States. Vesting the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide presidential contests would be entirely antithetical to that design.”
Dead voters. As he had numerous times before (and since), Trump made a false claim about “thousands” of dead people voting, as many as 8,000 in Pennsylvania and 10,300 in Georgia. (Mike Lindell made the same claim about 10,315 cases of dead people voting in Georgia in his two-hour video, released in February, “Absolute Proof.”) There was no evidence of it then or now.
The Associated Press in a recent report identified 26 possible cases of voter fraud in Pennsylvania, a state that Biden won by more than 80,000 votes. But there has been just one verified report of a Pennsylvania voter casting an illegal ballot on behalf a deceased person (the Trump voter pleaded guilty and said he “listened to too much propaganda”).
In Georgia, the AP said that state’s Attorney General’s Office is reviewing about 20 possible voter fraud cases. A few days before Trump’s rally speech, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said he told Trump in a Jan. 2 phone call that in Georgia, “The actual number were two, two. Two people that were dead that voted and so that’s wrong.” Biden won Georgia by more than 11,700 votes.
Illegal voters. Trump falsely claimed that “66,000 votes in Georgia were cast by individuals under the legal voting age.” Republican Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system implementation manager, debunked that claim in a Jan. 4 press conference, saying, “The actual number is zero.” Trump also falsely claimed that “more than 10,000 votes in Pennsylvania were illegally counted, even though they were received after Election Day.” About 10,000 ballots arrived within three days after the election, but they were not initially counted, pending a court ruling. At the time of his speech, the Supreme Court had directed Pennsylvania to separate its ballots and not count them, but in February the court declined to take up the case. The votes were irrelevant, anyway. Biden won the state by more than 80,000 votes.
Suitcase of “fraudulent” ballots: Trump falsely claimed that in Fulton County, Georgia, election officials pulled “suitcases of ballots out from under a table” and counted “fraudulent” votes for Biden. Videos show boxes of legitimate ballots – not “fraudulent” ones — pulled from under a table. “And this is what is really frustrating: The president’s legal team had the entire tape, they watched the entire tape, and then, from our point of view, intentionally misled the state Senate, voters, and the people of the United States about this,” Sterling said on Jan. 4.
There were more false election fraud claims from Trump that day. For a fuller accounting see our story, “Trump’s Falsehood-Filled ‘Save America’ Rally.”
And, of course, Trump’s false claims about widespread election fraud continued after Jan. 6. Notably, we wrote about a string of false and misleading statements the former president made after a contractor hired by state Senate Republicans in Arizona to review the results of the state’s 2020 election provided an update on its findings at a legislative hearing on July 15.
Trump falsely claimed the GOP-backed “audit” in Arizona uncovered a “massive number of voter irregularities and fraud” in what he called a “corrupted election” in Maricopa County. “Arizona shows Fraud and Voting Irregularities many times more than would be needed to change the outcome of the Election,” Trump wrote. But the company didn’t present evidence of such widespread fraud, and Jack Sellers, a Republican who chairs the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, released a statement after the hearing accusing the company of incompetence and criticizing Senate Republican leaders for pushing “an alternate reality that has veered out of control since the November General Election.”
The New Administration
There were also several false and misleading claims made by, or about, the new Biden administration.
Afghanistan withdrawal whopper. Days after the U.S. ended its 20-year war with Afghanistan and withdrew all of its remaining troops from that country on Aug. 30, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer falsely claimed that “all” Americans who wanted to leave Afghanistan “have come out.” A spokesperson for the senator later told us in an email that the senator’s claim was inaccurate, as government officials at the time admitted that some U.S. citizens — possibly fewer than 100 — and an unknown number of U.S. legal permanent residents, who were still stranded and wanted to leave the newly Taliban-controlled country, had not yet been evacuated.
The chaotic withdrawal led Biden to break his Aug. 18 promise that U.S. forces, if necessary, would remain in Afghanistan past Aug. 31 “to get them,” referring to American citizens who wanted to leave, “all out.”
Bogus beef. Republican politicians, as well as conservative news outlets and social media users, ran with a wildly speculative scenario, cooked up by a British tabloid, about Biden’s stated plan to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by the end of the decade. For example, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado falsely tweeted: “Joe Biden’s climate plan includes cutting 90% of red meat from our diets by 2030. They want to limit us to about four pounds a year. Why doesn’t Joe stay out of my kitchen?”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack strongly denied there was ever a plan by the administration to reduce beef consumption, as Boebert and others alleged.
The claim began with a Daily Mail story that carried the headline, “How Biden’s climate plan could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH, cost $3.5K a year per person in taxes, force you to spend $55K on an electric car and ‘crush’ American jobs.” The article, citing a University of Michigan study about diet scenarios that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, suggested that, to achieve Biden’s stated goal of cutting emissions by half, “Americans may have to cut their red meat consumption by a whopping 90 percent and cut their consumption of other animal based foods in half.”
But that was never proposed by Biden. The two authors of the cited study, Gregory Keoleian and Martin Heller, told Yahoo News that “to our knowledge, there is no connection between our study and Joe Biden’s Climate plan.”
Inflated infrastructure jobs. On multiple occasions, Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg overstated the projected impact of infrastructure proposals championed by both men.
In April, Biden and Buttigieg gave the misleading impression that their broad infrastructure proposal, then-called the American Jobs Plan, would “create 19 million jobs” if enacted. But the claim relied on an analysis by Moody’s Analytics that projected the plan actually would add 2.7 million jobs over 10 years. The only way to get to 19 million jobs was to include an additional 16.3 million jobs Moody’s projected would be added to the economy even if the infrastructure proposal never becomes law.
Then, in August, Biden and Buttigieg claimed that a smaller Senate-approved infrastructure bill on job creation would lead to “an additional 2 million jobs a year beyond what was already projected,” as Biden put it, or “millions of jobs,” as Buttigieg said. However, another economic analysis by Moody’s Analytics found the bipartisan bill, which later became law, would, at its peak in the middle of the decade, temporarily increase the number of jobs in the U.S. by 650,000. Furthermore, the analysis said by 2031, after most of the infrastructure projects are finished, the bill would result in just 100,000 more jobs than if the bill did not pass.
Moody’s did project that jobs gains would rise to nearly 1 million in 2023 and peak at about 2.6 million extra jobs in 2027, if a separate reconciliation infrastructure package supported by Democrats also became law. By 2031, the combined plans would end up adding 2.2 million jobs — with the reconciliation proposal alone accounting for 2.1 million of them, the analysis said.
The House has since significantly pared back the initially-proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation package — called the Build Back Better Act — passing instead a $1.9 trillion bill that now goes to the Senate.
Family farm falsehood. A Montana rancher featured in a Republican TV ad falsely claimed that Biden’s tax plans would “force many family farms and ranches to be sold off to pay his higher capital gains taxes.” He specifically said the proposals would make it “impossible” for him to pass “down to my children” the ranch his family has owned for four generations.
The problem: Biden’s plan to tax heirs on the gain in value for assets such as farm land would defer such taxes unless or until a farm is sold or no longer operated by the family. That means no family would have to sell a family farm to pay the tax. Also, Biden’s plan may no longer be on the table — as it was not included in tax legislation advanced by the House.
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