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PolitiFact: 10 things that were wrong on the Internet in 2014

First lady Michelle Obama waves flags during a folk-dancing event in Xi’an, China, during a cultural exchange in March.
First lady Michelle Obama waves flags during a folk-dancing event in Xi’an, China, during a cultural exchange in March.
Published Dec. 31, 2014

At PolitiFact, one of our most frequent sources of checkable claims is on our readers' social media feeds. And in this regard, 2014 did not disappoint. We checked chain emails, shareable Facebook memes and other Internet detritus, often submitted by readers who ask us: "Is this really true?"

Most of the time the answer is no: Since PolitiFact began in 2007, we've rated 47 percent of shareable Facebook memes as either False or Pants on Fire, compared with just 20 percent that were either True or Mostly True. The track record of chain emails is even more dismal. A full 83 percent of chain emails have been False or Pants on Fire, compared with just 7 percent that were either True or Mostly True.

One particularly worrisome trend for 2014: the growth of fake news sites. Unlike the Onion, which publishes articles that are clearly satire, such sites as the Daily Currant, the National Report, Empire News and others publish plausible-sounding — but entirely fabricated — news articles. What we've seen happen is that the posts go viral, free of any "satire" label, reaping Web traffic and advertising revenue for the site when people unwittingly share them on social media.

Here is a selection of 10 claims that readers asked us to check out that turned out to be inaccurate.

1. A brief video that gained wide circulation showed President Barack Obama giving a speech that seemed to defend authoritarianism as a form of government: "And for the international order that we have worked for generations to build, ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign." But those were two separate thoughts from an actual speech, spliced together through video editing in a way that twisted Obama's argument beyond recognition. We rated it Pants on Fire.

2. The blogosphere featured a number of posts saying that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has ordered Obama's arrest for treason. The post was not transparently sourced, citing "serious speculation" and an unlinked-to "leaked document." The reality is that, even if Roberts wanted to — and there's no indication that he does — the Constitution wouldn't allow it. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

3. Readers sent us a meme based on an event that occurred on Michelle Obama's March trip to China. The meme shows the first lady energetically waving two red flags. A superimposed caption reads, "Michelle Obama waves red communist flags on her taxpayer-funded visit to China. Anyone remember her ever waving an American flag?" But the image simply showed a bit of audience participation during a folk-dancing exhibition; the flags were not Chinese national flags, and the dancers waved flags of a variety of colors. We also found ample evidence that Michelle Obama appears to enjoy displays of red, white and blue patriotism. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

4. A chain email that has circulated for several years said that of Congress' 535 members, 36 have been accused of spousal abuse, seven have been arrested for fraud, 19 have been accused of writing bad checks, 117 have directly or indirectly bankrupted at least two businesses, three have done time for assault, 71 cannot get a credit card due to bad credit, 14 have been arrested on drug-related charges, eight have been arrested for shoplifting, 21 are currently defendants in lawsuits, 84 have been arrested for drunken driving in the past year. We found that the statistics came from an article written 15 years ago; the original source has removed the article from its website. Congress' record isn't blemish-free, but these statistics have no basis in fact. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

5. Critics of Fox News call the cable channel "Faux News." But one meme went further, saying, "Fox News admits they lie. They argued that, under the First Amendment, broadcasters have the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on public airwaves." The claim doesn't track back to the national cable network most people know. Instead, it's rooted in a wrongful termination lawsuit against a Fox affiliate in Tampa. We found no evidence that the Fox affiliate admitted that it lied about the news, and we certainly found no evidence that Fox News admits it lies more generally. PunditFact rated the claim False.

6. A photo circulating on social media showed an African-American protester standing in front of a fire station and holding up a hand-lettered sign that read, "No mother should have to fear for her son's life every time he robs a store." The sign was an obvious reference to the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., in August. However, the original photograph — published on the Riverfront Times' news blog on Oct. 1 — showed a sign reading, "No mother should have to fear for her son's life every time he leaves home" (emphasis added). The change in wording turned the sign's message completely on its head, so we rated the claim Pants On Fire.

7. A long-lived chain email claimed, among other things, that "at age 76 when you most need it most, you are not eligible for cancer treatment. Cancer hospitals will ration care according to the patient's age." These claims are based on an incorrect understanding of a bill that was proposed but never passed. The Affordable Care Act does not include any provisions on seniors losing their treatment eligibility once they reach age 76, and the Texas judge who purportedly wrote the email has disowned it. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

8. A newer anti-Obamacare claim surfaced this year. A reader sent us a link to a September American News article that claims an 86-year-old woman, Dorothy Zborknak, was ordered executed after a panel established by the Affordable Care Act determined that "she is no longer useful." We debunked the myth of death panels in 2009, selecting it as our inaugural Lie of the Year, and almost five years later, death panels are still not a part of U.S. health care law. But the kicker is that "Dorothy Zbornak" is the name of Bea Arthur's character on the old TV sitcom The Golden Girls. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

9. During the summer, debt-laden Americans were noticing chain emails and social media posts with a headline that offered a pleasant surprise: "Obama Signs Bill Forgiving All Student Loan Debt." Although Obama has taken executive action and called for passage of a student-loan refinancing bill, he didn't say he was planning to forgive all student debts. The claim stems from a fake-news website called Empire News. It was ridiculously false, so we rated it Pants on Fire.

10. Former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney have been out of office for years, but the rest of the world hasn't forgotten about them. A meme said Bush and Cheney are "unable to visit Europe due to outstanding warrants." But the claim that there are "outstanding warrants" is flat wrong. Although it's theoretically possible for a national court to issue an arrest warrant against either man, there is no sign of that happening. We rated the claim False.

Edited for print. Read the full rulings at PolitiFact.com.