Bot and troll accounts are involved in a “disinformation campaign” exaggerating the role of arson in Australia’s bushfire disaster, social media analysis suggests.
The bushfires burning across the nation have been accompanied by repeated suggestions of an arson epidemic or “arson emergency”.
The false claims are, in some cases, used to undermine the link between the current bushfires and the longer, more intense fire seasons brought about by climate change.
The Queensland University of Technology senior lecturer on social network analysis Dr Timothy Graham examined content published on the #arsonemergency hashtag on Twitter, assessing 1,340 tweets, 1,203 of which were unique, published by 315 accounts.
Using a Twitter bot detection tool, he assessed a random sample for bot-like characteristics.
His preliminary analysis found there is likely a “current disinformation campaign” on Twitter’s #arsonemergency hashtag due to the “suspiciously high number of bot-like and troll-like accounts”.
He similarly found a large number of suspicious accounts posting on the #australiafire and #bushfireaustralia hashtags.
“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 polarisation and an increased difficulty and inability for citizens to discern truth,” Graham told the Guardian.
“Looking at the kinds of accounts that post using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag, you see that these are individuals who are hyper-partisan ideologues, behaving in a way that is not reflective of the average Twitter user.
“The conspiracy theories going around (including arson as the main cause of the fires) reflect an increased distrust in scientific expertise, scepticism of the media, and rejection of liberal democratic authority. These are all major factors in the global fight against disinformation, and based on my preliminary analysis it appears that Australia has for better or worse entered that battlefield, at least for now.”
There is no dispute that arson is a serious problem in Australia, or that arsonists have not been active in the current bushfire season. NSW police say they have charged 24 people with deliberately lighting bushfires this season.
But that does not detract from the clear scientific evidence showing climate change is making Australia’s bushfire seasons longer and more severe. The Bureau of Meteorology’s clear advice is that climate change is “influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia and other regions of the world, including through influencing temperature, environmental moisture, weather patterns and fuel conditions”.
The BoM states that there is some evidence that “climate change could influence the risk of ignitions from dry-lightning.
“Bushfire weather conditions in future years are projected to increase in severity for many regions of Australasia, including due to more extreme heat events, with the rate and magnitude of change increasing with greenhouse gas concentrations (and emissions),” the bureau says.
Claims about arson are not the only falsehoods being spread on social media. Other patently false claims include that the government has created the bushfire crisis to clear land for high-speed rail. Another absurd claim is that Islamic State is somehow responsible.
Several maps purporting to show the scale of the fires also vastly exaggerate their spread.