False Ebola claims spread after flooding at Burning Man festival

As thousands of Burning Man attendees were stranded in a remote patch of desert flooded by heavy rain, social media users claimed an Ebola outbreak prevented them from leaving. This is false; US authorities and festival organizers say there is no evidence supporting the allegation, which was fueled by a fake post and a fabricated headline.

"EBOLA OUTBREAK BURNING MAN," says a September 2, 2023 post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

<span>Screenshot from X taken September 6, 2023</span>
Screenshot from X taken September 6, 2023

The post is one of several on X and other platforms sharing what appears to be a screenshot of a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warning about Ebola, a viral infection that spreads through bodily fluids and can cause fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhea.

The supposed message, attributed to the CDC's official X account, includes an infographic and says: "Ebola outbreak confirmed at Black Rock City, NV. It is recommended that all Burning Man attendees remain in their dwellings until further notice. Current State of Emergency in progress."

The alleged post and other claims of an outbreak spread as Burning Man revelers in the US state of Nevada were stuck for days waiting for the ground to dry after heavy rain turned the festival's venue to sludge.

The muck trapped vehicles, led some people to flee on foot and prompted calls from organizers to shelter in place and conserve food and water. Roads reopened September 4, enabling attendees to trek home.

Police say they are investigating one death at the festival, an annual countercultural campout featuring dance parties and art installations that culminates with the ceremonial burning of a giant effigy.

However, there is no evidence of an Ebola outbreak.

"The rumors are unfounded and untrue," Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley, associate director of communications for the Burning Man Project, told AFP in a September 5 email, echoing a statement posted days earlier on the event's website (archived here).

The supposed CDC post is also fake; it does not appear on live or archived versions of its X page.

"These rumors are not true," Benjamin Haynes, the agency's director of media relations, told AFP in a September 5 email.

The infographic attached to the fabricated post -- which includes a photo of the festival site and says "Recently in Nevada?" -- is a doctored version of a genuine CDC advisory.

The original (archived here) appeared on electronic message boards in US airports during the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, the agency says. It shows a map of West Africa and says "Recently in West Africa?"

<span>Screenshot from X taken September 6, 2023</span>
Screenshot from X taken September 6, 2023
<span>Screenshot from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention taken September 5, 2023</span>
Screenshot from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention taken September 5, 2023

'No validity'

One TikTok video viewed more than 3.8 million times and promoted on platforms such as X and Instagram claims a fence was erected at the site and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deployed agents to contain attendees as part of a "national emergency."

The speaker suggests FEMA's purported involvement means Ebola, not flooding, was the reason people could not leave.

But Jeremy Edwards, the agency's press secretary, told AFP in a September 5 email that "no FEMA personnel or assets have been deployed to the Burning Man festival and there are no requests from local or state authorities for our assistance."

AFP found no record on government websites of a national or public health emergency declaration, either (archived here, here and here).

Jerry Allen, sheriff of Nevada's Pershing County, also rejected the video's claims in a statement shared with US media (archived here).

"There is no validity to any reports regarding an Ebola outbreak or any other disease," he said. "The mud is real mud, and no entity at the festival has erected any structures to stop anyone from leaving the playa."

AFP contacted the sheriff's office for additional comment, but no response was forthcoming.

An AFP journalist at the festival did not observe anyone falling ill with Ebola. Some Burning Man attendees posting photos and updates on social media refuted the claims (archived here, here and here).

"There is no Ebola, FEMA or fence being built," one person said on TikTok.

Fake Forbes headline

Other posts include an image that purports to show a Forbes headline saying: "Yes, There's An Ebola Outbreak At Burning Man."

But Bill Hankes, the American business outlet's chief communications officer, told AFP the picture is doctored.

The original headline -- which features the same byline, date, timestamp and photo -- says: "No, There’s Not An Ebola Outbreak At Burning Man" (archived here).

<span>Screenshot from Instagram taken September 5, 2023</span>
Screenshot from Instagram taken September 5, 2023
<span>Screenshot from Forbes taken September 5, 2023</span>
Screenshot from Forbes taken September 5, 2023

AFP has debunked other misinformation about Ebola here.