NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn’t happen this week

Sep 29, 2023, 9:20 PM | Updated: 9:21 pm

In this frame grab from video provided by Debbie McFarland, state Sen. Bill Eigel torches a pile of...

In this frame grab from video provided by Debbie McFarland, state Sen. Bill Eigel torches a pile of cardboard boxes at a “Freedom Fest” event in Defiance, Mo., Sept. 15, 2023. Eigel is a Republican candidate for Missouri governor. After video of Eigel's use of the flamethrower gained attention, Eigel said he'd burn objectionable books if that's what it took to keep them away from children. (Debbie McFarland via AP)

(Debbie McFarland via AP)

Social media users shared a range of false claims this week.

Here are the facts: A viral video shows two Missouri lawmakers using a flamethrower to burn cardboard boxes, not books. There is no record of a Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection defendant receiving a 20-year prison sentence simply for filming the events. A story about Navy SEALs saving 15 missing Maui children locked in cages originated on a parody website. And video of a parent tearing a Pride flag from a classroom wall and confronting a teacher was a staged skit, contrary to suggestions that it’s real.

A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:

Viral video shows flamethrower-wielding Missouri state senators burning empty boxes, not books

CLAIM: A video shows Missouri Republican state Sens. Bill Eigel and Nick Schroer using a flamethrower for a “literal book burning.”

THE FACTS: The video shows the two lawmakers burning empty cardboard boxes, not books, according to both politicians. It was taken last week at a fundraiser hosted by a local GOP group where flamethrowers were being auctioned. Eigel, who is also running for Missouri governor, and Schroer were demonstrating the devices on the boxes, the event’s organizer confirmed.

Missouri is one of many states across the nation where conservatives have been pushing to ban or restrict certain books from schools and libraries. The state passed a new law last year outlawing books with sexually explicit images from school libraries, which a lawsuit from two state library associations claims has since caused school districts to remove hundreds of books from their shelves. Social media users shared the video of the two Republican state senators to claim they are taking things even further by burning books.

“Missouri Republicans at a literal book burning. They think flamethrowers should be legal but history books should be destroyed,” reads one post on X, formerly known as Twitter, sharing the video. Both Eigel and Schroer responded on X, saying that there were no books burned. Eiger also posted footage of a different angle that more clearly shows the boxes. “This caused no harm to any books or literature,” said Jamey Murphy, a spokesperson for Schroer.

The footage was taken at an event called Freedom Fest, a fundraiser for the St. Charles County Republican Central Committee, said Sophia Shore, the campaign manager for Eigel’s gubernatorial campaign. Debbie McFarland, Freedom Fest’s planner and a member of the committee, said the flamethrowers were being auctioned off at the event and the lawmakers were demonstrating their capabilities on a pile of boxes from the event. McFarland called the claim that books were involved “an absolute fabrication.”

Nevertheless, in a statement posted to X on Monday, Eigel did say he would burn “woke” books brought into Missouri schools “on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion.”

— Associated Press writer Karena Phan in Los Angeles contributed this report.

No one has been sentenced to 20 years for filming the Jan. 6 riots, contrary to congressman’s claim

CLAIM: People have been sentenced to 20 years in prison for simply filming the riots at the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.

THE FACTS: The only person so far to have been sentenced to at least 20 years in prison in connection with the case is Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the extremist group the Proud Boys, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy and other crimes. Yet social media users are sharing a clip of U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie making the claim while calling out U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland over what he viewed as a disparity in the Jan. 6 riot prosecutions.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, the Kentucky Republican accused Garland and federal prosecutors of going easy on a one-time Donald Trump supporter who conspiracy theorists have baselessly accused of secretly working with the federal authorities to incite the riots.

Ray Epps pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a misdemeanor charge of engaging in disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds after he was filmed imploring Trump supporters to go into the Capitol. Federal prosecutors have stressed he’s never been a law enforcement asset. “Meanwhile, you’re sending grandmas to prison,” Massie said to Garland. “You’re putting people away for 20 years for merely filming.”

But few people have been given sentences anywhere close to 20 years; an AP review shows that only 39 of the more than 650 defendants sentenced so far have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment of five or more years. The notable exceptions are the leaders of right wing extremist groups prosecutors say orchestrated the attack, which was meant to keep Trump in power after the Republican lost the 2020 election. Earlier this month, Tarrio was sentenced to 22 years in prison, the stiffest punishment yet.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and one-time Proud Boys leader Ethan Nordean received 18-year sentences. All three were charged with seditious conspiracy and other crimes, not “filming” the riots. Tarrio and Rhodes weren’t even at the Capitol at the time. Both were accused of plotting the violence from afar.

Nordean, meanwhile, was among the Proud Boy leaders accused of spearheading the destructive breach of the Capitol building itself. Massie spokesman John Kennedy said the congressman had actually been referring to Ryan Scott Zink, a 34-year-old Texas resident who was convicted last week. Citing a local media report in Texas, Kennedy argued that Zink could get up to 21 years in prison when he is sentenced in December on one felony and two misdemeanor counts.

While footage Zink took outside the Capitol was used as evidence in the case, he was convicted of felony “obstruction of an official proceeding and aiding and abetting,” as well as two misdemeanor counts of “entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds and disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds,” according to prosecutors.

The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t respond to emails seeking comment Thursday. But Daniel Charles Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School and former federal prosecutor, said that the maximum penalty under law for any given crime is “almost always irrelevant” to the sentence a defendant actually receives. Indeed a review of the agency’s database of cases and sentences connected to the riot shows that no one facing charges similar to Zink have been sentenced to anything close to two decades in federal prison.

Zink’s comments during and after the riot also suggest he did more than merely film, noted Jeffrey Kirchmeier, a professor at the City University of New York’s School of Law. According to prosecutors, Zink says at one point in his videos: “We knocked down the gates! We’re storming the Capitol! You can’t stop us!” “If he stood outside the Capitol and recorded events, I don’t think he could be charged,” Kirchmeier explained in an email.

Lawyers for Zink didn’t respond to an email seeking comment, but his father, Jeff Zink, has argued that the duo never entered the Capitol and were merely observers. Kennedy, meanwhile, maintained Massie’s remarks are accurate. “Ryan Scott Zink faces over 20 years in prison for the actions described in the DOJ press release,” he wrote in an email. “In contrast, Mr. Epps received a misdemeanor charge.”

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

Widespread video of a parent ripping down a Pride flag in classroom is a skit, not real

CLAIM: Video shows an angry parent tearing down a Pride flag draped over a U.S. map in a classroom.

THE FACTS: The clip shows actors performing a skit, as a longer version makes clear. It was posted by a social media personality who has previously shared similar videos, including with some of the same actors, and who clarified that it was “openly fake.” The video was amplified by high-profile figures on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Running 1 minute and 22 seconds, the clip shows a supposed mother wearing a hat bursting into a classroom and tearing down the flag, revealing a U.S. map. “I am not paying my tax money to support this type of —” the mother says, throwing the flag in a trash bin. “We are paying you to teach history, and that’s what you need to be teaching.” The flustered teacher tells the mother to leave the room before calling security.

“GOD BLESS THIS MAMA!!!!!” Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote in an X post sharing the clip. “I stand with her!!!”

In a follow-up post, the congresswoman acknowledged it may not be real, writing: “If this is a fake or a skit, it’s a very good representation of exactly how people feel.” But it is indeed a skit, contrary to many comments suggesting it is authentic. The clip was taken from a longer version of the video posted Sept. 16 on the Facebook page of Jibrizy, a self-identified comedian who has uploaded similar videos; he has also performed as a magician.

Jibrizy tells viewers at the end of the parent-teacher video that “this was all a skit” before soliciting opinions on the scenario. Other videos on his page show the same actors in the same classroom performing other skits. He also took to X to again acknowledge it wasn’t real. “This video is originally my video people steal it gain a following off it and never credit me. I am the director,” he wrote. “I create video to start discussion. It’s openly fake. But I want you to debate your point of view.”

— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in New Jersey contributed this report.

False claim that Navy SEALs rescued missing Maui children from cages comes from a parody site

CLAIM: U.S. Navy SEALs saved 15 missing Maui children who were locked in cages at a warehouse in Honolulu.

THE FACTS: This claim originated as a story on a website that says it publishes “humor, parody, and satire.” The chief of police in Maui confirmed the information is untrue. But more than a month after the deadly August wildfires in Maui, some on social media are sharing the claim as fact. “I hope they find more and can find most of their parents,” wrote one Facebook user who linked to the story. “If not loving families for them. My heart aches thinking of these precious ones in cages.”

The false information was published by Real Raw News, a site known for running fabricated stories. Many of its posts involve made-up tales about the U.S. military, and cite only anonymous sources. The site did not return a request for comment. The story about the children provided no credible evidence to support its claims. It cited only one alleged anonymous source from the office of a Marine Corps general, as Real Raw News has done in numerous prior erroneous posts.

The story weaves a suspect narrative about a Sept. 14 rescue by Navy SEALs of children who were supposedly kidnapped in Maui and flown to Oahu. It begins with a SEAL team subduing three guards armed with automatic rifles to enter a warehouse in Honolulu, where they find 15 sedated children locked in cages, covered in urine and feces.

The SEALs then carry the children, as well as an unconscious prisoner, aboard a plane and fly them to a nearby Marine Corps base for treatment. John Pelletier, Maui’s police chief, told the AP that the events described in the story are not real. A list of people who were unaccounted for after the wildfires released by the Maui Police Department and the FBI on Sept. 8, days before the alleged rescue, named 66 people, only one of whom was a minor. An updated list released a week later named 31 people, including that same child. The Navy did not respond to a request for comment.

— Associated Press writer Melissa Goldin in New York contributed this report.

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NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn’t happen this week