How the East Palestine train derailment fueled fear on TikTok

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has turned TikTok into a hotbed of misinformation and conspiracy theories, prompting people beyond the region to worry about potential repercussions of the chemical release.

TikTok videos warning of acid rain across the country have permeated the platform. Some users, from the East Coast to Southern California, claim they smelled “chemical” odors, while others questioned whether the derailment was a “distraction” to divert public attention away from other conspiracies. Dozens of videos of dustlike residue, which some users say appeared on their cars after it rained, have gone viral.

“What’s so powerful about this particular incident is that it does tap into so many grievances, and so many narratives, that it does appear to be spanning the ideological spectrum in terms of who it’s attracting into the fold,” said Meghan Conroy, a research fellow studying internet culture and extremism with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

The aftermath of the trail derailment has concerned environmentalists, rural Americans who already feel “forgotten” and those who are distrustful of the government. Responses from public officials have been confusing, inadequate or slow for some people, creating the perfect conditions for misinformation to spread on TikTok — a platform that a lot of people have turned to for updates.

The 150-car train containing the highly flammable and toxic chemical vinyl chloride derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3. To avoid an explosion, Norfolk Southern Railway executed a controlled release of the vinyl chloride on Feb. 6 and ordered residents to evacuate because the fumes could be deadly if inhaled.

Two days after the release, Ohio officials informed residents that they could return home. The Environmental Protection Agency did not find “exceedances for residential air quality standards” in the 533 local homes that it tested as of Feb. 19. Still, nearby residents complained of health issues and suspicious-looking water following the derailment, with some taking to TikTok to express their concerns.

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar / AP file)
This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar / AP file)

“There is certainly a difference in the way that people hear what the government is telling them and how that translates into their own lives,” said Rachel Dowty Beech, a senior lecturer in the emergency management program at the University of New Haven.

She added that part of the communication problem between people and government officials lies in the differences in safety “definitions formed by chemists and experts, and the definitions of the people seeing the effects.” When government assurances of safety feel dissonant from the experiences of residents on the ground, people feel distrustful and frustrated.

“If the local community isn’t trusting the government, it’s more likely that they’re going to find their own explanations with each other than they are going to go to a scientific authority,” Dowty Beech said.

The disaster in Ohio also tapped into some lingering fears that arose at the start of the pandemic. She said that since the beginning of the pandemic, many people have been anxious about local catastrophes spreading into broader areas.

TikTok users have been claiming that acid rain has made its way from Ohio to various states on the East Coast, using the smell of the air, oily film over water and residue on their cars as “evidence.” However, Dowty Beech said hydrochloric acid, which is the byproduct of the vinyl chloride that was burned, does not typically get picked up by the air current or create acid rain. The EPA states that acid rain occurs when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are emitted into the atmosphere, typically from the burning of fossil fuels.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation told NBC News that it has not detected an increase in rain acidity in the state, despite some claims on TikTok in recent days.

“The air mass which passed over the Ohio train derailment and fire has long since passed New York,” a representative for the agency said.

Conroy said that the inadequate communication from public officials has created a “data void” that many “bad faith actors are more than willing to fill.” Conspiracy theories involving public health and environmental disasters are not new, she said — unfounded rumors of “chemtrails,” fluoridated water and nuclear power continue to proliferate online despite overwhelming evidence proving them to be false.

“There’s not a substantive understanding that the everyday person would have where they can easily debunk these things, or even understand things when they have been debunked,” she said. “And so there were already large groups of people who are primed to believe in yet another conspiracy theory about yet another incident that taps into these existing conspiracy theories in a really robust way.”

Many conspiracy theories started and spread on more fringe spaces, such as in closed Facebook groups or on 4chan. TikTok is uniquely poised to bring theories, even if they’re completely unfounded, to a broader audience by continuing to promote highly engaging content.

Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo and an expert on health, science and political misinformation, said that newer conspiracy theories are fueled by attention, not research. Decades ago, conspiracy theorists meticulously collected and analyzed whatever evidence they could find to try to explain the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, and although they were wrong, “at least they were looking for evidence.”

He compared it to a recent TikTok that cited the 2022 Netflix movie “White Noise,” an absurdist comedy-drama about a similar train derailment, as “evidence” that the incident was “planned.” The video featured text superimposed on clips of someone driving around in the rain, and used a TikTok sound that has been used in horror and true crime content.

“There’s this brand of conspiracies that dominates a lot of American imagination that requires absolutely no evidence at all,” Ophir said. “The question is why social media is such a useful vehicle for spreading it, and the answer is that those videos are interesting. And then we get to the algorithms that decide which post we’re going to see on social media prioritize engagement, not necessarily the weight of the evidence that people bring or the factuality or anything like that.”

He also questioned whether the TikTok users posting conspiracy theory content are genuinely interested in finding “hidden realities,” or if they’re just motivated to go viral. Wilder theories tend to be more engaging, he said, which is highly rewarded on social media. He noted that there have been conspiracies proven to be true, such as the Iran Contra affair and the Watergate scandal.

“They were discovered by academics, by journalists, by people working in professions that have the tools and integrity and systematic support to identify stories like that,” Ophir said. “They cannot and will never be revealed by a guy with an iPhone in California.”

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