8th Week Newsletter: A Balloon, a Train, & Three UFOs

Our amazing events lead Jamie Whitney explores the recent flurry of conspiratorial news in the US — including the train derailment, the UFO sightings, and the surveillance balloon — and the role of mass media in its propagation.

Last month, the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials in Ohio and the following controlled burn of several railcars, led many residents in the area fearing for their health. The smell of toxic chemicals lingered in the air, surface water was visibly polluted and fish in their thousands died. It was an ecological disaster that left many questioning the industry working conditions and safety concerns of Norfolk Southern as well as causing concern over the air and water quality in the area.
At the same time, a Chinese surveillance balloon, approximately the size of the Statue of Liberty, entered U.S. air space and was monitored by the American Defence Department before being shot down. Over the course of the next week, three unidentified flying objects were shot down over American and Canadian airspace.
The ecological disaster in Ohio and the various objects that hovered above the U.S. in early February are two, completely unrelated, news-worthy stories that should have had no bearing on one another. Yet, precisely through media coverage, these two events were linked together, and they created a storm of criticism on social media directed towards mainstream media. Conspiracy theories emerged and accusations of deception and fabrication were raised.  
Stew Peters, a far-right podcaster who has previously claimed that COVID vaccines are deadly, suggested that these ‘fake UFOs’ were set up to distract from the public from the train derailment in Ohio. Similarly, Kerry Cassidy, who runs a popular conspiratorial website, stated that Americans are ‘being distracted with UFO talk’ and Erin Elizabeth, a blogger part of the ‘disinformation dozen’ (a group responsible for 65% of Covid-19 anti-vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media according to a 2021 report) called ‘every last one of [the UFOs] just a distraction’.
Adding fuel to the fire was the arrest of Evan Lambert, a News Nation correspondent who was reporting on a press conference called by the Governor of the state when he was forcibly removed from the premises by law enforcement and placed under arrest for trespassing and resisting arrest. The charges were soon dismissed by the Ohio Attorney General as Lambert was ‘lawfully present at a press conference’ and his ‘conduct was consistent with the purpose of the event and his role as a reporter’. Nevertheless, the consequences of this arrest were quickly felt as it reinforced ideas that something was being covered up in the train derailment disaster that people in positions of authority did not want mainstream media to cover in detail.
The conspiratorial theorising which grew out of this situation is hardly new. Any socially significant event, particularly in America, is quickly scooped up by commentators, such as those mentioned above, and twisted into a narrative which imagines large scale manipulation of the general public.
Social media is the obvious culprit, allowing misinformation to spread both quickly and easily which helps to breed groundless conspiracy theories. It has become a constant battle for mainstream media outlets to combat this and, ever since the storm of misinformation that the era of Trump brought, organisations such as the BBC have frequently had ‘fact-checking’ articles which verify statements regarding certain events. Theories, like those that have spread from the Ohio train derailment, are particularly threatening, as they often paint mainstream media as a culprit, creating the potential for delegitimising any further information these media organisations provide.
However, perhaps there are some silver linings that ought to be considered. In the case of the theories regarding the Ohio train derailment, it encourages more widespread attention to an environmental disaster that has severely impacted both the lives of citizens and natural life in the immediate area. It is also promising that people are engaging with media in an active sense, questioning whether they are seeing the entire picture and being at liberty to share their concerns. If these commentators only engaged as critically with information spread on platforms such as Twitter as they do with mainstream media, outlandish conspiracy theories could be limited, and the fear and suspicion they provoke restricted.

Jamie Whitney

Events Lead

Recommended Reading:

The New York Times – Ohio Train Derailment: Separating Fact From Fiction
Vice – The Conspiracy-Verse Thinks “Fake UFOs” Are a Distraction From a Disastrous Train Derailment
CBS News – Charges dismissed against reporter arrested while covering East Palestine train derailment