False arson claims spread on social media amid Australian bushfire crisis

Social media experts have warned of a "disinformation campaign" aimed at creating a false narrative of arson being solely responsible for the Australian bushfire emergency.

Damage to the Flinders Chase National Park after bushfires swept through Kangaroo Island.

Damage to the Flinders Chase National Park after bushfires swept through Kangaroo Island. Source: AAP

Suspicious Twitter accounts have been proactively pushing a false narrative about the role of arson in the Australian bushfire crisis, social media analysts have warned, including a number of high-profile US figures.

On Wednesday morning, the hashtag #ArsonEmergency was the second most trending topic nationally on Twitter, coming in behind #AustralianBushfireDisaster, with users using the hashtag to undermine the link between the recent horror fire season and climate change.

But Queensland University of Technology (QUT) social media analyst Timothy Graham found many of the accounts using the hashtag displayed highly automated behaviour and .

Batlow bushfires
A destroyed home in Batlow, NSW. Source: Ben Patrick, SBS News

Dr Graham used an algorithm called Tweet Bot or Not, which seeks to determine whether an account is automated, to analyse 1,340 tweets, published by 315 accounts, and found there was a higher than the usual number of bot-like accounts using the hashtag.

Tobias Keller, a social media expert and colleague of Dr Graham, described bots as “fictional accounts” that mimic humans and human behaviour, set up to achieve a specific goal, like spreading disinformation.

“What strikes us is the number of accounts talking about arson and the denial of the link between climate change and the bushfires peaked yesterday and it seems like a classic move of a disinformation campaign,” Dr Keller told SBS News.

“These accounts are suspicious, they may be humans, they may to some degree be paid or coordinated and may fake authentic users … what we know is they are trying to spread a new narrative on the bushfire and climate change link.”

By Wednesday, the “new narrative” had spread internationally and was being regurgitated by prominent US figures like Donald Trump Jr and a Washington State Republican gubernatorial candidate, who accused the Governor of Washington of being “more worried about fake climate change fires in Australia (actually set ablaze by arsonists)”.

“It’s not about Australia anymore, it’s about climate change and the bushfire crisis,” Dr Keller said.

“Everyone is watching Australia at the moment and there are a lot of people around the globe who don’t believe that climate change is real.”

On Wednesday morning, Mr Trump Jr shared an article by The Australian that claimed 183 alleged arsonists had been arrested since the start of the bushfire season to his 4.2 million followers.

The tweet inspired responses such as; “I honestly can’t think of a motive for all of this other than climate change activists doing it to push a narrative” and “I wouldn’t be surprised if the arsonists were funded by those trying to push the climate change hoax”.

Within the article, however, there are a number of issues, including that most of the “arsonists” were actually arrested for bushfire-related offences, such as discarding a lit cigarette or failing to comply with total fire bans, not deliberately lighting fires.

In a statement on Monday, NSW Police Force said they had charged only 24 people with allegedly deliberately lighting bushfires since the beginning of the season.

Meanwhile, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told ABC Gippsland on Tuesday that none of the fires burning in the state had been confirmed to have been deliberately lit.

Dr Keller concedes that one of the biggest challenges in countering disinformation is that there is usually a “grain of truth” within it; in this case, that Australia does have an issue with people lighting fires deliberately.

But while arson does happen in Australia, scientists have been clear that the extreme fire season the country is experiencing is directly linked to climate change.

"Climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia and other regions of the world, including through influencing temperature, environmental moisture, weather patterns and fuel conditions," the Bureau of Meteorology's website reads.

In a, economist Ross Garnaut also warned "fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense" and that this new behaviour would be observable by 2020.

While reiterating that arson is a serious issue and investigations were underway, global director of research at the International Centre for Journalists and co-author of the UN handbook of journalism and disinformation Julie Posetti said subscribing to the false narratives being spread on social media could have serious consequences.

“It would be another disaster piled on top of this one if people were persuaded by bad-faith actors to disbelieve the science and the evidence staring them in the face regarding climate change as a cause of unprecedented firestorms,” she told SBS News.

“That would be a victory for disinformation, and an excuse to continue failing firestorm victims - current and future - when evidence-informed action to address climate change is what's urgently required.”

Earlier this week, the government’s consumer watchdog after a number of reports of fake crowdfunding pages and scammers posing as charity workers or volunteer firefighters were reported.

“Do not donate via fundraising pages on platforms that do not verify the legitimacy of the fundraiser or that do not guarantee your money will be returned if the page is determined to be fraudulent,” an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission spokesperson said.

In terms of what people can do to ensure they are not being tricked by misinformation, both Dr Keller and Dr Posetti agree that it comes down to identifying what sources are reputable and listening to them.

“If you are trying to escape a bushfire, it's fundamentally important that you're relying on accurate, trustworthy information sources like the NSW RFS or ABC Radio emergency broadcasts and their social media channels,” Ms Posetti said.

“This is when discerning between reliable information sources and rumour or deceptive content can be a matter of life and death.”

6 min read
Published 8 January 2020 at 4:03pm
By Maani Truu