As unusually intense and widespread bushfires have ravaged a drought-ridden Australia, bots and trolls have begun pushing climate science denial across the internet in the form of conspiracy theories about the fires. Thanks to climate change, exceptionally hot, dry drought conditions have worsened and lengthened Australia's typical fire season.
Two of the main conspiracies about the fires are based on the false ideas that they are caused by a spate of arson and they have been worsened by the Green Party's supposed efforts to stop controlled burns as a fire management and reduction measure.
Dr. Timothy Graham from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) did an analysis of the online activity and concluded there was a high level of bots involved in spreading these conspiracies. As ZDnet reported, Graham is “at least confident” that that this was some type of disinformation campaign.
Sites like NewsWars — which was founded by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones who falsely claimed the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax — are already pushing these conspiracies.
Notorious climate deniers Patrick Michaels and Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute promoted the same conspiracies in the Washington Examiner. And the discredited extremist science denier Lord Monckton also weighed in.
However, it isn’t just fringe sites pushing these ideas. The New York Times reports that Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has also been instrumental in publishing these debunked claims (and others claiming that these fires are no worse than normal).
Despite multiple sources clearly discrediting these myths, CNN’s top story in its World News section today, which is also featured in its website's top stories banner this morning, included the misleading headline, “Police in Australia are accusing 24 people of deliberately setting bushfires” — reinforcing the work of conspiracy theorists' messaging.
Police and Firefighters Debunk the Myths
A common theme in these myths is that the Australian police and firefighters are the source of these purported claims about the wildfires, which has been strongly refuted by none other than the police and firefighters.
The Guardian reported that a spokeswoman for the Victoria police said, “There is currently no intelligence to indicate that the fires in East Gippsland and the North East have been caused by arson or any other suspicious behaviour.”
That same article notes that according to a Rural Fire Service spokesman, “The majority of the larger fires in the state [of New South Wales] were caused by lightning, and that arson was a relatively small source of ignition.”
Members of the New South Wales fire brigade have also dismissed the idea that the fires are due to efforts by the Green Party to stop fire management practices.
NSW Rural Fire Service boss @RFSCommissioner has shot down @Barnaby_Joyce's claim that 'green caveats' stopped his team from conducting hazard reduction burns, leading to the bushfire crisis. #7NEWS https://t.co/MrtkXy88fL— 7NEWS Sydney (@7NewsSydney) January 7, 2020
The climate denier conspiracy theory blaming Australia’s bushfire catastrophe on #ArsonEmergency is so ridiculous & offensive, it deserves to be lampooned. So I’ve created a new cartoon spoofing the notion that the global climate crisis is all a conspiracy… pic.twitter.com/VHVde5P8Mf— John Cook (@johnfocook) January 8, 2020
2019 was a year where the #climatecrisis could no longer be ignored – from wildfires to record storms –and still oil companies like Exxon and Shell continue to make long-term plans to produce as much oil and gas as possible. pic.twitter.com/GFxaoqSAr2— DeSmogBlog (@DeSmogBlog) January 6, 2020
Main image: Kangaroo Island fire, January 2, 2020. Credit: robdownunder, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0