False information about Australia bushfires spread on social media

Australia is facing a bushfire crisis and as the country burns, misinformation is spreading across the internet like wildfire.

Social media allows people to share information on a global scale, but also allows bots and troll accounts to spread unproven claims about the fires and have millions of people believe them.

Twitter bots

The bushfires in Australia have been accompanied by a slew of suggestions on Twitter that arson is to blame, and the country is at the mercy of an "arson epidemic".

Queensland University of Technology Senior Lecturer Dr Timothy Graham analysed 1340 tweets with the hastag #arsonemergency and found a likely "current disinformation campaign" on the hashtag due to the "suspiciously high number of bot-like and troll-like accounts".

He told The Guardian Australia is "swamped" by misinformation. Some accounts claimed almost 200 people were arrested for deliberately setting fires - the real figure is 24.

"The conspiracy theories going around (including arson as the main cause of the fires) reflect an increased distrust in scientific expertise," said Graham.

Misleading pictures

Not all of the misinformation is malicious - in some cases social media users are trying to raise awareness for the crisis but are unknowingly spreading inaccurate images.

Many shocking photographs of the impact of the fires have been shared across social media.

One image showing the hundreds of fires burning across the country has been widely shared and credited as a 3D NASA satellite.

The image, created by artist Anthony Hearsey, is not a satellite photograph. It is an image created by using data from NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System.

Hearsey compiled the data from December and January and laid them on to the image.

"Think of it as a prettier graph," he wrote.

He also noted that not all the areas in the image are still burning, and the scale is "a little exaggerated" due to the render's glow.

Another widely shared image from Australian government site MyFireWatch shows fires dotted across the country. It uses satellite data to map heat sources, but the data can be misleading.

It incorporates "any heat source that is hotter than its surroundings...this may include gas flares, refinery furnaces or highly reflective, large industrial roofs," reads its website.

The map.
The map. Photo credit: MyFireWatch.

Another photo which has been widely shared shows blood-red clouds, supposedly due to the fire in Australia.

This image has been shared more than a thousand times.
This image has been shared more than a thousand times. Photo credit: Facebook.

Fact-checking site Snopes disproved this, saying the photo had been used in the same way during the 2018/2019 California fires - but actually it's just a picture of a sunset above Hawaii.

More images of burnt animals, and rescued koalas  have been shared thousands of times.

But fact-checking websites have shown the images to be misleading. Politifact.com reports multiple images are taken from the California wildfires of 2018 and 2019, an earlier bushfire in Australia and in one case, a bonfire of taxidermy animals.

Climate change

Debate over whether the current bushfire crisis is unprecedented is rife across social media.

The death toll stands at 22, more than 6 million hectares have been burnt and a half billion wildlife are estimated to be dead, but some claim Australia has seen worse.

In December, acting Australian Prime Minister Michael McCormack said "in some cases, [the fires] are unprecedented but in other cases, they are what happens in Australia."

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service says the scale is unprecedented.

"To put it in perspective, in the past few years we have had a total area burned for the whole season of about 280,000 hectares," RFS spokeswoman Angela Burford told the Guardian.

The fire season in Australia does not usually begin until February.

In 1974, a slightly larger area burned. However, the nature of that fire was entirely different - it was caused by a heavier than average rainfall which allowed for more growth in the outback - more fuel for the fire to burn.

This year, the burn is a result of a record-breaking drought which has brought soil moisture down to new lows. Rainfall in the first half of 2019 was at its lowest levels on record.

In November, Scott Morrison told media there was "no credible scientific evidence" that reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emission could help reduce the severity of the country's bushfires.

Increasing global temperatures and extraordinarily dry temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions are a key reason these fires are so out of control.

Heat and dry conditions have a "well established" link to climate change said department head at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, Stefan Rahmstorf.

Climate scientist Peter Gleick says the attempt to downplay climate change is "disengenous".

"There are now disingenuous efforts to downplay the clear role of climate change in worsening the intensity and severity of the Australian fires, or to blame 'arson' as a way to distract from the growing threat of climate change," he said.

"These efforts should be called out for what they are: gross climate denial. "