The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Twitter video doesn’t show the balloon exploding, but Fox aired it anyway

Bystanders captured video on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2 of a suspected spy balloon floating over Montana. U.S. officials say the Pentagon has been monitoring the craft. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The governor of Montana was telling Tucker Carlson about an alleged Chinese spy balloon that wafted over his state this week, complaining that the federal government wouldn’t let him shoot it down, when the host cut in with an alarming update.

“Governor, I hate to pull random video off the internet and ask you to respond to it, but this is going around,” Carlson said Friday evening, as Twitter footage of a bright flash in the clouds over Billings, Mont., played on the Fox News split-screen. “It appears to be some social media video of an explosion over your state, showing what looks like a smoke trail in to the sky.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) seemed a little caught off-guard. “I was notified just minutes before we came on the air,” he said. “We’re monitoring the situation. I’m talking to the National Guard.”

He needn’t have bothered them. Within two hours of Billings resident Dolly Moore’s viral report on Twitter — “I saw a jet go by so fast and then explosion in the sky. Holy crap!,” she wrote below her video — the city and the National Weather Service had debunked it. Whether the balloon is a weather sensor gone astray or a surveillance device for the Chinese government, it was still drifting peacefully 60,000 feet above the Earth. It wouldn’t fall until the following afternoon, when a U.S. military aircraft shot it down over the Atlantic coast.

But those facts did little to stem the tide of misinformation and speculation that followed in the balloon’s path — or the horde of journalists thirsty for any footage of the mysterious device over the weekend, many of whom asked Moore for permission to put her video on the news, and only later determined it had no business being there.

The media, and seemingly the entire country, had spent a full day tracking the balloon, which the U.S. government says is a spy device sent from China, by 7 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, when Moore tweeted “what I just caught [a] few minutes ago out my window” in Billings and sparked a brand new frenzy.

U.S. fighter aircraft downed a Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4. (Video: The Washington Post)

Journalists representing Fox News, CNN, the New York Times, broadcast networks and myriad local stations slid into her replies, asking for permission to use her video in the same legalistic language with which reporters typically beg for amateur footage of natural disasters and wars.

“My son finally had to take my phone,” Moore told Billings’s KULR-TV in an interview that aired Friday.

By then, many of the journalists who had rushed to her video were having second thoughts.

The Washington Post called the National Weather Service on Friday night, and was told by meteorologist Shawn Palmquist that the agency had not received any reports of explosions or plane crashes near Billings. “We think it’s a contrail from a jet,” he said of the so-called smoke trail in Moore’s video. “I couldn’t speculate on anything further than that.”

Kerem Inal, an ABC News visual verification producer who had asked Moore for permission to use the footage less than 30 minutes after it was tweeted, posted a Twitter thread early Saturday morning explaining why his network backed off.

What to know about the suspected Chinese spy balloon

“Although I don’t think the video was fake, without the necessary information to verify what we were seeing, our advice was to not use the video,” Inal wrote, explaining that the balloon was more than 900 miles from Moore’s location at the time she took the footage. “It falls on us, journalists, to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle fit, before amplifying information,” he added.

The Post could find no indication that CNN, the Times or other major outlets that Moore gave permission to use her video ultimately did so. But Fox aired it twice.

“MASSIVE EXPLOSION OVER MONTANA” ran across the bottom of the screen at one point Friday evening, as host Jesse Watters ran Moore’s video and exclaimed, “Wow.” At almost the same time Tucker Carlson was asking Gianforte about the video on his own show, a Fox News producer was trying to set the record straight, tweeting that military officials had told a network correspondent that “videos purporting to show the balloon exploding are not real.”

Shortly after 9 p.m., the city of Billings announced on Twitter that Gianforte and Montana’s disaster and emergency services office confirmed there had been no explosions in the state. “They are aware of the video and it cannot be substantiated,” the city wrote.

It took many hours, however, for those denials to make it into an online article in the Daily Mail that managed to embellish on Moore’s tweets. Multiple “witnesses” had seen the “explosion in the sky,” the tabloid wrote (though none besides Moore were cited). “Mysterious video of the aftermath shows a trail of smoke in the sky where the balloon was last spotted.” The Daily Mail did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday afternoon, but the article was updated shortly afterward, removing some erroneous language and adding that authorities “confirmed the video is a hoax.”

Predictably, a stew of conspiracy theories bubbled up in reader comments beneath the article, and across the internet. Some thought the Chinese government had paid President Biden to not disturb the balloon. Others thought he was about to shoot it down and trigger nuclear war. Some said the balloon was carrying a deadly virus. Others said there was no balloon at all.

Nadine Ajaka, The Post’s executive producer of visual forensics, said authenticating amateur videos typically begins with verifying the source’s identity and requesting the original file, which can include metadata that proves when and where the video was filmed. But if the original source isn’t responsive, video forensics analysts have other methods of geolocating a video.

“We’ll look at identifying landmarks or other details in the image, and cross-reference it with other tools like Google Earth,” Ajaka said. “Or if there are several videos of the same incident, we’ll be able to place that video in time and space.”

Like most of its competitors, The Post elected not to report on Moore’s video Friday evening.

Asked whether Fox News planned to run corrections on its segments, a network spokesperson declined to answer.

But about 18 hours after those segments ran, on Saturday afternoon, Fox carried live footage of the balloon going down over the South Carolina coast, shot out of the sky on the president’s orders. This time the footage wasn’t in dispute.

Justine McDaniel contributed to this report.

The Chinese surveillance balloon is flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet above the continental United States and is roughly the size of 2 or 3 buses. (Video: The Washington Post)