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

FILE - Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump gather on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. On Friday, Jan. 11, 2024 The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming a video clip shows liberals dressing up as supporters of former President Donald Trump before taking part in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, proving the riot was an inside job. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Aroundup 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.

CLAIM: A secret underground tunnel found connected to the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, a historic synagogue in Brooklyn that serves as the center of an influential Hasidic Jewish movement, was used for child sex trafficking or other illicit activities.


THE FACTS: The claims are unfounded, hinting at long-standing antisemitic tropes and more recent baseless conspiracy theories about child trafficking rings run by elite public figures, including government officials. News of a brawl between police and worshippers that broke out over the tunnel on Monday at Chabad’s headquarters led to such baseless allegations spreading quickly on social media. The exact purpose and provenance of the tunnel remains the subject of some debate, but there is no credible evidence it was used for the nefarious purposes social media users are falsely connecting it to. Officials and locals said young men in the Chabad community recently built the passage to the sanctuary in secret. Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for Chabad, characterized the construction as a rogue act of vandalism committed by a group of misguided young men, calling them “extremists” who were attempting to “preserve their unauthorized access” to the synagogue. Those who supported the tunnel, however, said they were carrying out an “expansion” plan long envisioned by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former head of the Chabad movement. Also known as the Seventh Rebbe, Schneerson led the Chabad-Lubavitch movement for more than four decades before his death in 1994, reinvigorating a small religious community that had been devastated by the Holocaust. Many supporters of the tunnel’s construction believe Schneerson is still alive and that he is the Messiah. This idea is largely rejected by Chabad and has created a schism within the movement. Chabad leaders declined to say when they discovered the tunnel at their headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, but several worshippers said word of its existence had spread through the community in recent weeks. “This entire episode is immensely painful for us, the Jewish community at large and all decent people,” Seligson told The Associated Press. He also noted that sensationalism and errors in the media “have provided fodder to these individuals who are trolling online.” Asked for comment regarding the claims of sex trafficking or other illicit activities, the NYPD sent the AP a list of the charges issued in the case. Nine people were arrested as a result of the brawl at Chabad’s headquarters. They were charged with crimes including criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, and obstructing governmental administration, according to police. Another three received summonses for disorderly conduct.

CLAIM: A video clip shows liberals dressing up as supporters of former President Donald Trump before taking part in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, proving the riot was an inside job.

THE FACTS: The clip was filmed by comedian Walter Masterson and content creator Peter Scattini, who posed as Trump-friendly reporters on Jan. 6, 2021, to interview people at the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Capitol attack. Both men postedvideos showing extensive footage from the day’s events, which include the shot of them donning Trump paraphernalia and patriotic garb in an effort to blend in with the crowds. They explain in the videos that they went to the rally to make comedic content and express disbelief about what happened. Hundreds of people have been convicted or pleaded guilty for their role in the Jan. 6 riot, but more than three years later some on social media are still claiming it was the work of the government itself. In the clip spreading online, a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt stands next to a parked car while adding an American flag mask and baseball cap to his ensemble. He offers a couple of options to the man behind the camera, including a Trump 2020 cap and another American flag mask. “I’m not f—-king with you, you’ve got to blend in,” the man on camera says. “I know you can’t stomach wearing it, but like, you need to blend in. You have to have the visual identifier.” An Instagram post that shared the clip added a misspelled caption to it reading: “Jan 6th, was a sit up!” It was an inside job!” A second caption describes the footage as “liberals disguising themselves as Trump supporters to attack the Capital on January 6th.” Although the two men are indeed disguising themselves as Trump supporters, they are not doing so to attack the Capitol, as federal agents or otherwise. Masterson, the man on camera, and Scattini, who filmed the clip, pretended to be Trump-friendly reporters at the “Stop the Steal” rally to interview protestors for comedy videos. Both posted the resultingvideos on their YouTube channels after the riot, which included the clip spreading online as well as extensive additional footage. “So I’m sorry that this video is kind of a downer,” Scattini says at the end of his video. “I did not mean for it to be this serious. I thought we were going to be there shooting comedy videos all day, but it’s a lot harder for me to laugh at everything now. It’s way harder having seen it up close. So that’s what this video is.” Masterson similarly states in both videos: “We make comedy, we’re actors. We were going there to like, make a funny.”

CLAIM: A 44-year-old migrant named Sahil Omar was identified as the suspect of an explosion at a historic hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, on Monday.

THE FACTS: No suspect is being sought in relation to the massive explosion at the Sandman Signature Hotel in downtown Fort Worth, a police spokesperson told The Associated Press. Authorities say the blast “has the characteristics of a natural gas explosion,” but that the cause is still under investigation. The same name and description was used to make a similar erroneous claim about a shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last month. Following the blast, social media users began falsely pinning it on a 44-year-old migrant. “BREAKING: The suspect of the #explosion at the Sandman Signature Fort Worth Hotel in Texas, USA, has been identified as 44 year-old migrant Sahil Omar,” reads one post on X, formerly Twitter. “Authorities have yet to find a motive.” Other posts also suggested that the explosion was a terrorist attack. For example, another X post asks: “Is this the first Biden illegal to be a terrorist blowing up buildings in America?” But no suspect had been identified or was being sought in relation to the explosion as of Friday. Jimmy Pollozani, a spokesperson for the Fort Worth Police Department, told the AP that “no suspect is being sought as of this email.” Rather, authorities are characterizing the blast as a natural gas explosion. “We are working with officials to confirm the cause of the explosion,” the Fort Worth Fire Department wrote in a Facebook post. “We have stated that it has the characteristics of a natural gas explosion and continue to state that until a confirmation of cause can be determined.” The department wrote in an X post early Monday evening that the explosion was “likely caused” by a “gas leak.” In its Facebook post, the department confirmed that “there have been NO comments or statements by the Fort Worth Fire Department or the Fort Worth Police Department” suggesting that “criminal activity or terrorism” was at play. “There is NO THREAT to the public safety in the wake of yesterday’s incident,” it reads. Social media users also falsely blamed a shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last month on a 44-year-old migrant named Sahil Omar. The actual suspect, who died in a shootout with law enforcement, was identified by police as Anthony Polito, a longtime business professor who had unsuccessfully applied for several jobs at various colleges and universities in Nevada.

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