A fake image purporting to show an explosion near the Pentagon briefly went viral on Twitter on Monday, leaving fact-checkers to scramble to counter the false claim as it was pushed by a variety of verified accounts.
The image, which depicts a large plume of smoke next to a rectangular building with only a passing resemblance to the Pentagon, was shared by a series of verified news and open-source intelligence Twitter accounts. As of late April, verified users on Twitter are people who have paid $8 per month for the company’s “Blue” subscription service, which gives users a blue check mark along with some other perks, but the service no longer confirms the user’s identity.
The image appears to have first been shared on Twitter by an account with the handle @CBKNews121 at 8:42 a.m. ET. That account, which is verified, includes a variety of iconography associated with conspiracy theories, including John F. Kennedy Jr. as its profile picture. QAnon believers falsely claim John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his own death and will run for vice president with Donald Trump in 2024.
Shortly after posting the image, CBKNews posted a tweet supporting QAnon.
“Watch #ElonMusk for the next 60 days. Q. Big,” the account tweeted.
CBKNews did not respond to a request for comment on Twitter and later deleted the Pentagon explosion tweet. John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab, which is based out of the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto, tweeted that the image showed signs of having been generated by artificial intelligence.
Before it was deleted, the image took on a life of its own.
RT, Russia’s official propaganda outlet, tweeted at 10:03 a.m. ET about “reports of an explosion near the Pentagon.”
A business news aggregation influencer with over 650,000 followers on Twitter who is best known for posting Bloomberg News headlines posted about a “Large Explosion near The Pentagon Complex” at 10:06 a.m. That account later deleted the tweet, but not until after racking up hundreds of retweets.
The spread of the tweet appeared to spook some investors. The S&P 500 dropped sharply in the minutes after the image was amplified by well-followed accounts. It later recovered those losses.
Shortly after that tweet, the anonymous Wall Street news blog ZeroHedge posted the fake Pentagon explosion image to the account’s 1.6 million followers, along with the caption “EXPLOSION NEAR PENTAGON.” ZeroHedge later deleted the tweet.
By this point, fake news organizations on Twitter that had purchased “verified” check marks began to push the hoax. The account @BloombergFeed, which is unaffiliated with Bloomberg, posted the conspiracy theory minutes later. That account has since been suspended by Twitter.
Around 10:27 a.m. ET, the Arlington, Virginia, fire department tweeted that “there is NO explosion or incident taking place at or near the Pentagon.”
Nick Waters, an investigator at the digital investigations firm Bellingcat, told NBC News that the panic around the image “never made any sense.”
“There are quite a few red flags in this picture,” Waters said. “When you try to actually place this picture in space and geolocate it, you can’t because it’s not a real place. It’s not a building that’s anywhere in Washington authentically.”
Waters also noted that the fences in front of the fake building morph and meld into one another.
After the fake Pentagon image went viral Monday morning, a copycat hoaxer pushed a similar image of the White House on fire. Waters noted that the image didn’t take off in quite the same way the Pentagon image did, in part because “it didn’t look anything like the White House.”
“AI is still really not great at producing accurate locations, and you can really tell that from the picture,” Waters said.
Ben Collins covers disinformation, extremism and the internet for NBC News.