"Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline."

How misinformation plays on primal fears

Eight days ago, Colonial Pipeline released a statement saying it had been hit with a ransomware attack, forcing the company to shut down 5,500 miles of pipeline, leading to major gasoline supply problems on the East Coast. According to GasBuddy.com, as of Friday evening, 88% of gas stations in Washington, D.C. did not have gas; states in the Southeast such as North Carolina and Georgia were also experiencing severe shortages.

The FBI said the hacking group DarkSide was responsible for the cyberattack, which describes itself as "apolitical." President Biden said he didn't think the Russian government was responsible, although he added that there was a "strong reason to believe" that the criminals were based in Russia.

State officials and gasoline providers said that a practice known as panic buying was making the shortages worse. Drivers topped off their tank at open gas stations, causing lines and creating a psychological effect where people felt that they needed to fill up their tank at the next open filling station.

There's nothing new about panic buying. It happened in the late 1970s during the oil crisis. Historian Rick Perlstein, author of Reaganland, wrote on Twitter on May 12, "the gas shortages in '79 were SMALL. Lines were largely caused by what I called a 'run on the tanks': whenever people passed a gas station that was open, they filled up."

What was new was how misinformation about gas shortages spread over the Internet. Tweets went viral showing a video of a woman filling up gas in plastic bags and a picture of plastic bags of gas in the trunk of a car. The video had four million views. But the images were old photos and videos predating the gas shortages this May. The Consumer Product Safety Commission posted a warning to Twitter:

Putting gasoline in a plastic bag is a prima facie dangerous and absurd thing to do. But since the COVID-19 pandemic, the absurd has become reality. President Donald Trump suggested that people drink bleach to cure coronavirus, and the state of Maryland got hundreds of calls about it. 

Misinformation builds on pre-existing fears. Much of it is old ideas shoehorned into new situations. Misinformed panic buying happened in the 1970s; now, misleading tweets and photos are spreading on social media platforms. To take another example, there has been an anti-vaccine movement as long as vaccines have existed, well before the Internet. With the COVID vaccine, anti-vaxxers are using similar tactics as before. In the past, some of the anti-vaccine movement has been aimed at women, and in particular at mothers who have young children. Now, anti-vaxxers are making false claims that vaccinated women could cause unvaccinated women to have menstrual irregularities. In addition, It's an old tactic to post anti-vaccine disinformation while claiming not to be anti-vaccine; some of the viral anti-COVID vaccine messages purport to be from scientists who claim not to be anti-vaccine.

Unlike the effort to vaccine Americans which will last months, the gas shortages appear temporary. Colonial paid a reported $5 million as ransom to the cybercriminals and resumed pipeline operations. It is a safe bet that the next time there is a sudden, disruptive crisis -- even if lasting only a few days -- misinformation will sprout up playing on old fears.


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