Climate change is real. Greenhouse gas emissions are reshaping our natural environment and causing an increase in global temperatures that have contributed to the devastating bushfires currently raging across Australia. But some people are still ignorant of the realities of climate change, instead choosing to believe the fires are the work of arsonists, or imagined changes to Australia's hazard reduction policy. While Australia burns, this disinformation is spreading online, often unchecked. It's time we stopped ignoring it.
In a 2019 report on global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a body of the United Nations committed to objective scientific study — outlined how climate change, enabled by the rise of greenhouse house emissions, is having a detrimental impact on natural environments, cultures and biodiversity. The report, produced via global intergovernmental co-operation outlines how temperatures have risen by one degree since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, influenced by the spread of greenhouse gases that trap heat within the atmosphere.
The fact is that even at a one degree increase, global climate change has had a terrifying effect on our ecosystem. An estimated 1.25 billion animals have perished in Australia's recent bushfires according to UNSW ecologists and the World Wildlife Fund. In addition to this, Australia suffered through its hottest year on record in 2019, based on data from the Bureau of Meteorology. States like Victoria and New South Wales have spent the last few months cloaked in harmful bushfire smoke.
We're currently facing an ecological crisis brought on by rising global temperatures, but these confronting truths have been somewhat overruled online by conspiracy theories and disinformation that threatens to dilute the importance of climate change and create doubt in clear, scientific evidence. Disinformation, in this vital case, refers to the deliberate spread of false information, with the purpose of diluting conversations and spreading lies that encourage inaction on issues of climate change.
The spread of arson disinformation on Twitter
On Twitter, the ignorance about climate change manifested itself in the recent hashtag #ArsonEmergency, which aimed to push the narrative that Australia's devastating bushfires were being spread by arsonists, rather than as a natural consequences of climate change. According to a study of around 300 accounts by Queensland University of Technology academic, Dr Timothy Graham, this hashtag was spread by hundreds of accounts that displayed "inauthentic behaviour", which is more commonly associated with fake bot accounts.
Although, it must be stated, Graham clearly noted in his study the hashtag was originally started by authentic accounts in November 2019. Gizmodo Australia has confirmed a single person, who claims in their Twitter bio they are from Victoria, tweeted political views numerous times with the #ArsonEmergency hashtag. In January, this hashtag exploded and was then picked up rapidly by bot-like accounts and authentic accounts.
According to Graham's study, the bot-like accounts mimicked "genuine opinions" and posted similar, homogenous content on an automated schedule — and while his study only identified 300 Twitter accounts as potential bots, their push contributed to the spread of 4,726 tweets between January 7 and 8 that contributed to the rise of the #ArsonEmergency hashtag.
According to SBS, this caused the #ArsonEmergency hashtag to become the second most trending topic in Australia on Wednesday, January 8. Twitter refused to confirm whether the hashtag appeared in trending topics.
When asked about the spread of the #ArsonEmergency hashtag, a Twitter spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia that trending topics operate on a tailored algorithm designed to share "a diverse range of perspectives ... sometimes that includes perspectives that may be offensive or controversial to others."
"Our rules do not prohibit the virtual gathering and organisation of people on Twitter behind a particular cause or movement," a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. "It is also not against the Twitter rules to voluntarily share political or cause-related content on a Twitter account."
As Gizmodo Australia understands, Twitter has active processes within its algorithm to protect against manipulation of trending topics, which are constantly tweaked as spammers create new methods of manipulation. It does not, however, have a specific policy to prevent the spread of untruths — or misinformation — due to the bulk of content published on the platform, and so as to not stifle what it considers democratic debate on the platform.
In the case of fake or bot accounts, Twitter continues to suspend a huge amount of bot and fake accounts on a regular basis. "When we identify accounts in violation of the Twitter rules, we will take action," a Twitter spokesperson told us. Twitter declined to comment on whether they took action against the #ArsonEmergency hashtag, or the bots identified by Dr Timothy Graham.
The arson ignition theories being spread by numerous faceless accounts are false, according to numerous official bodies. Statistics from the Policy and Emergency Services presented in the last financial year refute this claim entirely, revealing that only 1.3 per cent of recorded fires in the FY18-19 were directly attributed to arson.
The report stated that although there is a need to take arson seriously, there's a greater need to focus on the true causes of increased bushfire activities in Australia — warmer and drier-than-normal conditions. These are the conditions being fostered by the spread of climate change, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
The #ArsonEmergency hashtag fits into a trend of global campaigns
Dr Timothy Graham told Gizmodo Australia via email the trend of accounts spreading disinformation in Australia is part of a global trend of climate change denial and the use of social media to reinforce these conspiracy theories. He noted this type of coordinated behaviour had similarities to the disinformation campaign by Russian trolls during the 2016 US presidential election.
"What we are seeing with the arson conspiracies on Twitter, notably the #ArsonEmergency hashtag that I’ve been tracking and analysing, is that they are one piece of a much broader puzzle of climate change denial and scepticism around the world," Graham said.
"There are complex reasons for push back against climate change ... Individuals are overloaded with information nowadays, and in liberal democratic countries there is a decreasing trust in scientific authority and expertise.
"This creates a perfect storm of conditions that has fostered the rejection of scientific knowledge on various issues, including vaccination and climate change."
Graham went on to describe the issues as “hyper-partisan”, as people take sides in terms of motivated reasoning, identifying most with the content that reflects and reinforces their already-held beliefs. “They share it, spread it, and this potentially worsens the polarisation of the issue," he said.
The conspiracy theories surrounding the bushfires are numerous
It's important to note that it's not just arson that's being used as a scapegoat for Australia's climate crisis. American far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has attempted to spread the theory that Australia's megafires were orchestrated by "multinational forces to clear out key corridors for future development and for light rail in that's being financed by the communist Chinese." This theory was spread as far back as December via local conspiracy websites, and has inexplicably made its way into the pseudo-mainstream.
Other conspiracy theories have proved to be bugbears for Australia's left-wing political party The Greens, as online whispers in far right groups have accused them of opposing hazard reduction efforts and increasing the catastrophic fire risk. Despite claims they are directly responsible for rollbacks to Australia's hazard reduction policy, no such change to policy has occurred, as confirmed by NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
"We are not environmental bastards."@NSWRFS Commissioner @RFSCommissioner on hazard reduction burning, which he stresses is not the panacea for stopping fires spreading.#nswfires #AustraliaFires pic.twitter.com/Jcm803vBx9
— News Breakfast (@BreakfastNews) January 7, 2020
In fact, the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service in NSW told The Guardian Australia that between 2018 and 2019, it carried out hazard reduction activities across more than 139,000 hectares. They said that this was more than originally planned. As for the Greens conspiracy, the party currently has only one sitting member in Australian parliament, making any attempt at policy change redundant. Still, these rumours have spread, even in unlikely places.
Australian politician Barnaby Joyce joined morning show Sunrise back in November to share his version of the theory that red tape and environmental groups were responsible for a lack of hazard reduction, that then led to the build up of 'fuel' in national parks. 'Fuel' in this case meaning dry scrub and other litter that occurs naturally in the environment.
Although RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons shot down this theory as completely untrue, Sunrise has a national, mainstream audience. Climate denialism is being entertained for the masses, and it's spreading all the wrong messages. While denial might be an understandable coping mechanism in the face of such tragedy, it helps no one to ignore the obvious impact that climate change is having.
The human need for simplicity contributes to the spread of conspiracy theories
Spreading disinformation only contributes to a growing anti-truth narrative that derails attempts to save our natural environment, and it's important to recognise the corporate and social bias behind these growing conspiracy theories.
For the UNSW School of Psychology's Belinda Xie, who specialises in climate anxiety, the issue of denialism is a complex one that can be broken down simply. In an email to Gizmodo Australia, she highlighted two important facts about climate denial: that human cognition prefers simplicity, and that disinformation is being reinforced by media, lending it more credibility.
"Decades of psychological research has shown that repeating messages makes them seem more true," Xie said. "This is thought to occur because repetitions make a message seem simpler."
The spread of this issue is no longer limited to right-wing conspiracists or niche online groups, as QUT's Graham explains. It's also being spread at the core of governments, with repetition from corporations and media outlets guiding the narrative.
"Disinformation has been spread by corporations and facilitated by conservative governments, who are lobbied by powerful commercial entities that would rather blame climate change on arson than emissions from their factories and consumption of products," Graham told Gizmodo Australia.
He believes that denialism is a product of cognitive biases and resonance with political partisanship on the issue. Importantly, climate denial provides a narrative that serves corporate and commercial interests, thus being supported by conservative governments who share these interests.
In other words, it's easier to accept a story when it's spearheaded by the governments in charge of policy-making decisions, so people are more willing to accept an alternative narrative. But climate denialism has a detrimental impact on understanding, and dilutes the climate change narrative, which can be counterproductive for government action.
In sharing and spreading a simple enemy — arson — bots and people spreading disinformation are able to capitalise on the inherent human fear of change. To admit that arson isn't the most important cause of our current climate crisis would be to accept that the issue is more complex and hard to comprehend than first realised. While the image of a person setting something on fire and causing harm is palatable, a process of systematic climate evolution is far more difficult to come to terms with, therefore leading to the spread of denialism, and a turn towards simplicity.
Australia’s bushfires are a bright red warning sign that the climate crisis is most definitely upon us and worse lies ahead if we don’t curb carbon pollution. That also makes them a bright red warning sign for a disinformation campaign about their causes for anyone looking to maintain the status quo.
How users can spot disinformation
Educating yourself about how to spot disinformation is crucial so that you aren't contributing to its spread. Being able to spot it in the wild is an important skill.
The bot-like accounts on Twitter that share disinformation around climate change are usually typified by frequent posts on a single topic, tend to have no real profile picture or name and are usually fairly new, according to Graham. He suggests three quick questions to ask when identifying fake accounts:
- Does it have a real profile photo, or just a default/stock photo?
- Does the username seem authentic, or does it have a bunch of numbers, non-alphanumeric characters or other gobbledegook?
- What is the age of the account?
"For example, if an account has no profile photo, has a username like ‘johnny12115992_’, and was created last week, then you should be highly suspicious of this account and wary of retweeting them or engaging with what they’re posting," Graham said.
There are also legitimate accounts sharing misinformation (unintentional lies) on the platform — either due to believing its accuracy, or 'signal boosting' a message they don't understand — so it can often be difficult to spot these accounts.
The best thing you can do to avoid the spread of misinformation and disinformation is to stay informed, conduct independent research using reputable scientific organisations, and constantly question your sources. More than that, it's important to understand the root causes of denialism: fear, anxiety and misunderstanding.
As denialism grows online and in mainstream media, knowing the facts and how best to use them is essential for combatting climate change denialism.