Australia, where lies and conspiracy theories spread like bushfire

Van Badham
Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Have you heard the one about how the Australian fires have been caused by a secret government conspiracy to install party sparklers in rain clouds? That one turned up on my Facebook feed this morning.

As the fast-moving Australian fires have incinerated communities, taken lives and destroyed wildlife, the speed of their progress has been matched only by the conspicuous amplification of online conspiracy theories to explain them.

A few weeks ago, there was a chorus of insistence that the fires weren’t really happening, and communists at, um, CNN were digitally enhancing photos of the blood-red fire skies with the devil’s own brand of MS Paint. Since the fires have expanded, smoke haze has stained skies as far away as New Zealand, and the conspiracy theories have adapted to a changing environment. For taking a visible leadership role in the defence of his burning state, the Labor premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, has been rewarded with anonymous online memes insisting – despite verified evidence to the contrary – on his plunder of firefighting resources, that he bathes in money, and, presumably, marches around his home in slippers made from the skulls of baby seals.

Related: Bots and trolls spread false arson claims in Australian fires ‘disinformation campaign’

These aren’t even the most pernicious of the rumours. A hazy map that tries to claim the fires are some kind of deliberate scheme to clear land for a high-speed rail is of concern because it directly copies an easily debunked claim made during the California wildfires. Even more concerning are the online conspiracy theories seeping into mainstream discourse. There’s an adamant refrain that Australia’s tiny, powerless Greens party has magically banned hazard reduction burns despite holding but one seat among the 151 in the federal parliament. In truth, you can book a hazard reduction burn – with the assistance of government services – by filling in an online form, but members of Liberal Scott Morrison’s own government have been repeating the “ban” myth for months.

Today, both Donald Trump Jr and Rupert Murdoch’s local News Corp brands have been pushing the “arson emergency” theme to our fires, blaming them on nefarious firebugs. News Corp are citing figures for “arson” arrests that are, politely, inconsistent with those released by the police. Again, the Victorian premier has confirmed police information that not a single fire currently raging in this state has been deliberately lit. Yet the arson myth has already been dogging social media commentary for weeks – and a QUT study reported on Tuesday its appearance is no hapless whisper but conforms to the patterns of a coordinated disinformation campaign.

Of course, it’s not just trollbots but ordinary citizens who have been recruited as campaign megaphones – knowingly or not. Anyone with ad space to sell has long known that people are more susceptible to be persuaded into action when they’re frightened and they’re angry. For unscrupulous political persuaders, there are ready pickings in burning Australia, where real red skies and the consequences of inept federal government response has given the locals much to be frightened and angry about. For the cashed up and willing, disinformation services are for sale: Buzzfeed reports that companies offer to “use every tool and take every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes”.

To understand the ruthless waves of disinformation spreading online – and those so willing to spruik their claims – is to understand how the Australian fires have also given the political right much to fear. Commentators elsewhere have made the point that years of weaponising the issue of climate change as a battlefront for a culture war has been a valuable asset for rightwing political movements, electorally and beyond.

In Australia, outspoken climate change denial has provided conservatives electoral access to traditionally Labor blue-collar resource industry communities, who have been made anxious about what “transitions” to a low-emissions economy will entail for their jobs and prospects. The fear the right has so successfully manipulated is that of economic annihilation, yet what the fires have come to represent to Australians is how real economic annihilation is now as close to them as a lit cigarette in a change of wind burning down their home or business.

The science is concluded: it’s climate change that has drawn out the Australian fire season, by heating the temperature and drying the air. The intense disinformation campaign online is a mad scramble from those interests that are vested in ongoing climate denial to confuse and obfuscate the facts of the fires and thereby head off any political pressure for meaningful to climate action that may coalesce in their wake.

Disinformation expert Nina Jankowicz refers to what is going on here as “a type of information laundering”. It poses danger not only to democracy, its impact on policy decisions affect our physical capacity to protect communities – whether from fire, or anything else.

If political actors are invested in disinformation, citizens can still minimise its spread. “If there is any doubt about content you’re reading – don’t share it!” says Jankowicz, who recommends a report-block-ban-delete response to online strangers pushing obvious lies. “If someone you love or an acquaintance online is sharing false news, it’s best to approach them in a private setting where stakes are lower – a private phone call, direct message, or face to face conversation,” she recommends.

It’s crucial advice. The bleak reality of the internet means there may always be those willing to insist party sparklers are raining catastrophic fires on Australia from heaven. Just important as fighting any fire right now is fighting the kind of fear that may make others believe them.

  • Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist