The widespread bushfires in Australia have burned over 32,000 square miles of land so far. To put that in perspective, that’s larger than the state of South Carolina. The drought and extreme heat that have fueled these fires are driven by climate change, but it seems some are determined to deny that fact.
Bots and trolls on Twitter are currently pushing a conspiracy theory that rejects climate science and alleges all of the fires were started by arsonists, The Guardian reports. These bots and trolls are using the hashtag #ArsonEmergency to spread this conspiracy theory.
Dr. Timothy Graham, a Queensland University of Technology senior lecturer, did a social media analysis by using a Twitter bot detection tool to look at over 300 accounts that were using this hashtag. He found a “suspiciously high number” of these accounts appeared to be bots or trolls.
“Australia suddenly appears to be getting swamped by mis/disinformation as a result of this environmental catastrophe, and we are suffering the consequences in terms of hyped up polarization and an increased difficulty and inability for citizens to discern truth,” Graham told The Guardian.
Graham describes the trolls he came across as “hyper-partisan ideologues,” and he said this is further evidence that many people around the world have started rejecting scientific evidence and media reports.
Though there is evidence that some of these fires could be connected to arsonists, there is no evidence this widespread problem can be blamed on arsonists generally. While it’s fair to say climate change isn’t the lone reason for these fires, it is clear climate change is creating conditions where fires are more likely to start and making it so fires can spread more easily.
Christopher Bouzy, the founder of Bot Sentinel, helped Inverse look into the #ArsonEmergency hashtag and the general bot and troll behavior surrounding the fires in Australia. Bot Sentinel is a platform that detects and tracks bots and trolls.
We were able to determine that the #ArsonEmergency hashtag has been in use since late September, when the fires were starting to become a major problem, but it’s not clear how it was popularized. Furthermore, this clearly goes beyond that one hashtag, and figuring out how a conspiracy theory started can be extremely difficult.
“It’s much easier to find the origins of a hashtag than a conspiracy theory,” Bouzy says.
Bouzy says he did find that “hundreds of tweets” from accounts they are tracking at Bot Sentinel were spreading the conspiracy theory. Some of the tweets Bouzy shared with Inverse claimed Muslims started the fires or that “climate change hoaxers” started the fires.
Many of these accounts have been sharing a Breitbart article that claims Hillary Clinton “wrongly” attributed the Australia fires to climate change in response to a tweet she wrote, but that article was written just days ago, so it’s not where the conspiracy theory originated.
We don’t know who started this conspiracy theory or what their motives were. It could have come from a fossil fuel company, a politician or any number of other sources. We’ll keep investigating and let you know if we figure it out.