Deniers in Overdrive on Aussie Fires

January 9, 2020

Climate denial social media offensive follows the same format we saw during the California fire season – with a new wrinkle.


Fire services in Australia do regular burns to control brush build up and deprive fires of ready fuel. These practices actually date back to the indigenous people in pre-European times.


Climate deniers spreading the rumor that “greenies” have kept authorities from doing enough controlled burns – and that THAT is the mechanism and driver for current fires. In addition, creative denialists have added the wrinkle that it’s in fact greenie Enviros who are actually busy lighting the fires, to blame on fossil fuels and climate change.

Above: New South Wales Royal Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons politely shoots down those claims.

New York Times:

WOMBEYAN CAVES, Australia — Deep in the burning forests south of Sydney this week, volunteer firefighters were clearing a track through the woods, hoping to hold back a nearby blaze, when one of them shouted over the crunching of bulldozers.

“Don’t take photos of any trees coming down,” he said. “The greenies will get a hold of it, and it’ll all be over.” 

The idea that “greenies” or environmentalists would oppose measures to prevent fires from ravaging homes and lives is simply false. But the comment reflects a narrative that’s been promoted for months by conservative Australian media outlets, especially the influential newspapers and television stations owned by Rupert Murdoch.

And it’s far from the only Murdoch-fueled claim making the rounds. His standard-bearing national newspaper, The Australian, has also repeatedly argued that this year’s fires are no worse than those of the past — not true, scientists say, noting that 12 million acres have burned so far, with 2019 alone scorching more of New South Wales than the previous 15 years combined. 

Below, example of bogus tweet

more from NYTImes:

And on Wednesday, Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp, the largest media company in Australia, was found to be part of another wave of misinformation. An independent study found online bots and trolls exaggerating the role of arson in the fires, at the same time that an article in The Australian making similar assertions became the most popular offering on the newspaper’s website.

It’s all part of what critics see as a relentless effort led by the powerful media outlet to do what it has also done in the United States and Britain — shift blame to the left, protect conservative leaders and divert attention from climate change.

“It’s really reckless and extremely harmful,” said Joëlle Gergis, an award-winning climate scientist at the Australian National University. “It’s insidious because it grows. Once you plant those seeds of doubt, it stops an important conversation from taking place.”

News Corp denied playing such a role. “Our coverage has recognized Australia is having a conversation about climate change and how to respond to it,” the company said in an email. “The role of arsonists and policies that may have contributed to the spread of fire are, however, legitimate stories to report in the public interest.”

Yet, for many critics, the Murdoch approach suddenly looks dangerous. They are increasingly connecting News Corp to the spread of misinformation and the government’s lackluster response to the fires. They argue that the company and the coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison are responsible — together, as a team — for the failure to protect a country that scientists say is more vulnerable to climate change than any other developed nation. 

Editors and columnists for News Corp were among the loudest defenders of Mr. Morrison after he faced blowback for vacationing in Hawaii as the worst of the fire season kicked off in December. 

In late December, the Oz, as the News Corp-owned paper is known here, heavily promoted an interview with the government’s energy minister, Angus Taylor, warning that “top-down” pressure from the United Nations to address climate change would fail — followed by an opinion piece from Mr. Taylor on New Year’s Eve.

Other News Corp outlets followed a similar playbook. Melbourne’s Herald Sun, for example, pushed news of the bushfires to Page 4 on New Year’s Eve, even as they threatened to devastate towns nearby and push thick smoke into the city.

Days later, residents in a town nearly flattened by the fires heckled and snubbed Mr. Morrison during a visit to assess the damage. A new hire for Mr. Murdoch’s Sky News channel, Chris Smith, branded them “ferals” — slang for unkempt country hobos.

As is often the case at Murdoch outlets around the world, there have been exceptions to the company line — an article about the Australian golfer Greg Norman’s declaration that “there is climate change taking place”; an interview with an international expert who explained why this year’s fires are unique.

But a search for “climate change” in the main Murdoch outlets mostly yields stories condemning protesters who demand more aggressive action from the government; editorials arguing against “radical climate change policy”; and opinion columns emphasizing the need for more backburning to control fires — if only the left-wing greenies would allow it to happen. 

The Australian Greens party has made clear that it supports such hazard-reduction burns, issuing a statement online saying so. 

Climate scientists do acknowledge that there is room for improvement when it comes to burning the branches and dead trees on the ground that can fuel fires. But they also say that no amount of preventive burning will offset the impact of rising temperatures that accelerate evaporation, dry out land and make already-arid Australia a tinderbox. 

Even fire officials report that most of the off-season burns they want to do are hindered not by land-use laws but by weather — including the lengthier fire season and more extreme precipitation in winter that scientists attribute to climate change. 

Still, the Murdoch outlets continue to resist. “On a dry continent prone to deadly bushfires for centuries, fuel reduction through controlled burning is vital,” said an editorial published Thursday in The Australian. It went on to add: “Changes to climate change policy, however, would have no immediate impact on bushfires” — a stance that fits hand in glove with government officials’ frequent dismissals of the “bogey man of climate change.”

ABC Australia:

Australia’s bushfire emergency is being exploited on social media, as misinformation is spread through cyberspace via hundreds of thousands of posts.

Out-of-date photos of survivors and inaccurate fire maps have been widely shared, including by international celebrities.

As authorities fight the flames on firegrounds around the country, an ABC investigation has revealed a battle of a very different kind online.

One area of misinformation has been the hashtag #ArsonEmergency on Twitter.

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researcher Dr Timothy Graham analysed 315 accounts posting #ArsonEmergency and said a third of them displayed highly automated and inauthentic behaviour.

In layman’s terms, that means they’re likely to be bots.

He said the topic appeared to be attracting a “suspiciously high number of bot-like and troll-like accounts”.

The ABC found many of the suspicious accounts were amplifying unproven suggestions arson had been the overwhelming cause of Australia’s disastrous bushfire season.

Some of the tweets took police figures out of context and claimed almost 200 arsonists had been arrested in NSW.

The actual number of people charged with deliberately lighting a fire is 24 — even fewer managed to spark large blazes.

An article posted by an American far-right figure went one step further, claiming left-wing ecoterrorists were responsible for lighting the blazes.

It has been shared almost 100,000 times across Facebook, Twitter and Reddit and reached a potential 2.8 million accounts — significantly more than general bushfire fact checks.

While there are no precise figures for Instagram and messaging apps such as Telegram and Whatsapp — which boasts millions of users in Australia — the post, or sections from it, were shared on those platforms too.

Dr Graham said the social media disinformation being spread around topics like arson was complex because it often had a “grain of truth”.

“The motivation underlying this often tends to not be changing people’s opinions about the bushfire itself and how it’s happening, but to sow discord and magnify already existing tensions in polarised political issues,” he said.

Despite the role bots have been playing in amplifying misinformation about the bushfires, a political consultant said it was largely real users who were responsible for spreading falsehoods.

John Macgowan is a former Liberal Party staffer who is investigating misinformation campaigns and bot networks on social media.

While bot networks are common in the United States and Europe, Australia is not seen as a target market for people looking to influence the political landscape through this method.

He said the tools used to operate a botnet — the process of running multiple accounts simultaneously — do not scale in Australia, where there is a significantly smaller population.

“The margin in a political campaign is getting a vote and you’re not getting votes from bots,” Mr Macgowan said.

12 Responses to “Deniers in Overdrive on Aussie Fires”

  1. doldrom Says:

    Almost everywhere I look I am seeing these debunked talking points.
    Good article.

  2. grindupbaker Says:

    6 years ago when I still bothered I tried actual sort-of debate with a coal/oil shill “Gina Titnaw” in GoogleTube comments. I’d decided that romance & face-to-face was in the air when an entity claiming to be a black dude told me he knew certain that “Gina Titnaw” is some Russian dude with a full beard. I’m not into the beard thing and that’s why I’m cynical and couldn’t-care-less ever since, the heartache.

    • Earl Mardle Says:

      Occurs to me that Titnaw is also Want-it backwards.

      Plainly these people want something and, while the instigators may just be doing it for money, I wish I could figure out what their amplifiers, who do it without pay, are getting out of it.

      There is something seriously wrong with the minds of far top many people. People on whom we will all depend to act in concert with rationality, scientific knowledge and to update their behaviours as the science becomes more accurate and/or the conditions change.

      Which is why I lie awake at night with the words, “we are SO screwed” wandering through my mind.

      • Sir Charles Says:

        Australia is world’s biggest exporter of coal. And the country is even preparing a new mega project: The Adani’s Carmichael mine which will…

        * Destroy the ancestral lands, waters and cultures of Indigenous people without their consent.
        * Allow 500 more coal ships to travel through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area every year for 60 years.
        * Get access to 270 billion litres of Queensland’s precious groundwater for 60 years, for free.
        * Risk damaging aquifers of the Great Artesian Basin.
        * Add 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon pollution to our atmosphere

        Please take action here =>

        Every little helps creating the critical mass. Thanks!

  3. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    The local digital media is FULL of AGW talk as well as international news channels. Print media much less so. Interested if local media overseas mentions AGW much?

    • dumboldguy Says:

      No, the local media in the USA doesn’t mention AGW much, and when it does, it’s all too often in a half-assed and backhanded way. I fired off this letter to the WashPost the other day—not holding my breath to see if it gets published.

      To the editor,

      Post sensationalizes climate change impacts, ignores climate science

      On Saturday, 1/4, the Post devoted 3/4 of an inside page to the Australia fires—-all of it human interest stories. On Sunday, 1/5, the Post devoted over two full pages to the Australian fires, with a short leadin on page one. These articles consisted mainly of color photographs, one of which covered almost a full page, with only a brief mention of climate change as a root cause.

      Climate scientists have been in agreement for years now that Australia is the “canary in the coal mine”—-the developed county most at risk for severe impacts from accelerating climate change. Why does the Post not take the opportunity to strongly connect the fires in Australia to the ever more apparent FACT that the heat waves, drought, and wildfires in Australia are linked to climate change?

      Is the post trying to compete with the TV reporting? Burned houses, distraught people, and the ever-cute singed Koalas may boost viewer and reader numbers, but they don’t educate, nor do they prepare people for the bigger climate catastrophes that loom on the horizon for humans in many parts of the globe.


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