East Palestine, Ohio Railroad Construction Creates an Absolute Tiktok Wave


“This is the latest event to drive conspiracy theories and various anti-government and anti-media sentiments,” said Megan Conroy, a US research fellow at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs researcher who has tracked social media coverage. Derailment. “There’s a lack of clarity about what’s on the ground in Ohio.”

Although the EPA is monitoring air and water quality in East Palestine, little is known about the long-term health and environmental effects of chemical burning and spills. (In fact, it wasn’t until Sunday—nine days after the train derailment—that the EPA provided a full list of chemicals on the train, which was operated by Norfolk Southern.) Investigations are ongoing, and results are not immediately available. The situation has created a so-called data void, Conroe says. Dissatisfied with the media and government’s response, they look elsewhere for answers, and move to fill some of the gaps.

These kinds of conspiracy theories are fueled by people on the political right who distrust the media and the government, but what makes the derailment special is that it impressed both sides. “What we’re seeing here is ideological people making assumptions about why we don’t have a lot of information,” Koroy said.

People have claimed that there is a media outage while playing. Some, including the US representative Ilhan OmarMinnesota Democrats blasted national news for failing to report the disaster on social media, despite multiple stories. New York TimesCNN and NPR have all reported on the debacle recently.

Then there’s the decision to burn one of the chemicals—vinyl chloride, a carcinogen—to avoid an explosion that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine described as “one of two bad options.” The science surrounding chemical burns is strange and shocking to many. But experts say the outrage has gone too far. Several government agencies have said they have not detected dangerous levels of the chemical in the air and water, but skepticism continues to circulate on social media.

“Some of the social media posts are inaccurate or at least exaggerated,” says Daniel Westervelt, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory who focuses on ocean and climate physics, comparing the toxic spill. to the Chernobyl disaster. After reviewing Drombowski’s viral video, Westervelt said that much is unknown about the derailment and suggested taking “some of the claims with a grain of salt” when asked if the information presented was accurate.

“This was a carefully controlled burn to coincide with the appropriate meteorological conditions to maximize respirable levels of gases and minimize health risks,” Westervelt said of confusion over the burning of the chemicals, including vinyl chloride. Although this course of action is not perfect, it may be the best option, and there is no silver bullet.

Sonya Lunder, a senior policy adviser on toxicology, found a reliable scientific explanation for the data in Drombowski’s viral video. (Drombosky noted that the content was out of date and encouraged people to share more recent updates.) But other content, Lunder says, raises concerns about the potential effects of the chemicals. “This problem is somewhere between calling people’s attention to a problem and telling them it’s going to affect them, and in this case it’s not as accurate,” says Lunder. “These reduce the focus from the places where pollution risks are bad.”

Dromboski says he had about 80,000 TikTok followers before he started making videos about the derailment, and he knew how to be convincing. It echoes similar criticisms of how mainstream news outlets covered the incident and the lack of expert testimony following TikTok’s creators. His cover is speculative and he blames it on train operator Norfolk Southern Railway. “There are crazy people on TikTok. But have you seen Newsmax? Have you seen Fox? People are so quick to jump that it’s crazy, well, TikTok can be a bit of a problem.

Residents of East Palestine are left reeling from the chemical disaster, and it’s unclear how much longer a small Ohio town will hold the attention of Tik Tok. But Tik Tok’s ability to make headlines is now undeniable.

Drombowski’s original TikTok video was updated at 5:30 pm ET, February 15, 2023, to explain the number of views it received about the derailment.


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