Fake 'AI created' image of Pentagon explosion sparks brief US stock market panic

The fake image appeared to show an explosion at the Pentagon building and began quickly spreading on social media. Credit: Twitter

A fake image of an apparent explosion at the Pentagon building shared across social media briefly caused panic across stock markets in the United States.

The dramatic picture was believed to have been generated by artificial intelligence (AI), and has led experts to warn of the potential chaos which can be created by emerging AI technologies.

Police and fire officials confirmed on Monday that no explosion had taken place at the government facility in Arlington, Virginia.

But some news publications, such as RT - a Russian government-backed media company formerly known as Russia Today - still ran the story as factual news in an initial Twitter post.

"Reports of an explosion near the Pentagon in Washington DC," the Russian state news agency wrote in a since-deleted tweet.

Members of investment circles also widely shared the image, including an account bearing Twitter's signature blue verification check mark which falsely suggested it was associated with Bloomberg News.

Blue checks were previously applied to verified accounts, such as official news outlets and journalists' profiles.

But Twitter owner Elon Musk's reforms included a mass removal of blue checks, swapped for the new Twitter Blue subscription option for any account to pay to carry the mark, which triggered a wave of spoofs.

The image's rapid spread prompted the Arlington County Fire Department to post on social media to knock down the rumours.

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"@PFPAOfficial and the ACFD are aware of a social media report circulating online about an explosion near the Pentagon," the agency wrote, referring to the acronym for the Pentagon Force Protection Agency that polices the Pentagon. "There is NO explosion or incident taking place at or near the Pentagon reservation, and there is no immediate danger or hazards to the public."

The timing of the fake image, which began spreading just after US stock markets opened 9.30am Monday, was enough to send a ripple through the investment world.

The S&P 500 briefly dropped a modest 0.3% as social media accounts and investment websites, popular with day traders, repeated the false claims.

Other investments also moved in ways that typically occur when fear enters the market.

Prices for US Treasury bonds and gold, for example, briefly began to climb, suggesting investors were looking for somewhere conventionally considered safer to hold their finances.

Misinformation experts say the fake image was likely created using AI technologies, which have allowed increasingly realistic, but often flawed images to flood the internet recently.

Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, said that inconsistencies in the building, fence and surrounding area gave away that the image was fake.

"Specifically, the grass and concrete fade into each other, the fence is irregular, there is a strange black pole that is protruding out of the front of the sidewalk but is also part of the fence," he added.

"The windows in the building are inconsistent with photos of the Pentagon that you can find online."

Artworks of Pope Francis dressed in a Balenciaga puffer coat and former US president Donald Trump being tackled to the ground by police officers are among the AI generated pictures which have been widely shared in recent months.