A graphic calling the East Coast fuel supply crunch “Biden’s Gas Crisis.” A tweet speculating that gas stations running dry was an “INSIDE JOB.” A meme depicting the president and vice president cheering about the “Green New Deal” in front of a snaking line at a fuel station.
These and thousands of other social media posts along with conservative websites and commentators this week misleadingly painted President Joe Biden and his administration as catalysts of chaos — who not only mishandled the temporary shutdown of the nation’s largest fuel pipeline on Friday — but engineered it.
In reality, a ransom-seeking cyberattack, not a Biden executive order or energy policy, triggered the shutdown that drove residents of states such as North Carolina to panic-buy so much gas that nearly 70% of service stations in the state remained without fuel on Thursday afternoon.
Biden spoke about the hack Thursday as he sought to assuage fears around the supply crunch, reassuring the public that his administration had helped get the Colonial Pipeline back online Wednesday and that remaining outages at gas stations were a “temporary situation" that panic-buying would only exacerbate.
Still, some of the most widely shared tweets discussing the gas crunch between Friday and Wednesday lobbed criticism toward the president, according to the media intelligence firm Zignal Labs. Posts surfaced by Zignal blamed the president for the outages, criticized his response and condemned him for canceling plans for the Keystone XL oil pipeline — though that project, which would have built a crude oil pipeline, would have had no impact on the current situation.
Misleading narratives targeting Biden began picking up speed on Monday, the day North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper became the first of several governors to declare a state of emergency over the disruption.
“Wouldn’t it be weird if the CYBER-ATTACK that shutdown the United States’ top fuel line was an INSIDE JOB to pretend Joe Biden isn’t responsible for the insane increase in gas price..” read a widely shared tweet by former Florida congressional candidate Chuck Callesto.
“People can’t complain about gas prices if there’s no gas to buy,” read the caption of an image depicting a sinister Biden with his fingers interlaced, retweeted by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Colorado.
Other posts claimed the long gas lines across the Southeast U.S. were a harbinger of America's future under Democrats, casting Biden as a socialist in a strategy that Republicans have frequently turned to in recent years.
“Gas shortages now, food shortages tomorrow?” tweeted Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren. “Wow ... starting to feel like socialism is on the way....”
In another narrative, posts equated Biden to former President Jimmy Carter who saw his presidency crumble as a result of the 1979 fuel shortage. A statement from former President Donald Trump on Wednesday, amplified by conservative websites including Breitbart News, branded a laundry list of national and global challenges as Biden's fault.
“Jimmy mishandled crisis after crisis, but Biden has CREATED crisis after crisis," Trump wrote. “First there was the Biden Border Crisis (that he refuses to call a Crisis), then the Biden Economic Crisis, then the Biden Israel Crisis, and now the Biden Gas Crisis.”
Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday first broadcast the graphic of Biden smiling with the words “Biden’s Gas Crisis,” a term that later gained momentum on Facebook and Twitter.
Recent world events have challenged the Biden administration in its economic goals. Over the past week, it has faced a disappointing monthly jobs report, worrisome signs of inflation and escalating violence in Israel with deaths that could foreshadow a war in the Middle East. All the while, Biden is still attempting to vaccinate the nation against the coronavirus, distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in economic aid and negotiate his own infrastructure and families plans that total a combined $4 trillion.
Higher energy prices often have political fallout, complicating reelection campaigns for incumbents outside oil-producing regions.
With gas prices already rising as COVID-19 restrictions loosen and Americans travel more, the pipeline's shutdown has created an even worse public relations problem for Biden. Fuel hoarding and lines at the pump have made it difficult to gain control of the narrative.
The Biden administration's message that the problem was a supply crunch rather than a gas shortage, while accurate, didn't satisfy Americans who couldn't find gas to fill their cars, according to Doug Heye, a Republican strategist based in Washington.
“You have Republican division over the House Republican Conference and you had a hearing yesterday where people were basically denying what happened on Jan. 6,” Heye said. “If you want to push a conservative message, the Biden administration just did you a favor.”