March 30, 2020
Carter Zupancich | MediaWise Teen Fact-Checker

MediaWise Rating: NEEDS CONTEXT

Our social media pages have been inundated with misinformation about COVID-19 and the current and past administrations’ responses to pandemics. I came across this tweet from a verified account, @charliekirk11. It claims that under the leadership of former Vice President Joe Biden, H1N1, also known as swine flu, killed 12,000 people and infected 61 million others. It ends with this: “RT if you don’t need any advice on how to handle a pandemic from Joe Biden!”

Looks like this account is using data from the H1N1 outbreak to claim Biden — under the administration of President Barack Obama — was partly responsible for those numbers. This already seems as if it needs more context, since as we now know from the coronavirus pandemic, state and local government actions also affect public health outcomes. But let’s start by investigating the account.

Who’s behind the information? 

Looking at the user’s Twitter profile, we see Charlie Kirk is the founder and president of Turning Point USA, a conservative-leaning nonprofit that aims to organize college students. On TPUSA’s Twitter page, I found dozens of tweets promoting conservative views and praising President Donald Trump. Kirk’s twitter account consisted of controversial comments, such as blaming China for the coronavirus, and bashing ABC’s Cecilia Vega, a White House reporter, for questioning Trump’s repeated use of “The Chinese Virus”.

Kirk is verified, meaning Twitter has determined he is not an impersonator. But having that blue checkmark doesn’t mean someone is necessarily an unbiased expert on a subject.

Read laterally

After investigating the source, I began to read laterally. This involves opening new tabs and doing keyword searches to find more information about a claim or topic from reputable sources. After entering “joe biden h1n1” into a Google search, I found a PolitiFact article, which put into context the Obama-Biden administration’s response to the crisis. Check it out:

“Obama’s acting director of health and human services declared H1N1 a public health emergency on April 26, 2009. That was when the United States had only 20 confirmed cases of H1N1 and no deaths.

Two days later, the administration made an initial funding request for H1N1 to Congress. Eventually $7.65 billion was allocated for a vaccine and other measures.”

It appears the administration reacted quickly to the pandemic. But what about the data?

Read upstream

To check the statistics in Kirk’s tweet, I opened another tab and went straight to the source — this is called reading upstream. The final estimates about the H1N1 pandemic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a federal public health agency — say that 60.8 million people in the U.S. were infected, 274,300 were hospitalized and 12,400 died from the virus. Kirk is using accurate statistics.

Our rating 

Even though the post included accurate data, the Obama administration responded quickly to H1N1, and state and local officials have the authority to respond to national emergencies in their own way. It’s a stretch to connect Biden to the outcome of the pandemic. This claim NEEDS CONTEXT.

MediaWise is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.

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Alex Mahadevan is director of MediaWise at the Poynter Institute. He has taught digital media literacy to thousands of middle and high schoolers, and has…
Alex Mahadevan

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