Misinformation spreads after Lebanon blast: Missile, drone, nuclear warhead?

Photos and videos manipulated to include missiles or drones have been shared widely on social media. (Photos: Twitter)
Photos and videos manipulated to include missiles or drones have been shared widely on social media. (Photos: Twitter)

Three days after the explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut on August 4, videos continue to spread online claiming that a missile, drone or other weapon caused the blast. The Lebanese government is still determining responsibility for the catastrophe that they say was caused by the ignition of ammonium nitrate. Fact checks show that there is no evidence to support the claim that the explosion was caused by a projectile weapon.

Almost as quickly as videos of the explosion in Beirut were posted, people on social media began speculating as to the cause of the disaster, which killed at least 157 people and injured more than 5,000. US President Donald Trump said that generals told him the explosion was a “bomb of some kind", though Pentagon officials denied having such information.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said August 7 that the state is not sure yet what exactly caused the ammonium nitrate to explode. “It could have been an accident due to negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb,” the president told local media. Amid this uncertainty over the causes of the explosion, fake claims have multiplied on social networks.


Doctored videos

Some videos of the blast seem, at first glance, to show an object flying above or into the explosion site, a warehouse in the city’s port.

A video continues to circulate widely online that claims to reveal a missile flying into the explosion site, using thermal imaging filters. On Facebook, a version of the video has been viewed over 600,000 times.

This poster published doctored footage of the Beirut explosion on Twitter August 6, saying that thermal imaging shows a missile hitting the port.

A video posted on YouTube and later deleted was manipulated to include a missile. When slowed down, the missile can be more clearly seen as fake. (Source: Video)

The Associated Press explains how this video was manipulated:


When viewing the video frame by frame, the missile appears bent in the middle and has a cartoonish appearance. As the missile moves closer to the target, its size and the angle doesn’t change. About 8 seconds into the video, the missile disappears before getting close to striking anything.


Placed side-by-side with the original video posted on Twitter, the manipulation is clear. 

On August 6, Jake Godin posted a comparison video of original and edited footage claiming to show a missile exploding in the Beirut port. 

Both Facebook and Twitter have marked some posts containing the video as manipulated.

Another video was similarly doctored, as reported by Snopes, to include a missile.

Left: Undoctored screenshot of an eyewitness video of the Beirut explosion. Right: A manipulated image of a missile superimposed over footage of the blast. The poster writes, “It was purely missile attack.”


A nuclear attack?


Some claimed that the shape of the cloud after the explosion pointed to it being nuclear. 

A poster writes on Twitter on August 4 that the Beirut explosion resembles a nuclear mushroom cloud. 

These assumptions were quickly reined in by experts on Twitter, who pointed out that the red colour of the blast, too cold to be a nuclear weapon, more closely resembled an ammonium nitrate explosion. The blast also did not create a blinding flash characteristic of nuclear detonations. 

Martin Pfeiffer, PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico posted on Twitter on August 4 to explain the colour of the Beirut explosion.

“There’s nothing about it that looked nuclear, and a lot of things about it that looked like an ammonium nitrate explosion,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, USA, said to AFP

A website known for spreading unfounded conspiracy theories, Veterans Today, posted an article claiming, falsely, that the blast was a nuclear attack by Israel. The site published what it said was an “untouched and genuine” photograph that purportedly showed a missile in the sky. The photograph was in fact a screenshot from a video; examination of the video showed that the supposed missile was in fact a bird.

A photo claiming to show a missile above the Beirut explosion. In another video, it is clear that the “missile” is a flying bird. 

Others shared a video of drones in the sky, suggesting that one of them might have dropped a bomb on Beirut. The problem? The video of the drones was posted on social media at least five days earlier, and was reportedly filmed in the Lebanese town of Hula.

Left: A poster writes on Twitter on August 4, “Someone posted this saying it’s proof Lebanon was attacked by a missile.” Right: The same video posted on July 30, with the caption, “Two Israeli drones fly over the town of Hula.”

Another photo circulating claims to show drones flying above the port of Beirut at the time of the explosion. This photo is a manipulated screenshot from a video posted on Twitter on August 4. In the video, the black marks indicated in the photo are not visible.

Left: A video posted on Twitter August 4 shows the moment of the explosion in Beirut. Right: An edited screenshot of the video claims to show drones flying over the blast site, with the black markings magnified.


What do we know?

As of August 7, the date of publication of this article, here is what has been confirmed so far:

Lebanese authorities say the explosion was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate deposited at a warehouse in Beirut’s port. The chemical substance is thought to have been stored in the warehouse as far back as 2013. Ammonium nitrate, often used in agricultural fertilisers, can be used to create an explosive substance. Officials believe that years of improper storage and the ignition of a fire in the warehouse caused the ammonium nitrate to detonate. 

Original videos of the blast taken from multiple angles do not show any evidence of a missile attack. 

A video posted on Twitter August 4 shows multiple angles of the Beirut explosion. While some birds are visible flying in the video on the left, there is no evidence of a missile in these videos.

Authorities took 16 people into custody on Friday, to question them in the investigation into the warehouse explosion. Those questioned include port authority and customs officials as well as maintenance workers who might have information about the explosive material stored at the port.

This article was written by Pariesa Young