Australia Burned Under a Haze of Misinformation Earlier This Year. The U.S. Is Next.

13 September 2020

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AUSTRALIA/USA – In January, I watched Australia burn from a distance, gripped with anxiety and sadness. Only a few months after I moved to Norway, the most terrifying firestorms the country has ever encountered tore through the land.

The sky grew blood red. The pollution from particulates broke records. Towns were razed, homes and lives were lost. Every single person in Australia was impacted in some way, many in deeply tragic and irreversible ways. The place where I was married was burned to a crisp. It was climate change that shoved the familiar phenomenon of bushfires into shockingly new territory.

In Australian media and politics, there is a strangely powerful immune system that can automatically detect the presence of a threat to the fossil fuel industry. This immune response is quite unique. Someone once tried to do a carbon price; ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott (now a UK trade advisor) claimed an entire town dependent on the steel industry would be erased. In 2019, the center-left opposition suggested an emissions standard for vehicles; current Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that’d be the “end of the weekend” because people wouldn’t be allowed to off-road.

Climate-intensified wildfires that changed the lived reality of a large majority of Australians in horrific and unforgettable ways triggered an unprecedented immune response to deny reality and a chance at serious climate change. American conservatives have been mostly silent on the wildfires so far, but the Australian experience suggests there’s a risk of misinformation flaring up to downplay climate change’s role in the carnage and shift blame elsewhere.

The first, most unsophisticated reactions to Australia’s obvious climate disaster came from politicians. Current leader of the rural, right-wing party the Nationals, Michael McCormack, described climate activists as “raving, inner city lunatics” for linking bushfires to climate change. Australian government politician Craig Kelly (regularly someone with the biggest individual reach on Facebook among Australia’s parliament, far greater than the prime minister) ran hard and fast with old school climate denial. An old line— ‘Australia’s always had bushfires’ (pioneered by a former environment minister who claimed to have seen it on Wikipedia)—echoed out from the Prime Minister Scott Morrison down to the party rank and file.

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Off the back of this, a blaze of misinformation began to form, spreading through traditional and social media platforms in Australia and around the world with incredible speed.

Two ideas gained real legs. First was the theory that the fires were so intense because environmentalists and greenies had opposed hazard reduction burns where dry fuel is burned off outside of bushfire season. It is an old one; in 2009, News Corp columnist Miranda Devine wrote that “it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.” It was a lie in 2009 and it was a lie in 2020: Hazard reduction hadn’t decreased at all, and the Greens, Australia’s most liberal party, fully support this activity.

The second, more prominent claim was that the fire crisis was so bad because an unprecedented number of fires were being lit intentionally by arsonists. Some iterations of this theory specified climate activists intentionally lighting the fires to fake a climate crisis. This grew off the back of deceptive reporting in News Corp’s masthead, the Australian, and commercial TV network Channel Seven:

It spread worldwide, retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. and the conservative BBC journalist Andrew Neil. It even made it onto Fox News, where host Tomi Lahren yelled, “so I hate to break it to the Greta Thunbergs of the world…the fact of the matter is this: Australia has an arson problem you can’t pin on global warming, climate change, or whatever title you’re giving your environmental boogeyman these days.”

The source of confusion stemmed from botched numbers that mixed accidental fires, such as poorly disposed cigarettes, and those fires that were intentionally lit. By the time there was clarity, it was too late. Australia’s politicians simply began inventing numbers, inflating them each time:

Quickly, the prominence of the meme was exaggerated using automated Twitter accounts. These are multiple accounts run by real people, with the intent of spreading the lie further and giving it a veneer of support that didn’t exist.

As we move well past that disaster, we’re beginning to realize just how bad the misinformation was. For the state of New South Wales, Australia’s biggest, a subsequent inquiry found no major fires were started by arson, and if you look at all 11,7444 fires, only 11 were started by arsonists trying to cause bushfires. The fact checks that came out both during and after the crisis failed to achieve the same prominence as the myth.

The other common rhetorical tactic politicians and others deployed in downplaying climate change was intentionally confusing the reasons that wildfires ignite with the factors behind why they spread quickly and destructively. Climate change worsens the conditions required for fire to spread, measured in Australia as the Forest Fire Danger Index, which has been worsening for decades. This is why the arsonists meme is both false and misleading: The main impact of climate change is intensifying this disaster, not triggering it.

Upsettingly, climate change does worsen ignition; power lines sag in heat and can spark deadly fires (as they did in 2009, in Australia, and as California knows too well). Climate-intensified wildfires themselves can spark their own weather, building huge: clouds of smoke that generate lightning, which sparks even more fires.

It is clear that California’s recent wildfires face a similar pattern. If it emerges anything like Australia’s misinformation firestorm, it’ll have the following features:

  • An attempt to blame a prominent group for intentionally igniting fires
  • A confusion between what started the fires and catalyzing factors such as high temperatures and dry fuel loads that allowed them to spread
  • TV and print media—particularly News Corp outlets such as Fox News or the Wall Street Journal—participating by presenting far more time for minor, unchanging factors while downplaying climate factors
  • Political and media commentators helping that spread through both repetition and alteration
  • Social media as a tool for spreading these theories through far-right groups, automated accounts and the viral publication of traditional media stories

At the time of writing, it’s only hours since San Francisco’s skies turned Blade-Runner orange. But there are early signs of conspiracy theories that “antifa” are intentionally lighting fires. A Republican senate candidate seemed to be one of the first, and the claim has now spread virally on Facebook. A couple that travelled to an Oregon town to take photos of fires (tip: never do this in any circumstance), but locals thought they were antifa arsonists, and there were calls to “send people out with guns.” This style of misinformation combined with America’s gun problem could have horrific consequences. In the town of Mollalla, Oregon, unidentified men armed with AR-15 machine guns forced three journalists to leave town, amid rumors of “antifa raids.”

Ultimately, the misinformation immune response in Australia’s political and media circles introduced enough doubt and confusion around the link between climate and wildfires to do real damage. It is worthwhile to point out to friends and family who might be vulnerable to this type of misinformation that it’s all happened before in Australia, and that those viral memes were shown decisively to have been false. Priming people to expect this wildfire of misinformation can help control outbreaks. Given the importance of broad public awareness of the link between the burning of fossil fuels and wildfires, it’s worth preparing for a misinformation firestorm well before it happens.

Ketan Joshi is an Australian clean energy analyst now writing on climate, energy and media, based in Oslo, Norway. He’s the author of Windfall: Unlocking a Fossil Free Future with NewSouth Publishing.

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