Late in the evening of Monday, May 22, multiple Indian electronic media outlets began to air reports of a presumed explosion near the Pentagon in Washington, US. While some shared a brief news update on their social media platforms, others telecast in their bulletin an image of a dark cloud of smoke billowing out of a structure presumably close to the Pentagon.
Around 7:45 pm in the evening, the news channel, Republic, aired the visuals on television and invited a ‘strategic expert’ to shed some light on the incident. The tickers running at the bottom of the screen displayed messages such as, “RT reports explosion near Pentagon”, “Images show huge plumes of smoke”, and “More details awaited on Pentagon situation”.
Social media channels of Times Now Navbharat, News18 Madhya Pradesh, and First India News shared a newsflash to inform their followers about the incident.
Zee News initially published a video report on the incident, but subsequently removed it. However, a cached version of the report can be accessed through Bing.
Shortly after these visuals gained global attention, Nick Waters, a digital investigator associated with Bellingcat, an influential investigative news website, made a significant observation. Waters pointed out that the widely circulated photos exhibited distinct characteristics commonly found in images produced through Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Confident that this picture claiming to show an “explosion near the pentagon” is AI generated.
Check out the frontage of the building, and the way the fence melds into the crowd barriers. There’s also no other images, videos or people posting as first hand witnesses. pic.twitter.com/t1YKQabuNL
— Nick Waters (@N_Waters89) May 22, 2023
Furthermore, it is worth noting that no other visuals documenting the alleged explosion were available in the public domain. In response to the online claims, the official Twitter account of Arlington Fire & EMS issued a statement to clarify the situation, emphasising that there was no explosion or incident occurring in or around the Pentagon. Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defence, is situated in Arlington County, Virginia.
The tweet explicitly stated, “There is NO explosion or incident taking place at or near the Pentagon reservation, and there is no immediate danger or hazards to the public.”
@PFPAOfficial and the ACFD are aware of a social media report circulating online about an explosion near the Pentagon. There is NO explosion or incident taking place at or near the Pentagon reservation, and there is no immediate danger or hazards to the public. pic.twitter.com/uznY0s7deL
— Arlington Fire & EMS (@ArlingtonVaFD) May 22, 2023
According to reports, the synthetic image in question was initially shared and amplified by various sources. These sources include RT, a Russian state media outlet, a verified Twitter account named Bloomberg Feed, an individual known as Walter Bloomberg, and an account called ZeroHedge.
It is worth noting that ZeroHedge frequently shares conspiracy theories that attract significant attention. The account was previously suspended by Twitter and has been reinstated under the Musk regime. After the AI-generated image went viral, a spokesperson from Bloomberg News clarified that the two accounts using the name “Bloomberg” were not associated with Bloomberg News.
Subsequently, RT deleted its tweet; Twitter suspended the account “Bloomberg Feed” and Republic issued a clarification on the same.
Republic had aired news of a possible explosion near the Pentagon citing a post & picture tweeted by RT. RT has deleted the post and Republic has pulled back the newsbreak
— Republic (@republic) May 22, 2023
It is pertinent to mention here that the rapid progress in AI has revolutionised the creation of synthetic images, making it possible to generate such content within minutes. Barely a week ago, Alt News published a fact check exposing the usage of AI-generated images featuring former Pakistan PM Imran Khan. These images were aired on Indian television news channels as ‘exclusive’ visuals of Khan in prison.