Rumors of balloons, UFOs circulate as officials remain silent

In this image released by the US Navy, Sailors assigned to Assault Craft Unit 4 prepare material recovered off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in the Atlantic Ocean after a Chinese high-altitude balloon was shot down, for transport to the FBI . at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on February 10, 2023. The lack of information from the federal government about four airborne objects recently shot down over North America is helping to fuel conspiracy theories and speculation online. Credit: Ryan Seelbach/US Navy via AP

Maybe they came from China. Maybe from somewhere further away. Much further away.

The shooting down of four aircraft by US fighter jets has led to widespread misinformation about the objects, their origin and purpose, and has shown how complicated world events and a lack of information can quickly create the perfect conditions for uncontrolled guesswork and misinformation.

The presence of mysterious objects high in the sky does not help.

“There will be an investigation and we’ll 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 directs the Pell Center for International Relations at Salve Regina University.

“Partly,” Ludes added, “because it feeds into so many narratives of government secrecy.”

President Joe Biden and other senior Washington officials have said little about the repeated shootdowns that began earlier this month with a suspected Chinese spy balloon. Three other unidentified devices were shot down, most recently over Lake Huron on Sunday. Pentagon officials said they posed no security threat but have not disclosed their origin or purpose.

On Monday, many social media sites across the US lit up with theories that Biden had used the craft to distract Americans from other, more pressing issues. These 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 baseless rumors and conspiracy theories also surfaced on larger platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

One of the most popular theories is that the White House and Pentagon are using the airborne devices to divert attention from a chemical spill earlier this month in Ohio.

This incident, caused by a train derailment, happened several days before the last devices were shot down and has been covered in detail. Nonetheless, it remained the top topic searched on Google Monday, showing continued public interest in the story.

Some commentators said Biden’s decision to wait for the balloon to reach the East Coast before being shot down shows he is allied with China. Others, meanwhile, blamed Biden for shooting down foreign planes they imagined might carry bioweapons or nuclear weapons.

Misleading claims about the craft have also prompted violent threats, according to analysis by SITE Intelligence Group, a firm that tracks extremist rhetoric online. After the White House said previous surveillance flights during Donald Trump’s presidency went undetected, an article circulated on far-right websites calling for the execution of any Trump administration officials who may have withheld the information.

Trump administration officials said they were not aware of any such surveillance device.

In addition to the political conspiracy theories, there were indications that the air objects were of extraterrestrial origin. Photos of suspected UFOs were shared online and web searches for the term “UFO” increased worldwide on Sunday, according to information from Google Trends.

“Don’t worry, just a few of my friends are stopping by,” Elon Musk, the CEO of Twitter, Tesla and SpaceX, joked in a tweet on Sunday.

Humor aside, while the details of the various claims vary, they have two things in common: a lack of evidence and a strong distrust of America’s elected leaders.

“Maybe Joe built the balloon and had Hunter launch it to scare us people!” wrote one Facebook user. “How do WE know??? We don’t!”

The federal government must balance the public’s desire to know the details with the need for secrecy related to national security and defense, Ludes said. That likely won’t satisfy Biden’s critics, Ludes said, or keep misleading statements from going viral.

High profile news and events often precede a surge of false and misleading claims as people turn to the internet for explanations. Conspiracy theories about Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin quickly spread after his dramatic on-field collapse in January. A similar thing happened last year when the Nord Stream pipelines in the North Sea were damaged.

In this case, Russia spread conspiracy theories blaming the US for the sabotage. The unfounded theories were quickly reinforced by far-right users in the US. It is not the first time that America’s authoritarian opponents have used global events to portray the US as belligerent.

China has claimed the balloon launched on February 4 was engaged in meteorological research. On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry said ten US balloons entered Chinese airspace without permission last year.

According to Kenton Thibault, a China expert at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks foreigners, Beijing’s response to this latest diplomatic spat aims to portray China as the responsible actor while simulating that of the US to circumvent allegations of surveillance that have been raised, disinformation and propaganda.

“It’s about conveying an image of responsibility and rationality, of being the adult in the room,” Thibault said of China’s response. “It sends a clear signal to developing nations that the US is selfish, untrustworthy and hypocritical.”

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre officials refuted a viral claim said to have emerged from the balloon saga.

“I know there have been questions and concerns about this, but there is no — again, no evidence — of aliens or extraterrestrial activity in these recent takedowns,” Jean-Pierre told reporters. “I wanted to make sure the American people knew that, you all knew that, and it was important for us to say that from here because we’ve heard a lot about it.”

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