The Conspiracy-Verse Thinks "Fake UFOs" Are a Distraction From a Disastrous Train Derailment

Accidental environmental activism from a surprising source.
Photo shows the aftermath of a train derailment.
This photo taken with a drone shows the continuing cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. Photo via Associated Press/Gene J. Puskar.

A 50-car train derailment on Sunday, February 5 near the town of East Palestine, Ohio sparked a massive chemical fire, a temporary evacuation order, and ongoing concerns from local residents about air and water quality as they return home. 

The derailment is also the latest thing fueling conspiracy theories on the far right and in the UFO world; many prominent figures in both places are sharing suspicions that the train derailment is being covered up, with help from what one person, the far-right podcaster Stew Peters, called “fake UFOs.” 


“East Palestine, Ohio is undergoing an ecological disaster bc authorities blew up the train derailment cars carrying hazardous chemicals and press are being arrested for trying to tell the story,” Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted on Sunday afternoon, linking to an apocalyptic video containing footage from East Palestine, paired with ominous music. “Oh but UFO’s! What is going on?” 

What’s happening here is the confluence of two important news stories: the disaster in East Palestine, and the United States shooting down two unidentified objects in the last day, first in Alaska and then over Lake Huron, just a week after a Chinese spy balloon was shot down off the South Carolina coast. Neither situation is exactly unprecedented: spy balloons apparently traveled through U.S. airspace during the Trump administration, although they weren’t detected at the time. And rail workers have begged the general public to pay attention to basic issues of safety and welfare in their industry for years; as Motherboard’s Aaron Gordon wrote earlier this year, those workers warned that conditions in the industry “make the railroads more dangerous not only for themselves but for all Americans who live in the towns and cities these trains pass through.” 


But coincidences are not allowed to happen in the conspiracy-verse, and Greene and other far-right figures are working overtime to figure out what kind of coverup must be taking place. 

The conviction that the objects shot down by the U.S. military are fake and a planned distraction has prevailed from the UFO world to wherever Peters—the mind behind both a brain-numbing documentary claiming that COVID and COVID vaccines are derived from snake venom and an equally brain-numbing but more popular one falsely claiming that COVID vaccines are to blame for a mass uptick in sudden deaths—hangs out and back again. Kerry Cassidy, a filmmaker of sorts who runs a popular conspiratorial website called Project Camelot, shared footage of East Palestine on her Telegram channel, writing, "This is most likely why we were being distracted with UFO talk this weekend.” Erin Elizabeth, a conspiracy theorist who mainly traffics in anti-vaccine and health freedom narratives, also shared footage from East Palestine on Twitter, writing, “Meanwhile, everybody’s worried about these UFOs which turned out to be some balloons. Every last one of them. Just a distraction.” 


“There’s a real-life toxic firebomb, cancer causing gas explosion, mushroom cloud train wreck in Ohio, and it’s crickets from the media,” wrote Peters, the far-right podcaster, on his Telegram channel. “But they sure are all over the pretend UFOs.” 

“The media wants you talking about ‘UFOs,’” wrote far-right activist Jack Posobiec on Telegram, “and doesn’t want you talking about East Palestine and Nordstream,” the latter referring to yet another theory, this one promoted by famed journalist Seymour Hersh, that the U.S. Navy blew up the Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea last summer. (This theory was previously promoted by Russian state media. The White House has called Hersh’s claims “utterly false and complete fiction.”

In a separate post shared a few minutes later, Posobiec added, “The government and media are pressing the ‘anxiety button over and over on their UFO narrative. They’re using it to prime the public for government action to ‘do something.’ Once you understand this playbook you see it over and over.”  


These theories have grown so pervasive so quickly that they’re already being made into memes. David Avocado Wolfe, a popular New Age figure who also deals in conspiracy theories and bullshit natural health products, shared a cartoon on his Telegram that shows two men talking. “A pandemic is their last attempt for total control,” one man says. “Is that a UFO?” the other responds, pointing to the sky.

Coincidences—two massive news stories happening at the same time, for instance—are the lifeblood of successful conspiracy theories. That’s because our brains long to make meaning and find connections. In his book Suspicious Minds, the academic psychologist and science writer Rob Brotherton writes, “Our brains want to complete patterns, and spotting a coincidence is merely a prelude to learning something useful about the world. When we see some kind of connection between two events, we have potentially unearthed a clue about how things work.” And when we can’t unravel an event that feels significant, the possibilities taunt us, he adds, “until the pattern can be completed, and we can figure out the cause.” 

In this case, pointing out patterns that have no evidence of being real and making connections between unrelated events also has added benefits. It gives believers a sense of control over a chaotic news environment, and it gives conspiracy peddlers news grist for their mill, which constantly requires new controversies and supposed coverups to continue moving forward.

In an unusual twist, the intense suspicion over what’s happening in East Palestine has led to an accidental support for freedom of the press. Several leading conspiracy figures have decried the arrest of Evan Lambert, a NewsNation reporter who was arrested on disorderly conduct and trespassing while doing a live broadcast from a press release held by Ohio Governor Mike Dewine. This, too, has been spun into evidence of a coverup. (Meanwhile, the Ohio attorney general is investigating Lambert’s arrest, and Governor DeWine himself has said that he didn’t authorize it.)

While it is surely never good news when a large number of extremely online people with big followings are trying to spin up fear and suspicion, in this case, it’s leading to a lot of attention paid to an environmental disaster, unambiguous support for a reporter who seems to have been unjustly arrested, and some memes of varying quality. All things considered, things could be—and surely will be again—far, far worse.