explainer

Why so many people are blaming arson for the bushfires, and why that's simply wrong.

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.

Video by NSW Rural Fire Service

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.

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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.”

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Listen: The bushfire emergency – what’s happened, why such fury is being directed at our Prime Minister and perhaps most importantly, what can be done to help.

Likewise, in Victoria, most of the fires have been attributed to lightning strikes and none of the major blazes are believed to have been deliberately lit.

“Police are aware of a number of posts circulating in relation to the current bushfire situation, however currently there is no intelligence to indicate that the fires in East Gippsland and north-east Victoria have been caused by arson or any other suspicious behaviour,” a police spokesperson told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Only a single fire in Euroa, which was lit on January 4, is being treated as suspicious. It burned 385 hectares and didn’t damage any property. While the seriousness of the crime should not be dismissed, that blaze was responsible for only 0.0002 per cent of the total area burnt in Victoria so far this fire season.

In South Australia, 10 people have been caught intentionally or recklessly causing a bushfire since September, according to police statistics cited by The Advertiser. But according to South Australian Police and the Country Fire Service, none of the current major blazes – including those in Adelaide Hills, Kangaroo Island and Yorke Peninsula – are suspected of being deliberately lit. Again, lightning strike plus fallen powerlines have been identified as the source of ignition.

Ok, so if the claims aren’t accurate, why do so many people believe them?

The answer is two-fold.

Firstly, for those who don’t believe that climate change exists, it’s a convenient counter-narrative, another place to point the finger and explain why this fire season has been one of the most devastating in Australian history.

Secondly, according to researchers from Queensland University of Technology, #ArsonEmergency has been the subject of a deliberate, coordinated disinformation campaign by ‘trolls’ and automated bots.

Using sophisticated software, Senior lecturer in digital media, Dr Timothy Graham, and postdoctorate fellow Dr Tobias R. Keller, examined 300 Twitter accounts driving the hashtag, and discovered “activity similar to what we’ve witnessed in past disinformation campaigns, such as the coordinated behaviour of Russian trolls during the 2016 US presidential election.”

They found that a much larger portion of bot and troll-like accounts pushed #ArsonEmergency, than they did #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

“The narrative was then adopted by genuine accounts who furthered its spread,” the researchers wrote.

“On multiple occasions, we noticed suspicious accounts countering expert opinions while using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag.”

It’s impossible to tell who is behind the accounts. But the researchers noted that the most effective disinformation campaigns have been the work of foreign interference, media and PR firms seeking to influence voters. They typically “use bot and troll accounts to infiltrate genuine political discussion, and shift it towards a different ‘master narrative’.”

A master narrative like climate-change denial perhaps…

Featured image: Getty.

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