Baltimore bridge collapse: The decline of Twitter as measured by disasters

Twitter, now X, was once a useful site for breaking news. The Baltimore bridge collapse shows those days are long gone.

A cargo ship in the water with a piece of a bridge broken across its bow.
Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed after being struck by a cargo ship on March 26.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

A.W. Ohlheiser is a senior technology reporter at Vox, writing about the impact of technology on humans and society. They have also covered online culture and misinformation at the Washington Post, Slate, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other places. They have an MA in religious studies and journalism from NYU.

Line up a few years’ worth of tragedies and disasters, and the online conversations about them will reveal their patterns.

The same conspiracy-theory-peddling personalities who spammed X with posts claiming that Tuesday’s Baltimore bridge collapse was a deliberate attack have also called mass shootings “false flag” events and denied basic facts about the Covid-19 pandemic. A Florida Republican running for Congress blamed “DEI” for the bridge collapse as racist comments about immigration and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott circulated among the far right. These comments echo Trump in 2019, who called Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” and, in 2015, blamed President Obama for the unrest in the city.

As conspiracy theorists compete for attention in the wake of a tragedy, others seek engagement through dubious expertise, juicy speculation, or stolen video clips. The boundary between conspiracy theory and engagement bait is permeable; unfounded and provoking posts often outpace the trickle of verified information that follows any sort of major breaking news event. Then, the conspiracy theories become content, and a lot of people marvel and express outrage that they exist. Then they kind of forget about the raging river of Bad Internet until the next national tragedy.

I’ve seen it so many times. I became a breaking news reporter in 2012, which means that in internet years, I have the experience of an almost ancient entity. The collapse of the Francis Scott Key bridge into the Patapsco River, though, felt a little different from most of these moments for me, for two reasons.

First, it was happening after a few big shifts in what the internet even is, as Twitter, once a go-to space for following breaking news events, became an Elon Musk-owned factory for verified accounts with bad ideas, while generative AI tools have superpowered grifters wanting to make plausible text and visual fabrications. And second, I live in Baltimore. People I know commute on that bridge, which forms part of the city’s Beltway. Some of the workers who fell, now presumed dead, lived in a neighborhood across the park from me.

The local cost of global misinformation

On Tuesday evening, I called Lisa Snowden, the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Beat — the city’s Black-owned alt-weekly — and an influential presence in Baltimore’s still pretty active X community. I wanted to talk about how following breaking news online has changed over time.

Snowden was up during the early morning hours when the bridge collapsed. Baltimore’s X presence is small enough that journalists like her generally know who the other journalists are working in the city, especially those reporting on Baltimore itself. Almost as soon as news broke about the bridge, though, she saw accounts she’d never heard of before speaking with authority about what had happened, sharing unsourced video, and speculating about the cause.

Over the next several hours, the misinformation and racism about Baltimore snowballed on X. For Snowden, this felt a bit like an invasion into a community that had so far survived the slow death of what was once Twitter by simply staying out of the spotlight.

“Baltimore Twitter, it’s usually not as bad,” Snowden said. She sticks to the people she follows. “But today I noticed that was pretty much impossible. It got extremely racist. And I was seeing other folks in Baltimore also being like, ‘This might be what sends me finally off this app.’”

Here are some of the tweets that got attention in the hours after the collapse: Paul Szypula, a MAGA influencer with more than 100,000 followers on X, tweeted “Synergy Marine Group [the company that owned the ship in question] promotes DEI in their company. Did anti-white business practices cause this disaster?” alongside a screenshot of a page on the company’s website that discussed the existence of a diversity and inclusion policy.

That tweet got more than 600,000 views. Another far-right influencer speculated that there was some connection between the collapse and, I guess, Barack Obama? I don’t know. The tweet got 5 million views as of mid-day Wednesday.

Being online during a tragic event is full of consequential nonsense like this, ideas and conspiracy theories that are inane enough to fall into the fog of Poe’s Law and yet harmful to actual people and painful to see in particular when it’s your community being turned into views. Sure, there are best practices you can follow to try to contribute to a better information ecosystem in these moments. Those practices matter. But for Snowden, the main thing she can do as her newsroom gets to work reporting on the impact of this disaster on the community here is to let time march on.

“In a couple days, this terrible racist mob, or whatever it is, is going to be onto something else,” Snowden said. “ Baltimore … people are still going to need things. Everybody’s still going to be working. So I’m just kind of waiting it out,” she said “But it does hurt.”

A version of this story was published in the Vox Technology newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!


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