In times of crisis, misinformation often spreads as people scramble for answers to the horror unfolding around them. With social media, that spread has only become faster, more frenzied and, in some cases, even deliberate.
Australia is seeing precisely that now.
Watch: A NSW RFS crew in the middle of an inferno on the south coast.
As the bushfire emergency stretches into its fourth month, having claimed 27 lives, more than 2100 homes and nearly 11 million hectares, persistent falsehoods about the subject are circulating via social and traditional media on a scale not before seen in this country.
There’s the claim that the Greens prevented hazard-reduction burns before the start of the fire season, which as we previously explained is untrue. And now, we have #ArsonEmergency.
Over the past week, social media – Twitter especially – has been littered with posts claiming that arsonists are to blame for the current crisis. Many are peddling this claim as a way of disputing the role of climate change in driving the scale and severity of the fires.
But qualified experts – in this case, police, fire authorities and social media researchers – have demonstrated that it’s just plain wrong.
Let’s unpack it.
#ArsonEmergency claim: ‘The vast majority of the fires were deliberately lit’.
This isn’t true. Lightning strike and fallen powerlines have caused most of the fires in the eastern states this season, including all of those responsible for the largest losses of land, life and property.
Many of those making the misguided claim have pointed to a statement issued by the New South Wales Police on January 6, which said that “The NSW Police Force has taken legal action against more than 180 people for bushfire-related offences since late last year.”
It seems “bushfire-related offences” may have been conflated with arson, when in fact it refers to a host of offences including failing to comply with a total fire ban and discarding a lit cigarette or match on land.
In reality, only 24 people have been charged with deliberately lighting a bushfire in NSW this fire season. The majority of the suspicious blazes were small grassfires.
The fire that threatened homes in Turramurra on Sydney’s north shore is suspected of being deliberately lit. As is the October Busbys Flat fire, which burned through 51,000 hectares.
But the overwhelming majority, including the Gospers Mountain mega-fire and those on the south coast, Snowy Mountains and southern border, were ignited naturally.
As NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Inspector Ben Shepherd told Sky News this week, “I can confidently say the majority of the larger fires that we have been dealing with have been a result of fires coming out of remote areas as a result of dry lightning storms.”