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TikTok becomes ground zero for toxic Ohio train derailment news as users push against ‘media blackout’

Millions of people are now learning about world events from TikTok.


Mikael Thalen


Posted on Feb 14, 2023

TikTok users are rushing to raise awareness of the recent Ohio train derailment over concerns that the corporate media is failing to provide proper coverage of a scandal of such magnitude.

The accident occurred on Feb. 3 in East Palestine after a broken axle on a Norfolk Southern train caused the derailment of close to 50 rail cars, including 20 that contained hazardous materials. Of those 20, 10 rail cars were damaged, causing their contents to burn for three days.

Fearing an explosion, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) ordered on Feb. 6 an “immediate evacuation in a one-mile by two-mile area surrounding East Palestine” while a “controlled release and burn of vinyl chloride in five cars” was conducted. Vinyl chloride, a colorless gas, is listed by the EPA as a Class A “known human carcinogen.”

Although residents have since been told that it is safe to return, many have reported seeing hundreds of dead fish as well as other dead animals. Fearing the issue was being overlooked, TikTok users such as entrepreneur and industrial designer Nick Drombosky have spearheaded coverage of the ongoing disaster.

@nickdrom I’ve been away from TikTok dealing with some family things, but I had to come back to talk about this massive environmental disaster. #eastpalestine #eastpalestineohio #trainderailed #trainderailment #norfolksouthern #railway #chemicalspill #explosion #pittsburgh #pennsylvania #westernpa #greenscreen ♬ Chopin Nocturne No. 2 Piano Mono – moshimo sound design

Drombosky’s first video on the topic, which has racked up more than 3.8 million views, has been praised by TikTokers for offering a clear and concise summary of the issue.

“This is HANDS DOWN the best summary of this situation I’ve seen so far,” one user responded. “This environmental clean up is gonna be bad, IF they do it.”

Drombosky’s coverage has even earned praise from the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute.

“In under three minutes, I learned to appreciate the drastic difference between the release of vinyl chloride and polyvinyl chloride, how the crash has released a million pounds of a substance for which the safe exposure limit is sub-*one part per million*, and how burning it off ultimately creates clouds of hydrochloric acid,” author Paul Matzko wrote on the Cato Institute’s blog.

Other, similar recaps have taken over the platform as well in recent days.

@pearlmania500 The Ohio derailment is an inflection point that shows that business will drive over our bodies to make a buck. #ohio #pennsylvania #norfolksouthern #eastpalestineohio #dewine #pearlmania500 #vinyl #mattberry ♬ original sound – Alex Pearlman

Yet not everyone agreed with the claim that the media was ignoring the issue, citing coverage in a number of major outlets.

Progressive journalist Adam Johnson offered up a different complaint by arguing that the environmental disaster has instead been completely “depoliticized.”

“It’s become popular for viral tweets this week to claim the media is ‘ignoring’ the derailment, or ‘barely’ covering it,” Johnson wrote. “And while this is a subjective claim, a better way to look at it is not a blackout of coverage—it’s a wholesale de-politicization of the coverage. Segments covering the disaster largely repeat state officials, local governments, and Norfolk Southern’s dubious ‘everything is under control’ statements. This coverage handwrings, but then moves on, without any mention of political factors that made this disaster more likely: decades of union busting and safety regulation gutting, the predictable failure of transportation regulators, and corporate cost-cutting.”

Other TikTokers, either who live nearby or claim to have family close to the derailment, have tried to paint a picture that contrasts the relatively rosy official statements.

“It burns when they go outside, their eyes,” one user posted, warning of unknown long-term side effects.

@anestheticx0 Nooott okay. #ohio #ohiotraincrash #trainderailed #vinylchloride #vinylchlorine #ohiocheck #ohiotrainwreck #ohiotrain #crashtrain #traindisaster #traincrashinohio #ohiodisaster #ohiotiktokers #pittsburgh #chemical #chemicaldisaster #toxic #toxicchemicals #disaster #wtf #wtfmoments #wtff #conspiracy #conspiracytiktok #conspirancytheory #conspiracyplot #conspiracytheorieshub #conspiracytheorytiktok #wtfisthis #wtfisgoingon #wtfisthat #ohiostatebuckeyes #eastpalestinetraincrash #eastpalestineohio #eastpalestinefire #chemicalreaction #environment ♬ Blade Runner 2049 – Synthwave Goose

Videos of dead fish in creeks near the derailment, although unverified, are also racking up major views on the platform.

@lukeglavan East palestine train derailment. Dead fish floating. Aftermath. Please pray! #getcrackin #trainderail #eastpalestineohio #east #eastpalestine #deadfish ♬ original sound – Miles

Regardless of the coverage, terms such as “media blackout” have gone viral on platforms such as TikTok and Twitter. And while not everyone agrees that the media’s coverage is lacking, millions of people who long ago tuned out from nightly news broadcasts are now learning about world events from TikTok.

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*First Published: Feb 14, 2023, 9:49 am CST