Apathy, Obsession, and the Internet Response to the OceanGate Tragedy

It's been five days since the OceanGate Titan submersible went missing. In that span of less than a week, before the tragic discovery that the submersible had likely imploded, internet sleuths have shared countless independent investigations into nearly every imaginable aspect of the adventure tour gone wrong. On TikTok especially, there have been hourly updates, conspiracy theories, and memes — so many memes. And how can they resist, when these posts are bringing in views in the millions?

This appears to be how the internet operates these days. It's more fun to be a participant, a vigilante, than it is to simply be an informed onlooker. We saw this when people played detective in the disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito by her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, in 2021. It's also the same energy many brought to the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial last year. So, for the last week, it's been the Titan submersible.

OceanGate Expeditions is a private company touting deep-sea tourism. Founded by Stockton Rush and Guillermo Söhnlein in 2009, OceanGate has been offering tours of the Titanic wreckage for just three years now. A ride in the Titan submersible, which fits five people, costs participants $250,000. The descent to the ocean floor, which is 2.4 miles below the surface, takes two hours. There, participants can view the wreckage through a single porthole. The ascent is another few hours.

The journey is far from perfect. Trips have been rescheduled, or canceled entirely, due to weather and other deficient conditions. Safety concerns have also been raised over the years: David Lochridge, a former employee and director of marine operations, was adamant the Titan needed additional testing before onboarding passengers, per The New York Times. He later claimed in a 2018 court filing that these concerns led to his wrongful termination.

Then, on June 18, in the Titan's first expedition of 2023, the submersible went missing somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The submersible lost contact with its support ship about an hour and 45 minutes into the dive, according to the US Coast Guard. On board was OceanGate CEO Rush, British businessman Hamish Harding, French deep-sea explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet, British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, and his 19-year-old son, Suleman Dawood.

Despite extensive search efforts, the submersible was not recovered. Oxygen supply was estimated to have run out on June 22, and that same day, a Coast Guard official said Titan debris consistent with a "catastrophic implosion" was found on the ocean floor. OceanGate also shared a statement with the BBC confirming the five passengers had "sadly been lost." The statement continued, "These men were true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure, and a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world's oceans. Our hearts are with these five souls and every member of their families during this tragic time."

In the lead-up to this grim outcome, the sentiment on the internet has been mixed. While some became overnight marine experts scrambling to somehow help find the submersible themselves, others embraced apathy. One meme circulating was a ChatGPT script about the incident written through the perspective of Carrie Bradshaw on "Sex and the City." In an especially strange choice, one news station threw up a chyron counting down the remaining hours of oxygen left.

Have we always been this callous?

It's important to point out that while the world focused on the missing submersible, much less attention was paid to the migrant boat that sank off the coast of Greece days prior on June 14, killing hundreds of refugees, many of them Pakistani, who were making the journey from Libya to Italy. The subsequent news coverage, public discourse, and resources spent on the tragedy pale in comparison. There is no question that the search for five overshadowed the loss of hundreds.

That said, yes, it's easy to indulge in a certain schadenfreude. For many, the Titan passengers represented the uber-wealthy, willing to pay large sums of money to essentially be part of a science experiment. They knew the risks, and, well, look at what happened.

Titan passengers are indeed asked to sign very clear waivers listing the safety risks, including death. In a CBS Sunday Morning segment that aired last year, correspondent David Pogue read aloud the waiver before boarding the Titan, and though the risks gave him pause, he now says the catastrophe seemed unlikely.

"It's a very safety-conscious culture on that ship, in that outfit. There are checklists and inspections and twice-daily mandatory briefings. Nobody ever said, 'Here's what you do if we lose communication and are trapped under the sea,'" Pogue told USA Today. "Because it just seems impossibly remote. That just doesn't seem like something that would happen."

Then again, the internet is also fascinated by the Titan because it's fascinated by the Titanic. Videos and explainers about the shipwreck circulated on TikTok long before this recent incident. James Cameron's 1997 film was also pretty formative for millennials, and it's telling that the director became a sought-after interview subject once the Titan went missing.

Cameron did eventually speak to ABC News on June 22, shortly after the OceanGate passengers were presumed dead. "I'm struck by the similarity of the Titanic disaster itself, where the captain was repeatedly warned about ice ahead of his ship, and yet he steamed at full speed into an ice field on a moonless night and many people died as a result," he said. "It's really quite surreal."