Numerous verified Twitter accounts with substantial followings sparked concern on Monday by spreading false information about an explosion near the Pentagon. These accounts shared tweets containing an image purportedly generated by artificial intelligence (AI) that depicted a large gray smoke cloud alongside a white government building. Captions accompanying the image claimed that an explosion had occurred near the Pentagon. Journalist Nick Waters from Bellingcat noted several indications that the image was AI-generated, including the blending of the fence with crowd barriers and the absence of other images or videos on social media.
The image rapidly garnered retweets from various accounts, some of which attributed it to “Twitter sources.” While a few accounts subsequently apologized or removed the image, one account, @BloombergFeed, was suspended. Nevertheless, the false report continued to be shared by verified accounts, distinguished by the blue checkmark, which is obtained through Twitter’s paid verification system. The dissemination of this fake news even momentarily impacted the stock market.
Government officials intervened within an hour to clarify that the tweets were false. The Arlington Fire & EMS tweeted a statement reassuring the public that there was no explosion or incident near the Pentagon reservation and no immediate threat to safety.
The propagation of such misinformation by verified accounts, some of which have millions of followers, raises concerns about how Twitter’s current structure, influenced by Elon Musk’s ownership, can expedite the spread of false information. Previously, verification checks signified authenticity, but under Musk’s leadership, the blue checkmark has become a symbol that an account subscribes to Twitter Blue, the platform’s premium plan.
This incident is not the first time false information has emanated from blue-check accounts since Musk assumed control of the social media platform. In early May, several verified Twitter accounts falsely claimed that Russian military jets were armed with nuclear payloads and targeted Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
As AI-generated images become increasingly hyperrealistic, people are being deceived into mistaking them for real photographs. Viral instances, such as images of the Pope wearing a puffer jacket and purported arrests of Trump, have led many users to believe these events actually occurred. Experts frequently caution users to be critical when encountering images online and advocate for stricter regulations from social media companies, including mandatory labeling for AI-generated content.