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(Chris Kozlowski / Poynter) (Chris Kozlowski / Poynter)

(Chris Kozlowski / Poynter)

By PolitiFact Staff December 13, 2022

PolitiFact doesn’t take the word "lie" lightly. We use it just once a year.

The word "lie," by definition, suggests an intent to deceive. And while we at PolitiFact sort through a lot of false and misleading statements, our work as fact-checkers cares less about intent than it does about facts.

The Lie of the Year is different. We apply that title to the statement or collection of falsehoods that played the most significant role in undermining the truth over the previous 12 calendar months.

For 2022, the designation goes to Russian President Vladimir Putin for his lies about Ukraine, including those he told to justify the invasion and harmful lies about the atrocities that have been committed since.

In previous years, the Lie of the Year has ranged from specific false claims to whole storms of deceptive political rhetoric. Here’s a look back at the past 12 years of winning whoppers.

On Jan. 6, 2021, following the defeat of then-U.S. President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Live news footage and videos from participants provided inescapable evidence of what happened. But claims that Jan. 6 was an antifa operation, a tourist visit, a false flag or an uneventful day to forget proliferated throughout the year.

The U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic was crippled by conspiracy theories and misinformation that said the new virus was overblown, and maybe even a hoax. Lies about COVID-19 infected America in 2020, and the worst were not just damaging, but deadly.

Trump worked hard to discredit a whistleblower complaint about a July 2019 phone call he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The whistleblower raised the concern that Trump’s actions leading up to and on that phone call amounted to interference in the 2020 presidential election. The complaint sparked months of investigation and Trump’s first impeachment in the House.

Trump insisted more than 80 times that the whistleblower’s account was incorrect, "total fiction" and "almost completely wrong." But the whistleblower’s account was validated by the very record of the call as released by the White House, plus testimony under oath from career diplomats and other officials.

After 17 people were viciously gunned down at a Florida high school, lies about the students started when they advocated for action against gun violence. Students were called "crisis actors" and worse. During a time of little bipartisanship, the attacks on the Parkland students set off a shared outrage in nearly all political corners.

Trump continually asserted that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election was fake news, a hoax or a made-up story, even though there is widespread, bipartisan evidence to the contrary. In both classified and public reports, U.S. intelligence agencies said Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered actions to interfere with the election.

2016: Fake news

Conspiracy theories and hoaxes have always been part of America’s political conversation, but in 2016, they took off online. Fake news found a willing enabler in then-candidate Trump, who at times repeated and legitimized made-up reports. We defined fake news as fabricated information that was manipulated to look like credible news reporting for easy spread online.

From "thousands and thousands" of people cheering in New Jersey on Sept. 11, 2001, to dubious accounts of his own record and words, Trump’s inaccurate statements in 2015 covered a lot of ground, exhibiting a boldness and disregard for the truth we hadn’t seen before in a presidential candidate. By December 2015, PolitiFact had rated 76% of Trump’s claims Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire. No other politician had clocked more falsehoods on our Truth-O-Meter, and our only real contenders for Lie of the Year were Trump’s. 

In 2014, there were just two Ebola-related deaths in the United States, yet fear of the disease stretched nationwide, stoked by exaggerated claims from politicians and pundits. They said, wrongly, that Ebola was easy to catch, that immigrants illegally in the country may have been carrying the virus and that it was all part of a government or corporate conspiracy. The false claims distorted the debate about a serious public health issue and edged the nation toward panic.

President Barack Obama and other Democrats made this claim when marketing the Affordable Care Act. But in fall 2013, people started to receive insurance cancellation notices, which definitively proved that the statement was wrong. Reducing the complicated health care law to a sound bite proved treacherous. Obama and his team worsened matters, suggesting the claim had been misunderstood all along. The political uproar led to a rare presidential apology.

During the 2012 presidential race, Mitt Romney’s campaign unleashed an ad suggesting that Jeep was pulling its plants out of Ohio, a critical swing state, and moving production to China. But the Ohio Jeep plants weren’t going anywhere; the moves in China were to expand into the Chinese auto market. A flood of negative press coverage rained down on Romney’s campaign, and he failed to turn the tide in Ohio, a key battleground state.

After two years of Republicans making false charges about the 2010 health care law, Democrats turned the tables. They slammed Republicans in the House for voting for a cost-cutting budget resolution promoted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Democrats claimed that voting for this resolution amounted to voting to end Medicare. But Ryan never proposed ending Medicare; he wanted to bring more private insurers into the program. Democrats later modified their talking point to say Republicans wanted to end Medicare "as we know it."

As lawmakers finalized the Affordable Care Act, Republicans repeated their mantra that the law was a government takeover of health care. It was not. "Government takeover" connotes a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. But the Affordable Care Act relied largely on the free market, and it did not nationalize the country’s health system in any way.

Former Alaska Gov. and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was the first to say that the Affordable Care Act included "death panels" — PolitiFact’s very first Lie of the Year. The idea of government boards that would supposedly determine whether seniors and people with disabilities were worthy of care, was wholly fictional. There were not — and still aren’t — any such death panels in the law. Yet about 30% of the public in 2009 believed they were part of the health care law.

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They were whoppers: A look back at PolitiFact’s Lies of the Year, 2009 to 2021