Bushfires, Bots and Arson Claims: Australia Flung in the Global Disinformation Spotlight
By Timothy Graham, Tobias R. Keller
In the first week of 2020, hashtag #ArsonEmergency became the focal point of a new online narrative surrounding the bushfire crisis.
The message: the cause is arson, not climate change.
We studied about 300 Twitter accounts driving the #ArsonEmergency hashtag to identify inauthentic behavior. We found many accounts using #ArsonEmergency were behaving "suspiciously," compared to those using #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.
Accounts peddling #ArsonEmergency carried out activity similar to what we've witnessed in past disinformation campaigns, such as the coordinated behavior of Russian trolls during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Bots, Trolls and Trollbots
The most effective disinformation campaigns use bot and troll accounts to infiltrate genuine political discussion, and shift it towards a different "master narrative."
Bots and trolls have been a thorn in the side of fruitful political debate since Twitter's early days. They mimic genuine opinions, akin to what a concerned citizen might display, with a goal of persuading others and gaining attention.
Bots are usually automated (acting without constant human oversight) and perform simple functions, such as retweeting or repeatedly pushing one type of content.
Troll accounts are controlled by humans. They try to stir controversy, hinder healthy debate and simulate fake grassroots movements. They aim to persuade, deceive and cause conflict.
We've observed both troll and bot accounts spouting disinformation regarding the bushfires on Twitter. We were able to distinguish these accounts as being inauthentic for two reasons.
There are various definitions for the word "bot" or "troll." Bot Sentinel says:
Propaganda bots are pieces of code that utilize Twitter API to automatically follow, tweet, or retweet other accounts bolstering a political agenda. Propaganda bots are designed to be polarizing and often promote content intended to be deceptive… Trollbot is a classification we created to describe human controlled accounts who exhibit troll-like behavior.
Some of these accounts frequently retweet known propaganda and fake news accounts, and they engage in repetitive bot-like activity. Other trollbot accounts target and harass specific Twitter accounts as part of a coordinated harassment campaign. Ideology, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and geographic location are not factors when determining the classification of a Twitter account.
These machine learning tools compared the behavior of known bots and trolls with the accounts tweeting the hashtags #ArsonEmergency, #AustraliaFire, and #BushfireAustralia. From this, they provided a "score" for each account suggesting how likely it was to be a bot or troll account.
We also manually analysed the Twitter activity of suspicious accounts and the characteristics of their profiles, to validate the origins of #ArsonEmergency, as well as the potential motivations of the accounts spreading the hashtag.
Who to blame?
On the vertical axis is the number of tweets over time which featured #ArsonEmergency. On Jan. 7, there were 4726 tweets. Author provided
Unfortunately, we don't know who is behind these accounts, as we can only access trace data such as tweet text and basic account information.
This graph shows how many times #ArsonEmergency was tweeted between Dec. 31 last year and Jan. 8 this year:
The New York Times has also reported on perceptions that media magnate Rupert Murdoch is influencing Australia's bushfire debate.
Weeding-Out Inauthentic Behavior
We suspect the origins of the #ArsonEmergency debacle can be traced back to a few accounts. Author provided
In late November, some Twitter accounts began using #ArsonEmergency to counter evidence that climate change is linked to the severity of the bushfire crisis.
Below is one of the earliest examples of an attempt to replace #ClimateEmergency with #ArsonEmergency. The accounts tried to get #ArsonEmergency trending to drown out dialogue acknowledging the link between climate change and bushfires.
The inauthentic accounts engaged with genuine users in an effort to persuade them. Author provided
The hashtag was only tweeted a few times in 2019, but gained traction this year in a sustained effort by about 300 accounts.
A much larger portion of bot and troll-like accounts pushed #ArsonEmergency, than they did #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.
The narrative was then adopted by genuine accounts who furthered its spread.
On multiple occasions, we noticed suspicious accounts countering expert opinions while using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag.
Since media coverage has shone light on the disinformation campaign, #ArsonEmergency has gained even more prominence, but in a different light.
Some journalists are acknowledging the role of disinformation bushfire crisis — and countering narrative the Australia has an arson emergency. However, the campaign does indicate Australia has a climate denial problem.
What's clear to me is that Australia has been propelled into the global disinformation battlefield.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled
It's difficult to debunk disinformation, as it often contains a grain of truth. In many cases, it leverages people's previously held beliefs and biases.
Humans are particularly vulnerable to disinformation in times of emergency, or when addressing contentious issues like climate change.
Online users, especially journalists, need to stay on their toes.
The accounts we come across on social media may not represent genuine citizens and their concerns. A trending hashtag may be trying to mislead the public.
Right now, it's more important than ever for us to prioritize factual news from reliable sources — and identify and combat disinformation. The Earth's future could depend on it.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
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Summer has finally arrived in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, liberating hundreds of thousands of northern stream fish from their wintering habitats.
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Headwaters of the Wind River within the largely intact Peel River watershed in northern Canada. Don Reid / Wildlife Conservation Society Canada / Author provided<p>Interestingly, we found that certain climatic combinations, such as warmer summer water temperatures with decreased summer rainfall, were important in determining where Pacific salmon could survive. Summer warming in drier watersheds led to declines, suggesting that lowered streamflows may have increased the risk of fish becoming stranded in subpar habitats that were too warm and crowded.</p>
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