Factcheck.org’s annual review of the year’s worst political and viral deceptions.
The midterm elections are finally over, but it won’t be long before the 2024 campaign cycle — which will really start in 2023 — gets going. Before that happens, we’ve put together this list of the year’s biggest whoppers that politicians and others made over the past 12 months.
Political appeals to fear were as popular as ever in 2022. Republicans sounded a false alarm about Democrats authorizing the IRS to target middle-income taxpayers with tens of thousands of new IRS “agents.” On the other side of the aisle, Democrats attempted to scare up votes by claiming that Republicans had a plan to “end” the Social Security and Medicare programs based on a proposal that few Republicans supported.
President Joe Biden earned mentions in our roundup for giving his policies too much credit for a significant reduction in the federal deficit — and for claiming to have rescued an economy “in decline.” Meanwhile, his predecessor, Donald Trump, a regular on our Whoppers lists, deflected from his own mishandling of classified White House documents by falsely alleging that other past presidents had done something comparable.
COVID-19 misinformation continued to be a huge problem online as well. One viral video advanced a conspiracy theory that the disease was caused by snake venom being injected into the public water supply, and another popular video promoted the equally bizarre claim that the COVID-19 vaccines are being used to depopulate the planet.
We also addressed misinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including the statements of high-ranking Russian officials who denied for months that Russia was preparing to attack Ukraine. Then, after the attack had commenced, pro-Russia social media posts manufactured a claim about the supposed U.S. funding of secret Ukrainian “biolabs” to justify the Russia-provoked war.
And that’s just a sampling of the claims we’ve highlighted in our compilation. Read the analysis section for the complete list of falsehoods and other nonsense.
Those 87,000 IRS “agents.” The Republican talking point of the year was the falsehood that “87,000 IRS agents” were coming after the “middle class” or the average Joe thanks to the Democrats. Former President Donald Trump added the bogus tidbit that this 87,000-strong “army” could “carry guns.” The figure refers to the number of employees the IRS could hire with funding that was part of the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act — but most of those workers would replace retiring or departing workers and most new positions would be in customer service, the Treasury Department told us.
Some hires would be tax enforcers, but their focus would be auditing high-income earners to make sure they pay the taxes they legally owe the government, administration officials have said. Only IRS “special agents” in the Criminal Investigation division are law enforcement officers who are authorized to carry guns.
Trump’s false claims about past presidents and classified documents. After the FBI executed a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home on Aug. 8 — seizing 11 sets of classified records, some labeled “top secret” — Trump falsely claimed that he was being held to a different standard than his predecessors. In an early October rally, Trump claimed that “many other presidents stored their millions of pages of stuff in unsecured warehouses,” giving several faulty examples.
The National Archives and Records Administration, not the former presidents, “securely moved” and stored documents in secure, temporary facilities while presidential libraries were being built, NARA said in a statement. For instance, Trump claimed President George H.W. Bush “took millions and millions of documents to a former bowling alley” and “an old and broken Chinese restaurant” with “no security.” Actually, NARA kept documents in a warehouse-like facility, which had once been a bowling alley and Chinese restaurant, while Bush’s official library was being built in Texas. A 1994 Associated Press story described how “[u]niformed guards” and “sophisticated electronic detectors along walls and doors” provided security.
The documents weren’t in Bush’s possession, as was the case with the classified material the Department of Justice had been trying to retrieve from Trump’s personal residence in Florida.
‘2000 Mules.’ The documentary by conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza — viewed by over 1 million people — purported to provide definitive proof of a massive conspiracy by Democrats to commit widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Researchers from the conservative group True the Vote used geotracking data of cell phones and claimed it provided evidence that thousands of so-called “mules” were employed to illegally stuff ballot drop boxes with fraudulent ballots. But, we found, the film never delivered the goods.
When Georgia investigators looked into a handful of videos showing people depositing multiple ballots, it turned out to be people legally dropping off ballots for eligible voters in their immediate family. The Jan. 6 House select committee released video of an interview of former Attorney General Bill Barr, who offered a blistering assessment, calling the cellphone data “singularly unimpressive” and saying the film simply “didn’t establish widespread illegal harvesting.” Nonetheless, top Republicans, including Trump, continue to cite and promote the film.
Biden’s deficit spin. Pushing back against the Republican narrative that rampant deficit spending was causing inflation to spike, President Joe Biden said numerous times this year that his policies reduced the country’s deficits by $350 billion in his first year and by another $1.3 trillion this year. As we wrote in April, most of the reduction in deficits was the result of expiring emergency pandemic spending. And if not for more emergency pandemic and infrastructure spending championed by Biden, deficits would have fallen further than they ultimately did, according to Congressional Budget Office projections.
“It’s pretty silly,” Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told us. “He [Biden] didn’t cut the deficit, he increased it.”
President Joe Biden discusses the American Rescue Plan in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 6. White House Photo by Adam Schultz.
Biden’s recovery puffery. The U.S. economy already was improving when Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act. Yet he wrongly claimed that the Democratic COVID-19 relief bill “literally turned the economy from one that was in decline to one that’s in recovery.”
Multiple economists told us that the economy, while weakened, definitely was “growing” prior to that bill becoming law in March 2021. For example, U.S. gross domestic product had increased for three consecutive fiscal quarters and the unemployment rate had decreased nearly nine percentage points from its pandemic peak. That economic progress was bolstered by pandemic-related assistance authorized under Biden’s predecessor.
Mediscare 2022. Most elections include claims targeting seniors about politicians wanting to “end” Medicare and/or Social Security, and the 2022 midterm was exhibit A for this Mediscare fear-mongering. Democrats seized on a policy proposal by GOP Sen. Rick Scott that, in part, called for Congress to reauthorize all federal legislation every five years. That certainly could lead to major changes for Medicare and Social Security, but many Republicans didn’t embrace the proposal. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected it. Democrats wrongly tagged many Republican candidates with Scott’s plan anyway.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee went as far as claiming that “Republicans will END Social Security and Medicare.” Biden often described Scott’s plan accurately, but a week before the election, he, too, claimed: “You’ve been paying into Social Security your whole life. … Now these guys want to take it away,” referring also to comments by Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson that funding for the two programs should be discretionary, not mandatory, and approved by Congress every year. Neither Scott nor Johnson said they wanted to “end” these programs for seniors. More importantly, Democrats were wrong to claim others in the party supported such a drastic move.
Never-ending spin on COVID-19 vaccines. As with last year, 2022 was awash in misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines. Many social media users, in particular, shared supposed revelations about vaccine safety or efficacy allegedly pulled from official documents or government data. But those files didn’t support the claims.
In several cases, posts misinterpreted Pfizer documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to incorrectly claim they showed the company’s COVID-19 shot was unsafe, including during pregnancy. But in reality, the documents were evidence of the vaccine’s continued safety. In another instance, a post falsely said some of the Pfizer FOIA documents showed the vaccine was “12% effective.” That, too, is wrong — and didn’t even come from Pfizer. Instead, the faulty figure likely came from a misreading of a Food and Drug Administration briefing document.
Purveyors of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation also distorted a misleading analysis of data from v-safe, a new safety monitoring system the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled for the COVID-19 vaccines.
Pair of videos push far-fetched COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Stew Peters, a conservative radio host, produced two viral videos this year, garnering tens of millions of views between them.
The first, titled “Watch the Water,” was released in the spring. It was comprised of a single, roughly hour-long, interview with Bryan Ardis, a retired chiropractor who sells purported acne cures online. Ardis spun out a fantastical conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is not caused by a virus, but by snake venom injected into public water by government agencies and the Catholic Church. That premise was lifted from an episode of the network TV drama “The Blacklist.”
Spoiler alert: COVID-19 is definitely caused by a coronavirus, which has been studied by scientists around the world. The vaccines that several competing pharmaceutical companies have tailored to the virus have been effective in preventing serious illness and death.
The second video, called “Died Suddenly,” came out in the fall. It relied heavily on references to other conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines — including the false claim that circulated earlier this year that Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome was somehow related to vaccination; the long-standing false claim that athletes are dropping dead due to vaccination; and the false claim that plane crashes were caused by pilots suffering from the side effects of vaccination.
The video repeatedly displayed what appeared to be ordinary postmortem blood clots that are often found in dead bodies, but suggested that the clots were a new anomaly, surmising that they were caused by COVID-19 vaccines. The video suggested that this is part of a shadowy plot to depopulate the world.
Coronavirus origin baloney. In May, former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro incorrectly claimed, as others have before, that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci “killed a lot of people” by funding research that led to the creation of the coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2. Elon Musk, the new owner and CEO of Twitter, repeated the baseless claim earlier this week on the platform, less than a month after the company suspended enforcement of its COVID-19 misinformation policy.
The U.S. indirectly funded some bat coronavirus research at a lab in Wuhan, China, where the COVID-19 pandemic began, but as we explained, those experiments could not have generated SARS-CoV-2 because the viruses used were very different. Published research suggests the coronavirus spilled over into humans from the wildlife trade, as other coronaviruses have done in the past.
Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is still ongoing, was a major news story this year. But for months before the war began, Russian officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, repeatedly denied that Russia was preparing an attack, insisting that Russia is a “peaceful country” and accusing the U.S. and other nations of a manufactured “hysteria.” On Feb. 24, Russia launched a full-scale invasion, going through with the incursion that others suspected it was planning all along.
Biolabs in Ukraine: As Russia intensified its attack on Ukraine in late winter, Moscow also stepped up a disinformation campaign about Putin’s motivation for the invasion, which was amplified by social media in the U.S. Facebook posts spread the false claim that the U.S. was funding biolabs “engaged in top-secret zoonotic and infectious disease research in dozens of locations across Ukraine” and the creation of bioweapons.
The posts misrepresented the U.S. Biological Threat Reduction Program. The program evolved from a 2005 pact under which the Defense Department and Ukraine’s Ministry of Health agreed to work together to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and to ensure that labs studying disease in Ukraine could not be used to develop biological weapons.
Adding insult to injury. Paul Pelosi, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, was physically assaulted by a hammer-wielding intruder at their San Francisco home in late October. The alleged assailant, David DePape, was not a prostitute hired by Paul Pelosi — a baseless claim that was elevated by several conservative figures on social media.
A San Francisco Police Department spokesman told us that officers found no “evidence that shows that the victim and the suspect knew each other.” Plus, DePape told FBI officers that he broke into the house intending to capture Nancy — not Paul. Prior to the attack, DePape reportedly wrote online posts repeating theories about fraud in the 2020 election and other conspiracies.
Trump claims he stopped the steal — in 2018. Two days after the midterm elections, and with Republicans blaming him for the party’s lackluster results, Trump turned his ire on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — quite likely Trump’s chief rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. In a rambling Nov. 10 statement, Trump accused DeSantis of insufficient “loyalty” to him, and recalled how he “sent in the FBI and the U.S. Attorneys” to Broward County during the 2018 election to stop “ballot theft” and help “Ron DeSanctimonious” become governor. One problem: Nobody else recalled Trump’s heroics.
“The Broward County Supervisor of Elections Office has no documentation of any federal law enforcement presence during the 2018 elections,” Ivan Castro, a spokesperson for the county supervisor of elections, told us in an email. “Also, to clarify, there is no evidence of corruption during the 2018 election cycle in Broward County.”
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Gore, D’Angelo. “Florida GOP Attacks Crist with Misleading Claims About the IRS and Police.” FactCheck.org. 9 Sep 2022.
Farley, Robert et. al. “Major Themes of the Midterms.” FactCheck.org. 7 Nov 2022.
Farley, Robert and Lori Robertson. “Trump’s Faulty ‘Double Standard’ Document Claim.” FactCheck.org. 10 Oct 2022.
Farley, Robert. “Ads Distort Oz’s Position on Abortion, Taxes and Social Security.” FactCheck.org. 19 Oct 2022.
Farley, Robert. “Democrats Misleadingly Claim ‘Republicans’ Plan’ Would ‘End’ Social Security, Medicare.” FactCheck.org. 29 Apr 2022.
Gore, D’Angelo. “Biden’s Misleading Claims About the Economic Recovery and Unemployment.” FactCheck.org. 23 Sep 2022.
Spencer, Saranac Hale and D’Angelo Gore. “Conservative Figures Spread Baseless Claims About Attack on Paul Pelosi.” FactCheck.org. 1 Nov 2022.
Gambardello, Joseph A. “Social Media Posts Misrepresent U.S.-Ukraine Threat Reduction Program.” FactCheck.org. 2 Mar 2022.
Spencer, Saranac Hale. “COVID-19 Is Caused by a Virus, Not Snake Venom.” FactCheck.org. 18 Apr 2022.
Spencer, Saranac Hale, et al. “‘Died Suddenly’ Pushes Bogus Depopulation Theory.” FactCheck.org. 1 Dec 2022.
Farley, Robert. “Evidence Gaps in ‘2000 Mules.’” FactCheck.org. 10 Jun 2022, updated 13 Jun 2022.
Farley, Robert. “Biden’s Deficit Spin,” FactCheck.org. 27 Apr 2022.
McDonald, Jessica. “Posts Misinterpret Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Safety Monitoring Document.” FactCheck.org. 18 Mar 2022.
McDonald, Jessica. “COVID-19 Vaccination Doesn’t Increase Miscarriage Risk, Contrary to Naomi Wolf’s Spurious Stat.” FactCheck.org. 24 Aug 2022.
Robertson, Lori. “Pfizer Documents Show Vaccine Is Highly Effective, Contrary to Social Media Posts.” FactCheck.org. 16 May 2022.
Jaramillo, Catalina. “Posts Distort Misleading Analysis of COVID-19 Vaccine Safety Data.” FactCheck.org. 28 Oct 2022.
“How do we know vaccines are safe?.” FactCheck.org. 4 Mar 2021.
McDonald, Jessica. “Navarro Falsely Links Fauci to Pandemic Origin.” FactCheck.org. 19 May 2022.
Kiely, Eugene. “FactChecking Trump’s Bizarre Claim of Stopping DeSantis’ 2018 Election ‘From Being Stolen.’” FactCheck.org. 11 Nov 2022, updated 15 Nov 2022.
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