A fragmented online information environment in the wake of Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation

11 March 2024

By: Isabelle Frances-Wright

The death of Aaron Bushnell, a member of the US Air Force who performed self-immolation in February 2024, was followed by the rapid spread of mis- and disinformation across a range of platforms. The tragic event highlighted the weaknesses in social media platforms’ policies and processes to counter conspiracy theories.


On Sunday, 24 February 2024, Aaron Bushnell— a 25-year-old US Air Force service member— performed an act of self-immolation, leading to his death. The event was livestreamed on Twitch, after first being announced on his Facebook page with the caption: 

“Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”

Earlier in the day, Bushnell emailed several media outlets warning he was planning to “engage in an extreme act of protest against the genocide of the Palestinian people.” His act followed a similar incident in December in which a protestor set themselves on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Atlanta. 

This Digital Dispatch details the mis- and disinformation circulating online in the wake of the incident and social media platforms’ inability to deal with false narratives in real time. What the research makes clear is that these companies are ill-equipped to handle the deluge of conspiracy theories and false information which are rapidly unleashed in the aftermath of major events that lead to a flood of content in a short time period. These false narratives can lead to a variety of harms, some of which are more immediately visible (such as increased polarization, hate speech and a lack of trust in news) and some of which will only become clear in the future. Crises like this also expose the impact of cuts made by social media platforms  to their safety teams since 2023. 

The murkiness of the information ecosystem additionally allows for various actors across the ideological spectrum to attempt to co-opt or manipulate Bushnell’s actions or motivations to further their own agendas.

Initial Online Response

In the 24-hour period following the incident, content about Bushnell’s act of self-immolation quickly went viral (receiving 3.62 billion impressions) as is to be expected with a news story of this sort of protest. It remained a dominant subject of online conversation throughout the week; by the morning of March 1, the number of impressions for content on X referencing Bushnell had reached 8.59 billion.

When searching for Aaron Bushnell on X during the first 24 hours after the video spread across social media, the platform recommended the search term “aaron Bushnell video unblurred” to users. On Google, the algorithm similarly suggested “aaron Bushnell footage” and “aaron Bushnell original video” as the top two search suggestions in the wake of the self-immolation.  

Bushnell has been praised for his act by users across all major social media platforms and the image of him burning has been compared to photographs of monks performing self-immolation during the Vietnam War. There were also numerous comparisons to an event at the onset of the ‘Arab Spring,’ in which Tunisian street merchant Mohamed Bouazizi performed an act of self-immolation after being humiliated by a police officer. This act was referenced by former President Barack Obama in a speech about freedom in the Middle East and North Africa and was widely referenced in hashtag campaigns across social media platforms. 

While the act itself has been heralded by some, it has at the same time become material for conspiracy theories and disinformation online. Antisemitic posts attributed to Bushnell have been proven to be inauthentic, yet continue to spread with little to no verification. It has also awakened a debate about self-immolation as a legitimate form of protest across the political and ideological spectrum, with users arguing over Bushnell’s mental health and adding to an incredibly polarized environment around the war in Gaza, where recriminations have become commonplace online. Bushnell’s act has similarly been used by political figures in Iran and China to highlight the US government’s complicity in the bombardment of Gaza and the civilian death toll. 

Bushnell’s video comes at a time when the US administration and its partners are under increased pressure for their continued support of Israel in the wake of the 7 October attacks and an ever-increasing civilian death toll in Gaza, now above 29,000. Bushnell’s act has electrified these debates and added fodder to both supporters and detractors of his message. 

A Murky Information Ecosystem Online in the Wake of the Incident

On X and other platforms, a range of misinformation and conspiratorial content spread quickly and without effective remediation. X’s move away from third-party factcheckers and towards community notes, alongside the significant cuts reportedly made at the company, likely contributed to the speed and reach of misinformation. ISD research found two primary issues which allowed false narratives to proliferate– firstly, the delay between content spreading and a community note being applied, and secondly, the lack of consistency in the application of this approach across posts espousing false narratives. 

Fake Mossad Account on X Heightens Tensions

One example of the challenges comes from the account Mossad Commentary (Mossadil), which previously went by the display name “Israel Mossad”. In a post on X, it said “our enemies kill themselves,” along with an image of Bushnell in flames outside of the embassy. The post was later taken down, but not before it garnered more than 1 million impressions. Despite its removal, screenshots of the post continue to circulate widely on X at the time of writing. 

Following the removal of the initial post, the account followed up with a post that included the full video of the suicide with Bushnell blurred out, with the caption: “A US Air Force soldier lights himself up on fire to protest Israel. What an idiot.” 

One of the issues with the now ‘pay-to-play’ verification system on X is that it may lead users to believe an account’s authenticity has been verified by the platform. In this instance, this caused some users to interpret the posts as official statements from the Mossad (the national intelligence agency of the State of Israel) despite the account having no official connection to Israeli intelligence. Outlets such as Snopes and Euronews have also found that the account has spread misinformation throughout the conflict. 

Screenshots of the removed post with the language “our enemies kill themselves” continue to circulate widely on X, eliciting significant engagement. In an example of X’s attempts to replace internal moderators and third-party independent fact checkers with ‘community notes’, one post identified by ISD did include a community note that stated: “The account in this screenshot (x.com/MOSSADil) is not an official Mossad profile. The official Mossad account is x.com/mossad_career”. 

ISD analysts were only able to identify one post at the time of analysis which included the correction. In contrast, a post by prominent UFC fighter Jake Fields that included a screenshot along with “Mossad called a US soldier their enemy while Hamas gave their condolences” received no community notes context and had received 272,000 views at the time of initial research being conducted (as of publication the post has 1.4 million views and a community note has been added, though it is unclear how many users the post reached before the content was labeled). 

Bushnell’s Social Media Accounts

While the Facebook and Twitch accounts of Aaron Bushnell have been identified, the veracity of other claimed accounts remains in question. One of the most prominent posts allegedly linked to Bushnell and a source of widespread debate was a now debunked Reddit post espousing antisemitic views (see image 1 below). 

The account linked to the post has now been suspended by Reddit. The suspension arguably gave more air for conspiracy theories and misinformation to flourish, with screenshots of alleged Reddit posts by Bushnell circulating that cannot easily be checked against the original account. Some social media users on X claimed the reason posts such as these were not originally captured before the account’s suspension was due to Reddit proactively selecting controversial comments by Bushnell and erasing them. An example includes: “Aaron Bushnell was a normal young guy. Reddit is trying to delete all his posts because they don’t suit the narrative, but you can find ‘Acebush1’ posts via the wayback machine.” 

Mentions of Bushnell’s Reddit account have so far received 144 million impressions since Tuesday, with actor John Cusack reposting commentary on an image of a post allegedly from Bushnell’s account to his 1.8 million followers. One tweet which cites the doctored image states “He died in support of terrorists. Anyone who thinks that it was for truth & justice is as deranged as he was”, and has so far received 549,000 views. 

Image 1: Screenshot of a doctored post from an account on Reddit that is being attributed to Aaron Bushnell.

Image 1: Screenshot of a doctored post from an account on Reddit that is being attributed to Aaron Bushnell.

A US Secret Service Agent is an “Israeli Agent” 

One of the most widespread screengrabs from the self-immolation video is of an officer, depicted as an “Israeli agent”, pointing a gun at Bushnell’s body as he was burning and an Emergency Medical Services worker stating “I don’t need guns. I need fire extinguishers.” The officer in question is a US Secret Service agent and not an Israeli agent, according to Newsweek. Ten images posted to X in the aftermath of Bushnell’s video depicting the US Secret Service agent as an Israeli with an Israeli flag emoji over his head received 4 million views on X.  

The US Secret Service agent’s actions drew widespread condemnation online, and the phrase “I don’t need guns. I need fire extinguishers” is actively being used as a metaphor for the current state of policing in the US, posted by at least 22,000 unique users on X. 

The image depicting the US Secret Service agent as an Israeli came with branding that indicates that it originated from a one-time US Senate candidate Sam Parker, a former Republican candidate for Utah. ISD analysts were unable to identify any posts on X depicting the US Secret Service agent as an Israeli with community notes applied. Although there were also efforts to share the image on Instagram, they had little traction. 

Media Coverage Sparks Online Criticism 

In the initial days following the incident, the media’s response drew widespread criticism from social media users, with claims that both the media and US government were attempting to suppress the motivations for Bushnell’s act. One X post which has received 4.8 million views, and cites an NBC article, states: “The mainstream media just refuses to explain why Aaron Bushnell did what he did. They won’t even say his name”. 

MSNBC in particular received criticism for claiming Bushnell’s act was “a protest against the Israel-Hamas war”, despite Bushnell stating his belief that the United States was complicit in a genocide as his motivation. A post receiving 1 million views said, “Aaron Bushnell just destroyed the image of the United States and Israel with one selfless act The western media is trying to cover it up but his name and the image of him on fire for protesting genocide is already historic.” 

These sorts of incidents and their coverage can contribute to the continued diminishment of trust in media, specifically amplifying claims that the press is attempting to suppress pro-Palestinian voices and viewpoints. Posts on X referencing media coverage of Bushnell’s act of self-immolation have so far received 466 million impressions. 


The image below has been widely circulating online. It is claimed by some to be an order which Bushnell received from the Air Force for a mandatory deployment to Israel. Others have claimed this is false, pointing to the date of the document as November, and a lack of US military presence in Israel from US Air Force members in Bushnell’s role. 

There has also been significant debate online as to Bushnell’s mental state, with some labelling the act of self-immolation as a symptom of mental illness and others using the clarity of his previous social media posts as proof that he was of sound mind, and that attempts to suggest otherwise are seeking to delegitimize Bushnell’s act of protest and suppress voices critical of the ongoing conflict. 

Image 2: Screenshot of an alleged order from the US Air Force.

Image 2: Screenshot of an alleged order from the US Air Force.

Response of Foreign and Domestic Actors 

In the days after Bushnell’s self-immolation, the full spectrum of domestic and foreign actors used images of a burning Bushnell and his message to laud and denounce his actions. On Telegram, neo-Nazi accelerationists created memes of a burning Bushnell with text that read “You: do the thing” followed by “Me:” followed by a still image of Bushnell on fire in front of the gates of the Israeli embassy.

The Grand Ayatollah Khamenei (the Supreme Leader of Iran) used Bushnell’s actions to denounce the West and its complicity in supporting Israel’s war in Gaza in two tweets using #AaronBushnell. Khamenei stated “the genocide in Gaza is even too much for that young person who was brought up in Western culture. His conscience was hurting, and he set himself on fire.” The tweets received 387,000 views. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-affiliated Telegram channel posted a similar message, and covered protests in the wake of the Bushnell’s self-immolation as well. 

Hamas released an English language statement on 27 February following the self-immolation, which read: “The administration of US President Biden bears full responsibility for the death of US Army pilot Aaron Bushnell due to its policy that supported the Nazi Zionist entity in its war of extermination against our Palestinian  people, as  he  gave his life  in  order to shed light on  the Zionist massacres and ethnic cleansing against our people in the Gaza Strip.” 

Part and Parcel of the Landscape 

The video of the Bushnell self-immolation set off a cross-platform debate about the conflict as well as his protest across social media platforms, but it was quickly subsumed in the day-to-day disinformation and misinformation around the war in Gaza. The self-immolation was quickly capitalized on by users seeking to disparage Bushnell and those who supported his message, flooding platforms with disinformation around the act, and conspiracies about the circumstances.  

As the Dispatch has highlighted, the discourse and content around Bushnell’s self-immolation further entrenched already quite polarized views on the conflict. Doctored content became fodder for ‘proof’ of existing narratives, peddled by users of dubious verification status and authenticity. Accounts that purported to represent Israeli intelligence agencies, or simply used the word “Mossad” in their display names, were viewed as linked to the State of Israel. Conspiracies about Bushnell’s motivation and mental health similarly became commonplace.  

X’s current community guidelines for rooting out doctored or false narratives failed to deal with the quantity and velocity of content being pumped out onto the platforms in the wake of this breaking news event, and pinpointed yet another gap in the companies’ abilities to enforce their own standards.