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The Baltimore bridge collapse gave conspiracy theorists a chance to boost themselves

Residents look on after a cargo ship ran into and collapsed the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024 in Baltimore. Conspiracy theorists online quickly spread narratives to millions online that the accident was part of a nefarious scheme.
Rob Carr
Getty Images
Residents look on after a cargo ship ran into and collapsed the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024 in Baltimore. Conspiracy theorists online quickly spread narratives to millions online that the accident was part of a nefarious scheme.

A familiar pattern played out in the hours following Tuesday's bridge collapse in Baltimore: social media influencers and right-wing media figures began spreading conspiracy theories and baseless rumors about the disaster.

Law enforcement officials said that while an investigation into the ship collision that caused the collapse is still underway, early indications show "absolutely no indication this was done on purpose."

But some large accounts on social media platforms including X, formerly known as Twitter, were quick to suggest otherwise. Andrew Tate, an online influencer with 9 million followers on X who has been indicted on human trafficking and rape charges in Romania, claimed without evidence that that the ship had been "cyber-attacked" in a post viewed 13.4 million times. (The post carries a "Community Note" — the platform's user-generated fact-checking feature — stating that the incident is still being investigated and that his assertion was "speculation.")

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has been ordered to pay $1.5 billion to the families of victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting, which Jones has falsely claimed was a "false flag," amplified Tate's baseless suggestion to his own 2.2 million X followers, saying "A cyber-attack is probable. WW3 has already started."

Researcher Mike Rothschild, who has written books about QAnon and other conspiracy theories, said it has become "standard" for any unexpected event "to be run through a filter of conspiracy theories based on the personal brand of the person spreading the theory."

Both Jones and Tate's X accounts carry subscription checks, meaning their posts are boosted by X's algorithm and they are eligible to share revenue from advertising on the platform. Critics say that system, introduced by Elon Musk after he bought the platform in 2022, incentivizes sharing inflammatory content, regardless of its accuracy, as a way of capturing attention and money.

Posts claiming, without evidence, that the collision was the result of an intentional attack also spread on Donald Trump's Truth Social, Rumble, and other right-wing online forums, according to data from Pyrra Technologies, which tracks smaller platforms.

Other online accounts, many also carrying subscription checks on X, suggested the disaster was linked to their own pet hot-button issues, from the war in Gaza to a vaccine-related "medical emergency" to corporate diversity policies.

On conservative media, commentators used the disaster to push criticisms of the Biden administration. Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo suggested the collapse was somehow connected to problems at the border, while on Newsmax, American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp suggested the crash might have been caused by "drug-addled" employees in the wake of "all the lockdowns and COVID issues."

A similar pattern has played out around other recent news events, including Boeing's door plug failure, theSuper Bowl and the Gaza war. Rothschild says it's easy for conspiracy theorists to fit any calamity into their pre-existing world views.

"People who view terror attacks as staged think the accident is a staged terror attack, while people who see DEI as the biggest threat facing society think the accident must have happened because of diversity hiring. If you think open borders are the cause of all of life's problems, then it's an open borders issue. If you think the COVID-19 vaccination is a death shot, then the captain must have been vaccinated," Rothschild said.

"The most important aspect of the bridge accident for these people isn't how many lives were lost or the effect it will have on Baltimore or its economy, but who they can blame for it and how they can cash in off that blame."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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