One year after “Black Summer” bushfire crisis, media misinformation still burns

During Australia’s Black Summer bushfire crisis, misinformation raged alongside the flames. Large media outlets pushed the line that the sheer intensity of the crisis could be explained by a sudden surge in arson attacks, using an inflated number that simply kept growing in size. This falsehood was presented as a counter to the widespread assumption that climate change had played a major role in making that bushfire season so wildly catastrophic and unusual.

That misinformation was eventually firmly debunked. About 0.09% of the fires in New South Wales were found to be deliberately lit, and all of these were minor spot fires, found the NSW Royal Commission report, and the federal equivalent firmly pins climate change as a major cause.

Much of the initial misinformation was driven by 7 News Australia, first with a post claiming the following:

That spread extremely fast over social media, and was followed by an article from The Australian wrongly claiming several hundred people had been arrested for intentionally starting fires. Donald Trump Junior shard that one. Peter Dutton repeated it on TV, but bumped the number up. A piece of research by the Monash Climate Hub found “4% of articles blamed the colloquially termed ‘greenies’ or The Australian Greens party for the fires. 54% of discussion blaming ‘greenies’ occurred in News Corp publications.”

It had an impact; not just by distracting from the reality of Australia’s first major climate-intensified crisis but by inspiring others – during California’s wildfires, former President Donald Trump blamed ‘anti fascist’ groups for deliberately lighting fires.

Fast forward precisely one year and it’s happening again. Channel Seven now claims that a volunteer firefighter has been charged with lighting 30 separate fires during the Black Summer bushfire season. The article has been shared by big-name figures, such as former basketball superstar Andrew Bogut. It has been retweeted several hundred times at the time of writing, and the vast majority of the responses and quote tweets declare something along the lines of ‘Wasn’t climate change after all’.

“Really?…I thought it was a guy called climate change who did it…” said conservative Melinda Richards – 700 retweets for her. It has been syndicated by at least 15 separate media outlets under the same banner. The Daily Mail has republished the story, too.

The original 7 News article, by journalist Rick Goodman, cites the Australian Associated Press as the source. In fact, the same story was reported by the ABC. Reporter Emma Elsworthy wrote, “Police will allege the man lit dozens of fires in the region between November 2020 and January 2021”.

Yes, that’s this summer, not last summer. The ABC, Nine News and Pedestrian all reported accurately on the news. You can also go back to the NSW police force’s original post, which repeats the correct dates.

None of the articles or social media posts have been corrected or removed; it’s currently filtering into America’s massive and highly interconnected network of climate deniers and conservatives and it is likely to spread much further before any action is taken (if it is taken).

Generously, we could assume an error in reading the dates, but to then write an entire article based off that misunderstanding? In the context of Seven’s contribution to misinformation during the actual Black Summer fires, this isn’t insignificant.

This misinformation has been shared, of course, in the midst of a heatwave spreading across Australia. A severe fire in Cherry Gardens has damaged many homes in South Australia.

Rising summer temperatures, and worsening bushfire seasons, actually are in fact linked to a conspiracy relating to the actions of people – that of the fossil fuel industry and their actions dating back several decades to stifle the chance to stop the problem before it grew to a scale causing serious impacts in Australia.

You’d think this real story would, in fact, be both more compelling and more urgent to outlets like 7 News, given the fact we can stop even more of this happening in the future by taking action to ditch fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy, clean transport and clean industry ASAP.

Ketan Joshi is a European-based climate and energy consultant.

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