After the Ohio Train Derailment, TikTokers Say They Have a Place in Reporting News
Earlier this month, a train carrying hazardous materials — including vinyl chloride, a carcinogen — derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Residents were evacuated from the area as Norfolk Southern, the company responsible for operating the rail line, ordered a controlled burn of the substance to avoid a more dangerous explosion. Dramatic images of giant plumes of black smoke in the blue skies above the town of 4,800 people were broadcast around the country, followed days later by shots of dead fish floating in streams. Exaggerated comparisons to the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and other environmental horrors made the rounds on social media and cable TV, blending with the daily dystopian mix of mass shootings, reports of UFO sightings, and outrage politics. Finding credible information about the disaster was difficult.
Except, oddly enough, on TikTok, where a creator with the username @Nickdrom, real name Nick Drombosky, runs a page devoted primarily to educational content. Drombosky quickly became the most trusted source on the platform for up-to-date information about the East Palestine incident. A Pittsburgh native, Drombosky likens his content to Bill Nye or Mr. Rogers; earlier videos on his page break down complicated subjects like buy-now, pay-later apps and systemic racism in housing. Soon after the derailment on Feb. 3, Drombosky, who studied engineering in college, began posting about the peculiarities he noticed in how officials handled the derailment in East Palestine. For one, the initial list of chemicals reported in the crash was updated nearly a week after the incident to include more potentially toxic compounds. He also says the models used to determine the evacuation radius were based on “best case” weather conditions that were unlikely on the day of the derailment. “Part of being a good engineer and being a good designer is understanding what goes wrong and how things go wrong,” Drombosky tells Rolling Stone. “I’ve continued to study industrial disasters because there’s always lessons to be learned. No matter what you plan for, something will happen.”
In his initial videos about the incident, Drombosky questioned why more mainstream media outlets weren’t covering the derailment. His frustration would eventually go viral. He had posted some of the earliest reporting on the crisis and refrained from the scare tactics present in the more hyperbolic reactions being shared elsewhere. Drombosky’s focus was to make sense of the sparse data that was trickling out about the accident so people without a technical background in the area could understand. The process, he says, included intensive fact-checking. “My very first video, which was the first video that was made when we had very little information, I did a back-of-the-napkin estimation of how much vinyl chloride there was, and I was off by about 10 percent,” he says. “But even that, I went back and went through the comments and replied to everyone who talked about that and was like, ‘Look, my calculation was off. Now we have more information.’ I’ve been going back and trying to make clarifications.”
Still, as misinformation spreads online, credible information finds its way into the hands of bad actors. Drombosky says he receives countless DMs from people looking for more information about something they’ve seen online. And the growth in attention has only made matters more confusing. “I just started getting comments from people like, ‘Joe Rogan sent me here. Joe Rogan played your video,’” he says. “Now, I’m just like, oh, shit.”
Despite his videos’ markedly left-leaning views, Drombosky says he’s been contacted by right-wing outlets hoping to use the crisis for points in attacking President Biden. He’s also been targetted by some local journalists in his area, who’ve lumped him in with the mass of misinformation on TikTok. “The Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel. Prior to this, she was senior counsel for American Electric Power,” he says. “It’s incredibly frustrating that people keep trying to call into question my credentials to talk about this subject, yet no one is questioning some of these officials.” Norfolk Southern declined to even send any representatives to a recent town hall in East Palestine.
Drombosky talked to Rolling Stone about finding himself at the center of breaking news coverage and why understanding how to parse information on TikTok might become an essential skill.
What were you observing in the initial aftermath of the catastrophe?
I think I still currently have 1,200 unread DMs. I have replied to over a thousand people. And it’s actually really hard to decipher, because there’s a lot of stuff that looks very legitimate that there’s no reason to doubt, but I just don’t have enough information to verify it where I feel comfortable talking about it.
I’ve seen on Twitter people have used screenshots of yours with no context, accusing you of spreading misinformation. And it seems like that’s how the tension is playing out between professional journalists and this rise of experts on TikTok
It’s just so crazy to me because, at this point, I probably have over 60 emails from chemists, polymer chemists, petroleum chemists, people who work on the railway, people who write legislation for hazmat control, toxicologists, environmental scientists. I have all of these professionals in my inbox that are like, “Thank you so much for talking about this. Thank you so much for talking about this so well. No one covers it. Nobody understands these issues.” If you look through the comments, there are people that are like, “Oh my God, I’m an environmental law attorney. You’re so right.”
It’s been interesting because I’ve seen young people who have grown up with TikTok. They understand how to weigh and fact-check TikTok. They look through the comments, they see who was commenting, and they look for notable people that they know and trust that are verifying this. Just because you don’t understand how to do that because you don’t understand how this app and this community, and this ecosystem works, doesn’t mean that it’s illegitimate.
On TikTok, it seems like people with expertise feel compelled to speak out about things like this when they happen.
Yeah. People complain about TikTok all the time. You hear old men say, “It’s half-naked girls.” But TikTok is the only social media platform that’s actually fully developed for you, and really rapidly develops for you. I have several different accounts that I’ve used to try to learn how TikTok works in order to be better at it. It’s so crazy how fast it will cater content to you. Anything you want to see. In my TikTok feed, it is doctors and immunologists and toxicologists and engineers. People who are very credentialed and very respected in their fields. And there is information available out there at speed, and also a density that is really easy to comprehend. Because it’s two-way, things can be clarified.
All of these creators on TikTok who are experts in their field talking about this stuff learn how to manage the messaging to be able to get their points across clearly. I have friends on TikTok who are way bigger than me, half a million, million, two, three million, and this is something that we talk about all the time because I have probably answered over 1,500 inquiries from people who were either asking for clarification on something I said, or have related, but not addressed concern. And I’m able to go in and have those conversations, understand what the concerns are, and then an hour later, post another video based on what I learned there. I fully understand how hard it is to try to parse the internet and figure out who is not just right and who is wrong, but who you should actually listen to. I think because we have this medium, TikTok, I don’t know a better word for it, but essentially it’s the most democratic platform that we have. TikTok is not perfect; they definitely push some scum up to the top as well. But they also push a lot of the cream. The best stuff ends up at the top. I think, in general, we just need better internet literacy.
One of the first things I noticed about your page was that you discussed a lot of in-the-weeds topics that you were trying to make accessible to the average person.
Yeah. I mean I grew up in Pittsburgh. I’m a big Mr. Rogers guy. I grew up on Bill Nye, and I really felt like in the Nineties, we had a lot more educational content that wasn’t demeaning. So much of our media is written like they think you’re not really going to be able to understand something, so instead gives you little bits, which I think that’s the wrong approach because people can’t advocate for themselves if they can’t understand the issues. And a lot of these issues are really complex. And then you have political pundits who are just trying to push their narrative, and you’re seeing it in the reporting. Honestly, I think it’s kind of gross because this is actually a very dire situation that’s still very much in an active emergency phase. There’s an oil spill that they built a railroad back over.
One of the things that I’m seeing online a lot is about the potential scale of this disaster. Some people are saying this could be a huge catastrophe.
Everyone’s jumping to, “It’s Chernobyl, it’s all this stuff,” and it’s not. This is just another train derailment, unfortunately. These happen all the time. You’ve seen there were two more or three more that happened this week. These are an everyday occurrence. And the only reason that this one is different, is because some people realized what was going on and made us think about it.
So what do people need to know right now?
I think the big thing right now is there’s big unknowns around these two polymers, or rather copolymers. The ethyl glycol monobutyl ether, and the ethylhexyl acrylate. We need to know what’s going on with those. The fact that they gave us details about what was in all these other cars and not those cars is a big deal. We also need to know exactly what these petroleum lube products were. Because the chemical lobby, the biggest one being the American Chemistry Council, they spend tons of money and they have chemists and attorneys that lobby the government to declassify things as hazardous. So petroleum oils are not considered hazardous, even though they are flammable. They’re just low enough flammability that they’re not considered hazardous.
Really what it comes down to is we need more information. But I also want to implore people and make sure that people understand the amount of information that we have gotten is almost unprecedented. And I believe that the only reason that we’re getting so much information at this speed, even though it seems slow, is because people became very aware of it and people became educated about what actually matters, because somebody was explaining it, not just repeating what the railroad and the EPA are saying, but actually going through with context, both historical context and context around the chemicals and the process about what’s going on. To that point, all of these credentialed journalists they have had… If you have been even just a local news reporter in the Rust Belt region in Texas, in Louisiana, in New Jersey, in any of these really heavy industrial states that have a lot of industrial disasters, even if you’ve only been there a year, you have probably seen at least a dozen train derailments. So why haven’t you learned?
What do you think the risks are in the long run? What is the potential scale of this?
I think the point of the big things that people aren’t seeing is part of the reason why this is so complicated. And I believe the reason why the EPA is not really giving us definitive test results on anything, is that these regions are already incredibly polluted. The state of our ecosystem is just far worse than we realize. We dump so much crap into the ground, and no one cares about it. And at some point, we’re going to have no more land that isn’t contaminated. But beyond that, I think what I try to do in my videos is not just report on things or tell a story about things but try to give context. And my goal has been to try to get people just to learn how to think and how to examine things themselves. I used to do a bunch of videos about lifecycle analysis of greenwashing products, how these companies pitch this usually plastic trash as like, “Oh, this is good for the environment, replace your whatever with our plastic version or our whatever reusable version,” that actually is way worse to the planet. I did a bunch of those videos and now I have people who watch those videos and learned about lifecycle analysis and learned how to examine carbon output and learn how to figure out what externalities are. And there are people who are now making those videos because they learned.
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