White noise: How conspiracists exploited an information gap after a derailment in Ohio

By: tori marland&
February 17 2023

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White noise: How conspiracists exploited an information gap after a derailment in Ohio

Don DeLillo's postmodern 1985 breakout novel White Noise features a toxic chemical spill from a rail car, inviting readers to explore themes including man-made disasters, conspiracies, and capitalism. Noah Baumbach's film adaptation of the novel, released in January 2023, was shot in and around Ohio using local extras. 

In a grim coincidence, extras from East Palestine, Ohio found themselves under evacuation orders on February 4, 2023: a day after a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed, catching fire in the process. Norfolk Southern carried out a controlled burn of the chemicals on the damaged cars on February 6, creating huge plumes of smoke over East Palestine. 

Conspiracy sites, including Telegram groups, were quick to leap onto the bizarre coincidence. One post read, "White Noise is predictive planning - they're mocking us."

The information gap

Some felt that the disaster hadn't been given adequate coverage, either from government officials or from the media – this was compounded by the arrest of NewsNation journalist Evan Lambert during a press conference. Lambert said, "this is what it's like to be a Black reporter in 2023," while held down. The charges have been dismissed, but the sense of a cover-up remains. 

Locals were turning to the internet and social media for answers. One resident told The New Republic, "It kinda sucks we're all getting the majority of our information from fellow residents on Facebook [...] so it's hard to tell what's true or not." 

While the apparent absence of – or gaps in – coverage does not necessarily mean there is a conspiracy or cover-up, it does allow conspiracy theories to flourish. A research paper in the International Journal of Data Science and Analytics by Sadiq Muhammed and Saji Matthew on misinformation in the wake of disaster states, "when a crisis occurs, affected communities often experience a lack of localized information needed for them to make emergency decisions. This accelerates the spread of misinformation as people tend to fill this information gap with misinformation or 'improvised news'."

Investigating the coverage

Logically investigated the event's coverage using the media analytics tool Newswhip, running separate concurrent searches for mentions of "Ohio AND rail" and "East Palestine AND train AND chemicals."

The large spike in public interest on February 13-14, shown on the graphic below, is driven mainly by a piece in the New York Times, originally published on February 13 and updated on February 15. The article received over 12,000 interactions in the 24 hour period. 

Local coverage was primarily driven by local TV station WKBN, based in Youngstown, Ohio – approximately 20 miles from East Palestine – which reported as early as February 4 on the dangers of vinyl chloride in the aftermath of the derailment. Engagement on WKBN's early reporting is low, and it was not until a much later article regarding potential animal deaths, published on February 15, that their coverage really took off. 

WKBN’s reporting had the most reach, but two out of the top ten websites that attracted the most attention in their coverage of the incident are known sources of conspiracizing or health misinformation – the Epoch Times and Gateway Pundit – and one, the Babylon Bee, is a satirical site. 

Data from Newswhip showing media coverage and online engagement with the train derailment in East Palestine 

Data from Newswhip showing media coverage and online engagement with the train derailment in East Palestine 

Media Matters also analyzed coverage from February 3 through February 14, finding only 2.5 hours of national coverage across major cable news channels – CNN, Fox and MSNBC – across the period devoted to the derailment, with only a combined 15 minutes on broadcast news channels ABC, NBC and CBS. They found that from February 10-12, a three-day window, there was no national coverage on cable news. 

The arrest of Lambert appears to have caused a small spike in social media mentions of Ohio, and it's certainly something that known conspiracist Stew Peters was able to exaggerate in a tweet four days later. The tweet went viral, attracting half a million likes, and claims that "journalists covering the story have been arrested," when it was only one; and that dead fish and cattle are being reported "as far as 100 miles away from the site." 

A tweet by Stew Peters went viral with almost half a million likes

A tweet by Stew Peters went viral with almost half a million likes

Two personal animal deaths appear to have been verified, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) estimates 3,500 small fish, mostly minnow, have died across around 7.5 miles of streams. There is zero mention of the events in Ohio on Stew Peters' Twitter prior to February 12. The EPA is continuing to monitor groundwater and air pollution, and has said, as of February 13, "After the fire was extinguished on Feb. 8, the threat of vinyl chloride fire producing phosgene and hydrogen chloride no longer exists." 

Other known conspiracy theorists exploiting the incident include Twitter user Kanekoa, who picked up over 165,000 likes on his thread, claiming, "this may be the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history." Kanekoa appears in the Anti-Defamation League's recent article of known conspiracists and extremists for their part in promoting false claims on COVID-19, Hunter Biden, and election fraud. Other usual suspects keen to exploit the situation include right-wing politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene and former House candidate Laura Loomer. 

The hashtag #OhioChernobyl, which did not exist before February 12, has now gained traction across various platforms, with evidence of a copypasta on Reddit, all posted on February 13.Exactly the same comment cross-posted to different subreddits by different users, both with high engagement. 

Exactly the same comment cross-posted to different subreddits by different users, both with high engagement. 

Logically has also debunked related Facebook claims, including suggestions the news stories about the balloons flying over U.S. airspace are a hoax to divert attention away from the derailment. Another post claims that the derailment was "planned" in "a clear and obvious act of war waged on the United States by the government."

There have also been claims of a media cover-up from prominent leftists. However, rather than exploiting the situation to reroute followers to their page to spread other conspiracies, they have directed their anger at the system allowing this to occur, pointing to union warnings and calling for greater safety regulations, focusing on accountability. A tweet by Joshua Hill makes this explicit, stating, "Mind boggling that people are being told the water is safe. Let this moment radicalize you. There is a conspiracy here, and it's capitalist corruption from the company and the government." On TikTok, videos have gone viral laying out the profits made by Norfolk Southern and their resistance to modern brake systems, which may have prevented the accident. 

Conspiracy, or just unlucky coincidences?

Although major outlets did indeed cover the incident, It is clear residents and social media users felt the news gap, which allowed conspiracies to grow. The closest major city to East Palestine – also the largest in the Ohio basin – is Pittsburgh, where local news outfit the Pittsburgh Post Gazette is currently on strike over labor conditions and loss of healthcare, with no end in sight after more than 100 days, impacting local coverage of the accident. 

Other headline-grabbing incidents may have pushed coverage off the front page. On February 3, the U.S. Government shot down a Chinese balloon traversing U.S. airspace from Montana to the Carolinas, and shared information that they’d detected several others in the following days. Then on February 6, a devastating earthquake hit Syria and Turkey. 

Other than decisions over what major stories to prioritize, editorial choices can also result from what is perceived as less important along the lines of race, class, or whether it's something occurring in a rural area. This is nothing new; the Pew Research Center has investigated coverage of the Flint, MI water crisis, finding that national coverage did not spike until a state of emergency was declared, and local coverage also gained a much bigger audience. Only then did the New York Times write about the largely Black, working-class residents of Flint – despite the alarm being raised as early as 2014 – asking, "If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan's state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?" 

This is indicative of wider issues in local press more generally in the U.S., which has seen publications across the nation decimated in recent years. An episode of Netflix show The Patriot Act brought wider attention to this, with presenter Hasan Minhaj observing that in addition to COVID-related layoffs, Big Tech firms such as Google and Facebook have been diverting advertising money away from local journalism for a long time, while venture capitalists have been gutting local papers for profit. Crucially, Minhaj points out that "while local newspapers only make up 25 percent of the country's media outlets, they are responsible for half of the country's original reporting — reporting that's picked up and covered by the bigger outlets every day." 

Although the AP, New York Times, and Reuters all covered this story when it broke, that news did not seem to hit wider attention. That plus the lack of TV news coverage left a void rapidly filled by conspiracy, with improvised news and sensational claims driving coverage. 

Residents in East Palestine – or anyone for that matter – should not have to resort conspiracy theorists for breaking news. A town hall with residents on February 15 aimed at restoring trust and providing information only added to their frustrations. At a bare minimum, residents deserve to know what is happening in their community. This requires the cooperation and timely communication of all parties involved to ensure public trust. The absence of information is not in itself a conspiracy, but conspiracies are what will happen if information is absent. 

Image Credit: Reuters

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