Rumors swirl about balloons, UFOs as officials stay mum
WASHINGTON >> Maybe they came from China. Maybe from somewhere farther away. A lot farther away.
The downing of four aerial devices by U.S. warplanes has touched off rampant misinformation about the objects, their origin and their purpose, showing how complicated world events and a lack of information can quickly create the perfect conditions for unchecked conjecture and misinformation.
The presence of mysterious objects high in the sky doesn't help.
“There will be an investigation and we will learn more, but until then this story has created a playground for people interested in speculating or stirring the pot for their own reasons,” said Jim Ludes, a former national defense analyst who now leads the Pell Center for International Relations at Salve Regina University.
“In part,” Ludes added, “because it feeds into so many narratives about government secrecy.”
President Joe Biden and other top Washington officials have said little about the repeated shootdowns, which began with a suspected Chinese spy balloon earlier this month. Three more unidentified devices have been shot down, with the latest Sunday over Lake Huron. Pentagon officials said they posed no security threats but have not disclosed their origins or purpose.
On Monday, many social media sites in the U.S. lit up with theories that Biden had deployed the aerial devices as a way to distract Americans from other, more pressing issues. Those concerns included immigration, inflation, the war in Ukraine and Republican investigations into Hunter Biden, the president's son.
While the concentration of claims was highest on fringe sites popular with far-right Americans, the unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories popped up on bigger platforms like Twitter and Facebook, too.
One of the most popular theories suggested the White House and Pentagon are using the airborne devices to divert attention from a chemical spill earlier this month in Ohio.
That incident, caused by a train derailment, occurred several days before the most recent devices were shot down, and was covered extensively. Nonetheless, the spill remained the top subject searched on Google on Monday, showing continued public interest in the story.
China's government apparently took notice. On Tuesday Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted a link to news coverage of the Ohio chemical leak and added #OhioChernobyl, a hashtag used in many posts that suggest the incident is being covered up.
“Apparently some in the US take a wandering civilian balloon as a big threat while the explosive train derailment and toxic chemical leak not,” she wrote in the tweet, which racked up tens of thousands of views within hours Tuesday.
Misleading claims about the airborne devices have also prompted violent threats, according to an analysis by the SITE Intelligence Group, a firm that tracks extremist rhetoric online. After the White House said earlier surveillance flights went undetected during Donald Trump's presidency, an article circulated on far-right sites urging the execution of any Trump administration officials who may have withheld the information.