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'Foolishness': How Baltimore bridge conspiracy theories obscured facts

Within hours of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse, a viral explosion of conspiracy theories garnered tens of millions of views.
'Foolishness': How Baltimore bridge conspiracy theories obscured facts
Posted at 8:29 PM, Apr 11, 2024

Within hours of a cargo ship striking the Francis Scott Key Bridge, viral conspiracy theories exploded online. They overshadowed updates from authorities like the FBI and officials who were eventually on the scene that morning.  

In the time it took for authorities to confirm that the deadly collapse wasn’t intentional or an act of terrorism, conspiracy theories racked up tens of millions of views. Here’s how it unfolded.  

A timeline of conspiracy theories

In the aftermath of the bridge collapse, disinformation sought to cast blame on the southern U.S. border, elusive foreign enemies, DEI, and the Obamas.  It started after a ship named Dali lost power and crashed into the bridge just before 1:30 a.m.  By 7:30 a.m., authorities had said there was “absolutely no indication” of terrorism or that the bridge was intentionally hit. A statement from the White House around the time and later remarks from President Joe Biden also reiterated there was “no indication of any nefarious intent."  

But none of these statements from on the ground or over at the White House would matter — because also at around 7 a.m., about six hours after the crash, one of first conspiracy theories started to spread, falsely stating the Dali had been cyberattacked by "foreign agents of the USA.” 

Ten minutes later, it was bizarrely suggested on a live TV news program that a “wide-open border” could be linked to the disaster when, notably, all the victims of the collapse were immigrants. An hour after that, at 8:25 a.m., an online influencer falsely claimed DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — or so-called “anti-white business practices” were the root cause, while sharing the DEI page of the ship’s company

When later asked about this theory in a CNN interview, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said, “My response is I have no time for foolishness.” 

Sandy Hook conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones would post on X: “Looks deliberate to me. A cyber-attack is probable. WW3 has already started.” 

Before the first 24 hours were up, another conspiracy theory would draw connections between an apocalyptic Netflix film produced by former President Barack Obama and footage of the bridge collapse. Michael Flynn, who was national security adviser to former President Donald Trump, a state representative and a former Newsmax correspondent would all weigh in broad speculations that went relatively viral. By the time Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott would ask the public to “have a little bit of decency and respect” and stop spreading misinformation, it would be too late.  

When the truth ‘is a lot less interesting’

Conspiracy theories around the bridge collapse. Many of them were on X (formerly known as Twitter), posted by popular accounts with many followers and verified checks, making them easier to engage with or, alarmingly, to believe, experts said. “They have a real legitimacy when they when they come from somebody who has hundreds of thousands of followers or when they come from somebody like an Alex Jones,” Mike Rothschild, conspiracy theory researcher and author of "The Storm Is upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything," told Scripps News.  

“These names have built up a lot of trust in these communities,” Rothschild continued. “These are news sources for the people who look at an event and see hidden conspiracies and wheels turning and plots and things like that. They don't trust the mainstream media; they don't trust mainstream experts. They trust these people who they think are telling them the real truth. And those are often very popular figures.” 

Some of the earliest social media posts spreading disinformation gained upward of 15 million views, compared to a post by FBI Baltimore which received just over 110,000 views. 

The spread of conspiracy theories during a disaster isn’t new, especially on social media. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, disinformation soared in an attempt to explain where the virus originated, how it could be treated, and the number of people who were dying. 

Typically, conspiracy theories try to capitalize on the silence between a not-yet-explained event and the release of facts. According to Rothschild, even when there is an explanation, it may be too simplistic to be considered true or, at the very least, interesting. 

“You're just trying to find an explanation for something that really has an explanation. It's just kind of a boring one,” Rothschild said. “A ship hitting a bridge column by accident because the power went out is a lot less interesting and a lot less compelling, than ‘It's a cyberattack carried out by the deep state in order to distract us from what's happening in Ukraine' or whatever it is.” Beyond sowing distrust and confusion, conspiracy theories and disinformation during a time of tragedy, destroy a sense of unity, experts said. 

“What they're saying is: ‘No, actually, this wasn't just an accident for which we should all help out our fellow man who's suffering right now,’” Imran Ahmed, founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told Scripps News. 

Instead, disinformation “undermines the solidarity that we need in order to respond effectively to moments of tragedy by putting the blame on something else,” Ahmed said. 

Officials, in rare calls to the public, appeared to reinforce a sense of solidarity by calling out misinformation and underscoring that the bridge collapse was a human tragedy. 

“We are not in the habit as a Department of Transportation, of being in the business of dealing with conspiracies, or conspiracy theories or that kind of wild thinking,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a CNN interview. “But unfortunately, it is a fact of life in America today. What’s really upsetting is when misinformation or disinformation circulates, that is not without victims.” 

"Some of those victims are people targeted by conspiracy theories and disinformation," Ahmed said.  

'Dipping into a toxic well’

When Baltimore resident and community organizer Kim Trueheart woke up early on March 26 to the news that Francis Scott Key Bridge had collapsed, she didn’t want stories or theories. She wanted the facts. 

“My first thought was, ‘Oh, God, were the people on the bridge at the time?'” Trueheart recalled. “And come to find out the only ones who were on the bridge were workers who happened to be immigrants. I thought about their children, their families. And that was heartbreaking.” 

Trueheart, who runs the Liberty Village Project community center 30 minutes from where the Francis Scott Key Bridge stood, said she gets her news from local stations and social media — particularly Instagram “because I think it's less political.” She was upset to see the kind of disinformation later being shared about the victims. 

“Their immigration status seemed to be the big issue,” Trueheart told Scripps News she noticed online. “As opposed to human life, and dignity, and respect for the potential loss of life. There was a lot of commentary around the immigration status, and I just thought that was so wrong.” 

For this reason, Trueheart said she’s slow to share what she sees online.  

“We'll hit that button and we tweet something, and then come to find out that it wasn't true,” Trueheart said. “We've got to be careful with what we repeat, what we share, what we disseminate."

"Every time you take information from social media, you are dipping into a toxic well, which can be full of lies [and] disinformation, deliberately sent by people and conspiracy theories that might drag you down a rabbit hole,” Ahmed said.  

It’s this hole Trueheart said she must dig her way through.  

“The fortunate thing is that if you dig deep enough, there is an unbiased set of facts out there. You've got to dig often,” she said. 

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