All good things must come to an end, including my schadenfreude watching Burning Man attendees try to Mad Max: Fury Road their way out of the muddy swamp they found themselves in this past weekend. After two months’ worth of rain fell in 24 hours on “the playa,” on Monday, local officials reopened the roads that had been impenetrable due to the slop and allowed the 64,000 attendees still on site to journey home.
“As of 2:00pm, Exodus operations have officially begun in Black Rock City,” the festival’s website read. “The driving ban has been lifted.” But as the Man Burn (real name...) comes to an end, from the ashes rises a common enemy: “the media,” as the consensus amongst some burners is that the media over-dramatized the biblical muds at this year’s psilocybin retreat for tech CEOs.
The rain, the mess, and the disarray, some burners emphasized, were not as bad as traditional news outlets made it seem. They started labeling such coverage as “clickbait,” while lampooning the supposedly terrible conditions in Black Rock City, Nevada, on their own social media accounts. “Don’t fall for the media’s clickbait,” one attendee wrote on Twitter. “Don’t be fooled by the opinions of those who would never even dare to go there.” Another burner tweeted that many of the headlines are “overblown” and “dramatic” but “burners are taking care of each other.” God bless, of course. On TikTok, one burner, drinking a Miller Lite, jokingly asked a bunch of kids if they were going to survive. “We’re gonna die here,” a kid, again jokingly, screamed. His caption on the video said, “The news is lying to you.”
Well, burners can protest what they view as skewed media coverage as much as they want, but I’ve seen the photos and the videos, and they speak for themselves: This year’s festival was a seemingly nightmarish situation (being at Burning Man) made worse (being stuck at Burning Man due to extreme weather).
News outlets, while perhaps eager to report on Burning Man’s shelter-in-place advisory and grim porta-potty situation, weren’t offenders in misinformation. Twitter (or X), owned by Burning Man enthusiast Elon Musk, certainly was, though!
On Saturday, a verified user on the platform (a distinction that indicates nothing more than you’ve given Twitter your credit card information) shared a fake CDC tweet about there being an Ebola outbreak at the festival. For hours there was no corrective Community Note on the tweet stating that this was fake news. The rumor then spread like, well, an infectious and untreatable disease, leading more users—including amateur citizen “journalists” with considerable followings—to tweet out the fake news until it trended on Twitter.
Despite plenty of traditional news outlets then publishing articles addressing and correcting the hoax, they remained the enemy in the eyes of burners still upset about how their magical weekend was being reported. In fact, that pushback against “overblown” reporting of the flooding and mud got conflated with pushback against the (debunked) Ebola outbreak. One TikTok shows a man and woman mockingly crying out, “What are we gonna do, we have Ebola! We’re throwing up all over the desert! And this water! Oh noooo,” as the camera pans to a dirty but drying out landscape awash in sunlight. And as his platform boosted trending tweets about the festival alongside the term “Ebola,” Musk himself tweeted Sunday about the fest: “Hard to describe how incredible it is for those who have never been. Best art on Earth.” He’s never one to be too helpful, is he?
While it pains me to admit this, I don’t blame the burners for defending their desert nation of radical jet-fuel raves, or whatever they’re doing out there. I understand their need to metaphorically dig their heels into the mud and declare they’re having a blast. These are, after all, people who, for fun, decide to go to Burning Man even in the best of weather. But Twitter’s increasing disinterest in stopping the spread of misinformation is pitting them against well-meaning journalists and media. Media literacy remains in the dumps.
So while the burners certainly had a messy weekend, as always the real mess in this situation is Musk and his spiraling social media platform.