Devastating fires have been ravaging major parts of Australia for months now, and whilst the crisis has highlighted how generous and supportive our community can be, it has also shone a light on the more heinous side of society and how harmful it is to spread misinformation.
Over the past week, bot and troll accounts have blamed Australia’s bushfire crisis on “fire bugs” and have repeatedly labelled it an “arson epidemic,” or “arson emergency,” according to The Guardian.
Dr Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, has analysed the claims on Twitter and using a bot detection tool found that there is likely a “current disinformation campaign” on the #arsonemergency hashtag.
Whilst arson is an issue in Australia, there’s no denying the facts when it comes to our current crisis. The Bureau of Meteorology has stated that climate change is “influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions” and it is expected to worsen in years to come.
“We are suffering the consequences in terms of hyped up polarisation and an increased difficulty in inability for citizens to discern truth,” Dr Graham told The Guardian. “The conspiracy theories going around (including arson as the main cause of the fires) reflect an increased distrust in scientific expertise, scepticism of the media, and rejection of liberal democratic authority.”
Even Donald Trump Jr jumped on fake bushfire news after The Australian published an article claiming that “more than 180 alleged arsonists” had been arrested since the start of the bushfire season.
Sadly, claims of an “arson epidemic” isn’t the only bogus bushfire news making the rounds on social media right now. According to BBC, a map which went viral after being shared by Rihanna, is actually artist Anthony Hearsey’s “visualisation of one month of data of locations where fire was detected” collected by NASA.
Another map, showing “all the fires burning in Australia” was taken from the government website MyFireWatch, but also includes “any heat source that is hotter than its surroundings” so isn’t completely accurate.
Even social media users who are “overlaying” maps of Australia on to other countries to show the size and scale of the fires aren’t totally correct because they fail to take into account “how curved the earth is distorted when flat map projections are made,” according to the BBC.
But, there’s even more. News.com.au has reported that many of the viral images and videos floating around social media are from past events. For example, a video of fire trucks colliding colliding – which was shared by sports presenter Erin Molan and former rugby player Wendell Sailor – is actually footage from a 2015 event in South Australia.
It’s incredible to see how far and wide the news of Australia’s bushfire crisis has spread. However, it becomes problematic when fake bushfire news or misinformation begins to spread – and even worse when it is reposted by a celebrity or social media user with a substantial following who take it as gospel.
The consequence here is that when fake bushfire news spreads, it could influence behaviours and attitudes – possibly detracting from bigger issues like climate change, and even putting people in harm’s way.
We’re living in a digital age where information – whether right or wrong – can spread at an alarming rate. This makes it more important than ever to keep asking questions, check multiple sources and don’t take anything at face value.