Nationalists in China and rightwing figures in the U.S. are taking to social media to fuel conspiracy theories that the media and the government are trying to use UFOs to distract from a potential environmental disaster in Ohio.
As news of unidentified flying objects and alleged Chinese surveillance balloons dominate headlines in the U.S., users on Weibo — China’s version of Twitter — are obsessed with the Feb. 3 derailment of a 50-car train near the Ohio town of East Palestine, which resulted in a massive chemical blaze and a “controlled release” of a toxic plume, forcing evacuations and concerns from residents about air and water safety.
As of Monday, posts with the hashtag “Ohio” had received over 83 million views on Weibo, and the topic trended between #1 and #2 on its “hot search list” index.
While many Chinese social media users were simply expressing disbelief at the extent of the Ohio disaster, some popular nationalistic accounts suggested that the U.S. government and media had been pushing UFO and balloon updates to cover up the situation in Ohio, mirroring some prominent right-wing figures in the U.S., including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The Weibo conversation on Monday appears to have been ignited by The Global Times — an ultra-nationalistic Chinese tabloid known for its provocative takes on China affairs.
Within a span of three hours, The Global Times posted three times about the Ohio derailment, sharing footage of the explosion on Friday, citizen testimonials about potential contamination and poisoning from a Washington Post article, and reports about a broadcast journalist’s arrest during a press conference.
Other state media apparatuses, like China Central Television, also posted about the derailment, but they did not get as much attention as the Global Times’ coverage.
The View From Weibo
The Ohio news overshadowed legitimate conversations about the alleged surveillance balloons in the U.S. Searching for the term “balloon” on Weibo yielded dozens of conversations on the Ohio derailment, with some of the most popular posts alleging that the balloon incidents in the U.S. were used to distract from the extent of environmental damage in Ohio.
“Why are Americans so hyped recently about ‘flying planes and balloons?’” posted one account. “The U.S. government is arresting journalists and playing with balloons, deliberately lowering public opinion and diverting social concerns. Because they are powerless to change, they desperately change the topic to cover up risks.”
“At the end of 2021, the U.S. produced the movie Don’t Look Up,” wrote another user. “Today, the U.S. government tells Americans: ‘Don’t look down!’ everyday. The train overturned, chemicals exploded, and deadly substances leaked. Please keep your heads up all the time, look at the balloons. Look! There are UFOs.”
“No wonder American politicians and the media are saying ‘balloon, balloon, balloon’ all day long,” wrote another user, who shared a screenshot of the Global Times posts. “Can the White House let go of the balloon and care about the health of Americans?”
The View From The US Right
Some influential figures on the right in the United States, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, also suggested that the UFOs were distracting from the ecological disaster in Ohio.
“East Palestine, Ohio is undergoing an ecological disaster [because] authorities blew up the train derailment cars carrying hazardous chemicals and press are being arrested for trying to tell the story,” the Georgia congresswoman tweeted on Sunday. “Oh but UFO’s! What is going on?”
The story fueled several conspiracy theorists, as Vice reported, who blamed the media for the supposed coverup of the train derailment.
“There’s a real-life toxic firebomb, cancer causing gas explosion, mushroom cloud train wreck in Ohio, and it’s crickets from the media,” far-right podcaster Stew Peters wrote on his Telegram channel. “But they sure are all over the pretend UFOs.”
“The media wants you talking about ‘UFOs’ and doesn’t want you talking about East Palestine and Nordstream, alt-right figure Jack Posobiec wrote on Twitter.
Given the diplomatic crisis spurred by the original surveillance balloon and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken cancelling his visit to Beijing, some China watchers like Isaac Stone Fish, the CEO of Strategy Risks, said that it is entirely conceivable why state media would be pushing more provocative news stories about U.S. domestic issues.
“This is open season for all sorts of conspiracy theories on what’s actually happening in Ohio, as opposed to a lot more restrained discourse or sympathetic discourse that you would see when tensions between the U.S. and China are much lower,” Stone Fish told Semafor.
He said that while it is important to note that many of the Weibo commentators likely have difficulty assessing a U.S. issue, it is a “fascinating continuum” to see how Chinese propaganda can sometimes echo some of the same talking points made by traditionally anti-China figures.
“Crazy things that American politicians say can sometimes be taken with more believability than they deserve,” he said.
The Ohio derailment has sparked domestic controversy about the government’s response to cleanup efforts.
The Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania, have reassured residents that air quality remain at safe levels, but residents of East Palestine have said that they are experiencing health issues and can still smell chemical odors after authorities conducted a “controlled release” of toxic substances on Feb. 6 to avoid an explosion.