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Burning Man 2023 was an undeniable disaster. But these conspiracy theories aren’t part of it

A fake CDC advisory of an Ebola outbreak at Burning Man went viral on Elon Musk’s X (X)
A fake CDC advisory of an Ebola outbreak at Burning Man went viral on Elon Musk’s X (X)

It began with a fake screenshot on the social media platform X, and quickly spread across the internet and to tens of thousands trapped in swamp-like conditions at Burning Man.

The annual festival in the Nevada desert, plagued by tropical storms and mud that forced gate closures and festival goers to shelter in place, was at the centre of an Ebola outbreak, the bogus post claimed on Saturday 2 August.

A cursory glance at the social media account that published the doctored post from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would have revealed its long history of spreading tongue-in-cheek claims about “psyops” and oppressive government operations.

And yet conspiracy theorists quickly flooded the zone with unhinged posts about military aircraft landing in the Black Rock City area, and quarantine zones being set up.

Some were clearly in on the “joke”, others apparently not.

Festivalgoers, already facing considerable challenges due to the deluge of rain and resulting mud, were apparently taken in by the rumours, eventually forcing authorities and festival organisers to address them.

In a statement to Indy100, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Black Rock Desert site, said: “I can confirm the event entrance was closed for the year because unusual rainfall caused muddy conditions where there was a full stop on vehicles, and not for an Ebola outbreak. We have heard no information of any participants with Ebola.”

Burning Man organisers added in a post on the event website: “The online rumors of transmissible illnesses in Black Rock City are unfounded and untrue.”

Ebola outbreak, cannibalism and climate change ‘brainwashing’

The origins of the Ebola rumours came from an account on X, formerly known as Twitter, with around 30,000 followers.

“EBOLA OUTBREAK BURNING MAN” the post read above a doctored image from the CDC claiming that a state of emergency was in progress.

The post was shared thousands of times. A second account shared the same fake image, stating: “Apparently there's a f**king Ebola outbreak at Burning Man right now”. This had been viewed more than 300,000 times by Monday.

X’s crowd-sourced fact checking service “Community notes” added an amendment to the posts stating that there was in fact no outbreak. But this did little to stem the spread.

The “Died Suddenly” social media account, which regularly shares Covid misinformation, got in on the action. Another account shared a fake Forbes headline claiming that the outbreak was real.

Ebola was a trending topic on Elon Musk’s platform X over the weekend. Screenshots of fake text messages began circulating. The bogus rumours also found fertile ground on TikTok.

Doctored images of people in hazmat suits at the festival soon spread, while others claimed the military had been sent in to enforce a blockade.

A daring escape from the festival by comedian Chris Rock and DJ and producer Diplo soon formed part of the fantastical tale. The celebrity duo walked five miles along mud-strewn roads before being picked up by a fan, according to a post on Diplo’s social media accounts.

Festivalgoers walk through the mud at Burning Man (Trevor Hughes USA Today Network)
Festivalgoers walk through the mud at Burning Man (Trevor Hughes USA Today Network)

“Basically everybody at Black Rock City is saying that Diplo was 100% present at the source of infection for the alleged Ebola outbreak at Burning Man. And he just broke quarantine,” the TrueAnonPod tweeted.

A parade of conspiracy-mongers got in on the action. “There are reports of a hemorrhagic fever like Ebola or Marburg having broken out at Burning Man. And FEMA is there, telling 73,000 people they are not allowed to leave,” claimed one X user.

Another X user who was at Burning Man later posted facetiously that “we just tested positive for ebola at burning man”.

Several factors appear to have helped the spread of the online falsehoods. On Saturday, a 40-year-old man died at the Burning Man festival. His death is under investigation, and authorities have only said it was not weather-related.

The closure of routes in and out of the festival was forced on organisers after many vehicles became trapped in the mud-clogged roads.

Fuelling the spread was the decision to scrap X’s verification system under Mr Musk’s ownership. Now, anyone who pays $8 a month is a verified user, with their posts boosted and displayed prominently by the platform’s algorithm.

The bogus theories often overlap and intermingle with previous ones, with climate change denial, land grabs, and shadowy government forces being consistent themes.

Satirical posts, such as one on the Burning Man subreddit stating that there were “Unconfirmed Reports Of Cannibalism”, can also take on a life of their own.

“A small group of survivors was trapped by the trash fence overnight during the rainstorm and were forced to consume one of their camp mates before making the several mile dangerous trek back to their camp on foot,” the post by SunDiegoSurfer said. “Authorities are asking for prayers and advising festival goers that if your food source has been exhausting, cannibalism should be used as a last resort.”

The clearly sarcastic take was then spread on X by seemingly credulous posters.

“BREAKING: We’re hearing about the first reports of Cannibalism at the Burning Man event,” one X user wrote.

“Mad drug addicts out there, this seems like a cult,” another posted.

Meanwhile, the account that set off the fake Ebola rumours has been gloating about all the attention it has received.

On Sunday night, the conspiracy-touting Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene went on Alex Jones’ InfoWars show to claim that “Burners” were being brainwashed into believing the historic flooding was caused by climate change.

She insisted instead that it was an “act of God”.

“There’s 73 to 75,000 in the Nevada desert right now at this Burning Man. They’re locked in,” the Georgia far-right lawmaker said.

“They’re not allowed to leave and they’re basically probably being brainwashed that climate change is the cause of it and it’s going to destroy the Earth.”

Mr Jones, who has helped to popularise innumerable conspiracy theories, was ordered to pay billions in damages to the families of Sandy Hook victims after falsely and repeatedly telling his followers that the 2012 school shooting was a false flag operation.

According to the CDC, Ebola is a rare and usually fatal disease primarily found in subsaharan Africa. Only 11 cases have ever been recorded in the United States, during an outbreak between 2014 and 2016.

It is usually spread through body fluids and blood, infected fruit bats or primates. Symptoms include fever, bleeding, rashes and abdominal pain.