Michelle Obama ‘Man’ Claims, ‘End of Times’ Bird Swarm—Misinformation Watch

Prominent current and former politicians, as well as members of their families, can often become targets of misinformation, with particularly egregious examples often drawing on outrage around divisive topics, such as race and gender identity.

Michelle Obama, Barack Obama‘s wife and the former First Lady of the United States, became the latest victim of such attacks, with multiple posts promoting a false narrative about her gender.

Plus, Newsweek’s regular Misinformation Watch evaluates recently resurfaced videos, including one showing thousands of birds over a busy highway and another seemingly depicting a very targeted “rain cloud.”

Michelle and Barack Obama in 2004
Then-Democratic candidate for the United States Senate in Illinois, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle wave to the crowd at the Democratic National Convention at the Fleet Center in Boston, Massachusetts, Tuesday, July 27, 2004. An old photo of the Obamas was used in 2021 to promote false claims about the former First Lady, which resurfaced again in early 2023.
Jim Rogash/WireImage

False ‘Michelle Obama Is a Man’ Claim Goes Viral

A number of prominent conservatives and right-leaning social media accounts reignited a false narrative about the former First Lady, with the viral claim “Michelle Obama is a man” gathering hundreds of thousands of engagements on Twitter.

Among those repeating the falsehood, or framing it is a question, were GOP congressional candidate Omar Navarro, comedian Terrence K. Williams and Derrick Evans, a former West Virginia state delegate, who served three months in prison for his role in the Capitol attack, and who recently announced his official candidacy for Congress.

While it is not clear if the dozens of posts on this subject are genuine statements, written in jest or simple trolling, they appear to stem from a pre-existing debunked narrative that itself was based on a doctored photo.

A May 2021 Instagram post claimed that the former FLOTUS was “a man prior to marrying Obama,” features a photograph of the couple that was digitally altered, with masculine features added to Michelle Obama‘s face.

“Just 2 dudes … before they were husband and wife,” the caption states, falsely.

The original unaltered image was tweeted in January 2019 by none other than Barack Obama himself, receiving more than 1.3 million engagements on Twitter.

But even as the edited version of the photo was quickly debunked, it spawned a myriad of similar photoshop jobs, false claims and jokes (often crude and offensive) about the former First Lady.

That trend has continued to simmer on social media since, despite abundant archive photos from Michelle Obama’s youth and adolescence, posted on her Instagram and available for viewing on the pages of her (auto) biographical books.

Birds perched on power lines in Houston
A flock of birds rests on power lines during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas. An old video showing thousands of black birds invading a Houston highway has gone viral once again, despite being several years old.

Birds Video Drives Looming ‘Apocalypse’ Narratives

One of the most common misinformation devices is repurposing old content, including videos, images or misleading claims, and sharing it as new information, sometimes to push a misleading narrative.

One example of this technique emerged this week, as an existing video of thousands of birds flocking on a highway in creepy footage that evokes Hitchcockian nightmare vibes.

“The end of times,” Twitter account Weird and Terrifying wrote in the caption of the post seen by nearly four million users.

While no context was presented in this and other posts, Newsweek traced the video to 2017, and though the scene depicted was real, it did not lead to “end of times.”

The footage, published on Instagram, was in fact filmed on a Houston Highway in January 2017, and was reported by the British tabloid The Sun and other outlets at the time.

“Drivers are seen slamming their brakes on as they try to avoid birds smashing through their windscreens,” the Sun article said.

While the scenes were quite unsettling for the drivers and drew comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic The Birds, the creatures, likely blackbirds, grackles or crows, were mostly harmless, though some reportedly bumped into cars’ windshields.

No definitive explanation of the phenomenon has emerged since, but other reports suggest it is not especially unusual, particularly in Texas.

Some potential reasons for the proliferation of birds in the area and this type of behavior were discussed in a report by Maggie Martin for Houston Public Media in 2016.

Similar videos filmed in urban areas of the southern state have been published fairly regularly in recent years, including this footage of birds swarming in a Texas car park, and has been misleadingly tied to apocalyptic narratives, including about the COVID pandemic or the war in Ukraine.

Does Video Show ‘Rain Falling On One Spot’?

Column of rain pouring from a cloud
A photo of rain clouds, taken on May 30, 2018 from the observatory deck of the Montparnasse tower in Paris. A short video, purportedly filmed in Ghana, appeared to show a rain column hitting “one spot”, but what was the context?

Another old video that has resurfaced over the past week on TikTok and elsewhere claims to show “rain falling in one place,” with some reposts offering little further explanation or context.

The TikTok post, which claimed the footage was filmed in Akosombo, Ghana, received more than 50,000 engagements since Thursday, January 19.

A voice off-camera describes the sight as “unbelievable” as music plays in the background.

Circulating online since at least 2016 and variously geolocated to China, Togo and other countries, the footage doesn’t actually show rain.

Instead, it is showing water coming up from the ground, likely from a geyser or a burst water pipe. The video is cropped misleadingly to hide the peak of the fountain, but it can be seen in a brief moment when the camera zooms out.

The same phenomenon can be seen from a different angle in another video, published on Facebook in September 2016, which clearly shows water sprouting upwards before falling back down.

Similar videos have appeared over the years, such as this one dated June 2015, which is even titled “sources of water, water sources of well digging,” indicating that the water is rising up from a hole in the ground.

In a 2019 debunk, AP tracked down the author of the second video from the African country, Ashong Mawufemor, who told the outlet that he filmed it in 2016 while traveling to a festival in Agotime, eastern Ghana.

“I was travelling and then I saw it and I was like, let me pull over and check what it was. I realised it was a water pipe that was burst,” Mawufemor said.

“The burst was around three and a half metres high,” he estimated, adding that the pipe appeared to have been fixed when he passed the location later.

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