Disinformation successfully obscured the real causes of Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season. Now the same thing is happening around me, as I report on a disastrous wildfire season in the American west.
In both countries, the response to a pandemic is also being complicated by disinformation, as conspiracy theorists refuse isolation, refuse masks, and ready themselves to refuse vaccines.
A lot of the fundamental problems are the same, but there are differences in detail.
In the western United States in recent days, backroads vigilantism has seen civilians set up armed road blocks, and journalists held at the point of loaded assault rifles.
Australia does not have the complication of American gun culture, which is itself one marker of the clash of ideologies and identities in a deeply divided nation, and also raises the stakes on every other social conflict.
Many Australians like to congratulate themselves on their highly restrictive gun laws, figuring that it is the mark of a more civilised society.
That may be, but it’s easy to forget that one of the major stumbling blocks to stricter gun laws in the United States is a bill of rights.
We can argue whether the right to bear arms is a sensible thing to constitutionally enshrine, but Australia has no such constitutionally defined individual rights, beyond those that the high court has seen fit to torture from the document.
The absence of such rights also contains the real world effects of conspiracy theories – the people recently arrested for incitement in Victoria over the promotion of Covid conspiracy theories and anti-lockdown protests would likely enjoy first amendment protections in the US. Whether or not people ought to have the liberty to promote ideas which are, frankly, insane, and a threat to public order, is beyond the scope of this article.
In other ways, Australia is worse off. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that Fox News, or other skewed or tabloid media, is representative of US media as a whole.
But America’s media is vast. Conservative media is mostly enjoyed by those who have already committed the necessary cognitive self-mutilation to mistake its output for information, and, speaking very generally, although other corporate and local media may be excessively narrow, and TV networks such as Sinclair do skew right, the country does not suffer under the hegemony that News Corporation has achieved in its country of origin.
With its stranglehold on daily newspapers and online news, News Corp in Australia has created the most rightwing media culture in the English speaking world, and they aren’t really accountable to anyone.
Their columnists, and even their news writers, played a big, unconscionable role in pushing horse-hockey about arson and hazard reduction burning. In the western United States, it’s simply inconceivable that local mainstream media outlets would deliberately mislead their audience in this way. (Fox News has, but those who take the network seriously are already lost.)
News gave the conspiracy theories momentum, while other outlets such as Seven also entertained the idea that vandals, greenies, or anything but climate change might have set the country on fire.
If there is a posterity to judge them, it will damn them all.
The last, and biggest point of difference is that Australia’s bushfires struck at the beginning of 2020. As we draw to the end of September, the conspiracy culture that fuels wildfire denialism has had nine more months to incubate in the bowels of its principal host, Facebook.
Facebook is also the place where we see the two disinformation crises overlap.
That website is now nothing short of a threat to civilisation. But the nature of that threat is not easy to see for those who simply use it to keep up with family and friends, post pictures of their dog, or monitor old flames.
In 2016, the Facebook newsfeed was flooded with fake news. Scandals followed when it emerged how easily the newsfeed had been manipulated by propagandists like Cambridge Analytica (much of that was first revealed by reporting in the Guardian).
In response, Facebook first tweaked its algorithm to de-emphasise content from publishers except where it sparked interest from users’ friends. Then, last year, it tweaked its app to emphasise groups.
Ask anyone who professionally monitors the far right, as I do, or conspiracy culture, as I do, and they’ll tell you that the action is all happening in private groups – either those associated with movements like QAnon, with anti-lockdown or anti-mask or anti-vaccine protests, with far right street protests, and lately, with localities affected by natural disasters.
To a large extent, now, all of these form one big gumbo of conspiracy culture, anyhow. Facebook will tell you that they have cracked down on QAnon, the Boogaloo movement, and wildfire disinformation. To the extent that they have tried, they have failed. Conspiracy culture continues not only to survive, but thrive on the platform.
In the last week, the idea that antifa activists were starting fires was bedded down as settled fact and common sense in rightwing groups, and those associated with many affected rural communities. The idea was impervious to attempts by federal and local law enforcement authorities to debunk it.
That’s the most proximate reason that armed men were sticking up journalists, and setting up roadblocks in rural Oregon.
There will be future bushfire seasons like 2020’s in Australia, and the American west. The Covid crisis has a long way to run, and it may worsen, and give way to future pandemics which are even more unforgiving.
The disinformation will also likely be worse, as will its consequences, because those whose safety is threatened by disinformation cannot, and those who could will not deplatform the conspiracy theorists producing lies at an industrial scale.
In Australia, and the US, the prospects of facing up to the underlying cause of longer, more severe, more catastrophic fire seasons – climate change – will be remote unless regulators act against the websites where truth goes to die.