President Joe Biden and other top Washington officials have said little about the incidents that began with an alleged Chinese spy balloon earlier this month.

WASHINGTON – They may have come from China. Maybe from somewhere far away. Much further.

The shot down by US fighter jets of four aircraft addressed the rampant misinformation about objects, their origins and purpose, showing how complex world events and a lack of information can quickly create the perfect conditions for unverified assumptions and misinformation.

Having mysterious objects high in the sky doesn’t help.

“There will be an investigation and we will know more, but until then this story has created a platform for people interested in speculating or moving for their own reasons,” said Jim Ludes, a former national defense analyst who now heads Pell. Center for International Relations at Salve Regina University.

“Partly,” Ludes added, “because it feeds into so many narratives about state secrecy.”

President Joe Biden and other top Washington officials did said little about the repeated shoot-downs that began with an alleged Chinese spy balloon earlier this month. Three other unidentified devices were shot down, the latest on Sunday over Lake Huron. Pentagon officials said they did not pose a security threat, but did not disclose their origin or purpose.

On Monday, many social media sites in the US were ablaze with theories that Biden had deployed his antennae to distract Americans from other, more pressing issues. Those issues included immigration, inflation, the war in Ukraine and Republican investigations into Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

At the same time, the concentration of claims was the greatest at fringe sites popular among far-right Americansbaseless rumors and conspiracy theories have also surfaced on big platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

One of the most popular theories suggests that the White House and the Pentagon are using drones to distract from the chemical spill in Ohio earlier this month.

This incident, caused by a train derailment, occurred a few days before the last devices were knocked down, and was lit widely. Still, it remained the most popular search topic on Google on Monday, indicating continued public interest in the story.

Some commentators said Biden’s decision to wait until the balloon reached the East Coast before shooting it down showed he was aligned with China. Others, meanwhile, chastised Biden for shooting down foreign planes they believed might be carrying biological or nuclear weapons.

According to an analysis by SITE Intelligence Group, a firm that tracks extremist rhetoric online, hoax claims about airborne devices have also prompted threats of violence. After the White House said previous surveillance flights went unnoticed during the presidency of Donald Trump, an article was circulated on far-right websites that called for the death penalty for all Trump administration officials who might withhold information.

Trump administration officials said they were not aware of such surveillance devices.

Along with political conspiracy theories, there were speculations that the aerial objects were of extraterrestrial origin. According to Google Trends, photos of alleged UFOs have been shared online, and searches for the term “UFO” increased worldwide on Sunday.

“Don’t worry, only some of my friends came in,” Elon Musk, the CEO of Twitter, Tesla and SpaceX, joked in a tweet Sunday.

Humor aside, while the details of the various claims vary, they share two common traits: a lack of evidence and strong mistrust America’s elected leaders.

“Maybe Joe built a balloon and had Hunter launch it to scare people!” – wrote one of the Facebook users. “How do we know??? We don’t!”

The federal government must balance the public’s desire to know the details with the need to maintain secrecy regarding national security and defense, Ludes said. That’s unlikely to satisfy Biden’s critics, Ludes said, and prevent misleading explanations from going viral.

Big news and events are often preceded by a surge of false and misleading claims as people turn to the Internet for clarification. Conspiracy theories about Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin spread quickly after his dramatic collapse on the field in January. Something similar happened last year when the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the North Sea were damaged.

In this case, Russia spread conspiracy theories accusing the US of sabotage. The baseless theories were quickly spread by far-right users in the US. This is not the first time that America’s authoritarian adversaries have seized on global events to portray the US as belligerent.

China said that the balloon that was shot down on February 4 was conducting meteorological research. On Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China said 10 US balloons had entered Chinese airspace without permission last year.

Beijing’s response to this latest diplomatic spat is aimed at portraying China as a responsible actor while sidestepping accusations of US surveillance, according to Kenton Thibault, a China expert at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a nonprofit a Washington-based organization that tracks foreign disinformation and propaganda.

“It’s about projecting an image of responsibility and rationality, being the adult in the room,” Thibault said of China’s response. “This is a clear signal to developing countries that the US is selfish, untrustworthy and hypocritical.”

On Monday, White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre did deny one viral claim that arose out of the balloon saga.

“I know there have been questions and concerns about this, but there is no sign of aliens or extraterrestrial activity in these recent disappearances,” Jean-Pierre told reporters. “I wanted to make sure the American people knew that, all of you know that, and it was important for us to say that from here because we’ve been hearing a lot about it.”

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