Fake Pentagon explosion image spreads online

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Social media users are claiming an image shows a fiery explosion outside the Pentagon on May 22, 2023. This is false; the Defense Department confirmed to AFP that there was no such attack, and the picture of the supposed blast appears to have been generated using artificial intelligence technology.

"EXPLOSION NEAR THE PENTAGON," says one of several May 22, 2023 tweets sharing the image, which purports to show smoke billowing in front of a fenced-off building.

Screenshot from Twitter taken May 22, 2023

Similar posts spread across Twitter, Facebook and other platforms, amplified by the Russian state-controlled news network Russia Today and the conspiratorial website Zero Hedge.

The earliest tweet AFP found sharing the image came from "CBKNEWS," a QAnon-promoting account that has previously shared other disinformation, though the original source of the image was not immediately known.

The spread of the alleged photo appeared to cause a brief dip on Wall Street on May 22, with the S&P 500 stumbling by 0.29 percent before recovering. It also prompted live television coverage from an Indian news organization, according to journalists who shared recordings of the segment.

The incident follows other fake imagery that has taken off online, including AI-generated pictures claiming to depict former US president Donald Trump getting arrested and Pope Francis in a puffer coat.

But there was no explosion, the Pentagon confirmed to AFP.

“We can confirm this was a false report and the Pentagon was not attacked today," a Defense Department spokesperson said in a statement.

The fire department for Arlington County, Virginia also reacted, posting on Twitter (archived here) that there was "no explosion or incident taking place at or near the Pentagon reservation."

An AFP journalist at the Pentagon saw no signs of the smoke pictured in the social media posts -- or emergency response in the area -- after the rumor went viral.

The structure in the image shared online does not appear to resemble the exterior of the Defense Department headquarters, a massive five-sided building.

The Pentagon in Washington, DC, on May 10, 2023, in an aerial view ( AFP / Daniel SLIM)

Many on social media noted some features typical of AI-generated images, which have made it easier for non-specialists to create convincing fakes with speed.

The columns on the building are mismatched sizes, for example, and a lamppost in the foreground appears disjointed. The sidewalk also seems to blend in with the street, grass and fence in some places.

Screenshot from Twitter taken May 22, 2023, with elements added by AFP using the InVID WeVerify Plugin's magnifier tool

Another since-deleted tweet claiming to show an explosion at the White House also appears to be a digital fabrication.

The building depicted in the post does not resemble the White House, and no smoke could be seen on May 22 on EarthTV's live webcam showing the exterior of the president's home.

Screenshot from Twitter taken May 22, 2023

AFP has previously debunked other AI-generated images here.