Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight

Timothy Graham, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Queensland University of Technology

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.

Police and bushfire services (and some journalists) have contradicted this claim.

We studied about 300 Twitter accounts driving the #ArsonEmergency hashtag to identify inauthentic behaviour. 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 behaviour of Russian trolls during the 2016 US 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.

First, we used sophisticated software tools including tweetbotornot, Botometer, and Bot Sentinel.

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 behaviour 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?

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 December 31 last year and January 8 this year:

On the vertical axis is the number of tweets over time which featured #ArsonEmergency. On January 7, there were 4726 tweets.
Author provided

Previous bot and troll campaigns have been thought to be the work of foreign interference, such as Russian trolls, or PR firms hired to distract and manipulate voters.

The New York Times has also reported on perceptions that media magnate Rupert Murdoch is influencing Australia’s bushfire debate.

Read more:
Weather bureau says hottest, driest year on record led to extreme bushfire season

Weeding-out inauthentic behaviour

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.

We suspect the origins of the #ArsonEmergency debacle can be traced back to a few accounts.
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.

The inauthentic accounts engaged with genuine users in an effort to persuade them.
author provided

Bad publicity

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.

Read more:
Watching our politicians fumble through the bushfire crisis, I’m overwhelmed by déjà vu

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 prioritise factual news from reliable sources – and identify and combat disinformation. The Earth’s future could depend on it.The Conversation

Timothy Graham, Senior lecturer, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Visiting Postdoc, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to use critical thinking to spot false climate claims

File 20180207 58185 14cr2bh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Arguments against climate change tend to share the same flaws.
gillian maniscalco/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

Much of the public discussion about climate science consists of a stream of assertions. The climate is changing or it isn’t; carbon dioxide causes global warming or it doesn’t; humans are partly responsible or they are not; scientists have a rigorous process of peer review or they don’t, and so on.

Despite scientists’ best efforts at communicating with the public, not everyone knows enough about the underlying science to make a call one way or the other. Not only is climate science very complex, but it has also been targeted by deliberate obfuscation campaigns.

Read more:
A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial

If we lack the expertise to evaluate the detail behind a claim, we typically substitute judgment about something complex (like climate science) with judgment about something simple (the character of people who speak about climate science).

But there are ways to analyse the strength of an argument without needing specialist knowledge. My colleagues, Dave Kinkead from the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project and John Cook from George Mason University in the US, and I published a paper yesterday in Environmental Research Letters on a critical thinking approach to climate change denial.

We applied this simple method to 42 common climate-contrarian arguments, and found that all of them contained errors in reasoning that are independent of the science itself.

In the video abstract for the paper, we outline an example of our approach, which can be described in six simple steps.

The authors discuss the myth that climate change is natural.

Six steps to evaluate contrarian climate claims

Identify the claim: First, identify as simply as possible what the actual claim is. In this case, the argument is:

The climate is currently changing as a result of natural processes.

Construct the supporting argument: An argument requires premises (those things we take to be true for the purposes of the argument) and a conclusion (effectively the claim being made). The premises together give us reason to accept the conclusion. The argument structure is something like this:

  • Premise one: The climate has changed in the past through natural processes
  • Premise two: The climate is currently changing
  • Conclusion: The climate is currently changing through natural processes.

Determine the intended strength of the claim: Determining the exact kind of argument requires a quick detour into the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Bear with me!

In our paper we examined arguments against climate change that are framed as definitive claims. A claim is definitive when it says something is definitely the case, rather than being probable or possible.

Definitive claims must be supported by deductive reasoning. Essentially, this means that if the premises are true, the conclusion is inevitably true.

Read more:
How I came to know that I am a closet climate denier

This might sound like an obvious point, but many of our arguments are not like this. In inductive reasoning, the premises might support a conclusion but the conclusion need not be inevitable.

An example of inductive reasoning is:

  • Premise one: Every time I’ve had a chocolate-covered oyster I’ve been sick
  • Premise two: I’ve just had a chocolate-covered oyster
  • Conclusion: I’m going to be sick.

This is not a bad argument – I’ll probably get sick – but it’s not inevitable. It’s possible that every time I’ve had a chocolate-covered oyster I’ve coincidentally got sick from something else. Perhaps previous oysters have been kept in the cupboard, but the most recent one was kept in the fridge.

Because climate-contrarian arguments are often definitive, the reasoning used to support them must be deductive. That is, the premises must inevitably lead to the conclusion.

Check the logical structure: We can see that in the argument from step two – that the climate change is changing because of natural processes – the truth of the conclusion is not guaranteed by the truth of the premises.

In the spirit of honesty and charity, we take this invalid argument and attempt to make it valid through the addition of another (previously hidden) premise.

  • Premise one: The climate has changed in the past through natural processes
  • Premise two: The climate is currently changing
  • Premise three: If something was the cause of an event in the past, it must be the cause of the event now
  • Conclusion: The climate is currently changing through natural processes.

Adding the third premise makes the argument valid, but validity is not the same thing as truth. Validity is a necessary condition for accepting the conclusion, but it is not sufficient. There are a couple of hurdles that still need to be cleared.

Check for ambiguity: The argument mentions climate change in its premises and conclusion. But the climate can change in many ways, and the phrase itself can have a variety of meanings. The problem with this argument is that the phrase is used to describe two different kinds of change.

Current climate change is much more rapid than previous climate change – they are not the same phenomenon. The syntax conveys the impression that the argument is valid, but it is not. To clear up the ambiguity, the argument can be presented more accurately by changing the second premise:

  • Premise one: The climate has changed in the past through natural processes
  • Premise two: The climate is currently changing at a more rapid rate than can be explained by natural processes
  • Conclusion: The climate is currently changing through natural processes.

This correction for ambiguity has resulted in a conclusion that clearly does not follow from the premises. The argument has become invalid once again.

We can restore validity by considering what conclusion would follow from the premises. This leads us to the conclusion:

  • Conclusion: Human (non-natural) activity is necessary to explain current climate change.

Importantly, this conclusion has not been reached arbitrarily. It has become necessary as a result of restoring validity.

Note also that in the process of correcting for ambiguity and the consequent restoring of validity, the attempted refutation of human-induced climate science has demonstrably failed.

Check premises for truth or plausibility: Even if there were no ambiguity about the term “climate change”, the argument would still fail when the premises were tested. In step four, the third premise, “If something was the cause of an event in the past, it must be the cause of the event now”, is clearly false.

Applying the same logic to another context, we would arrive at conclusions like: people have died of natural causes in the past; therefore any particular death must be from natural causes.

Restoring validity by identifying the “hidden” premises often produces such glaringly false claims. Recognising this as a false premise does not always require knowledge of climate science.

Flow chart for argument analysis and evaluation.

When determining the truth of a premise does require deep knowledge in a particular area of science, we may defer to experts. But there are many arguments that do not, and in these circumstances this method has optimal value.

Inoculating against poor arguments

Previous work by Cook and others has focused on the ability to inoculate people against climate science misinformation. By pre-emptively exposing people to misinformation with explanation they become “vaccinated” against it, showing “resistance” to developing beliefs based on misinformation.

Read more:
Busting myths: a practical guide to countering science denial

This reason-based approach extends inoculation theory to argument analysis, providing a practical and transferable method of evaluating claims that does not require expertise in climate science.

The ConversationFake news may be hard to spot, but fake arguments don’t have to be.

Peter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, Director of the UQ Critical Thinking Project, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.