Researchers: Disinformation campaign spread after wildfires slowed disaster response

A disinformation campaign immediately after the Maui wildfires was spread by China and Russia.
Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 4:40 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 12, 2023 at 5:20 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A disinformation campaign that sprung up almost immediately after wildfires ravaged Maui was spread by China and Russia, researchers have concluded.

And, they say, that campaign made the government’s response to the disaster even more difficult.

From weather warfare to floating bodies on another island to thousands of missing children to a Maui land grab, experts say online posts about the wildfires might have started as genuine concern.

But they also said China and Russia are now using artificial intelligence to amplify false messages and spread fear, division and distrust in government.

Caroline Amy Orr Bueno, a University of Maryland postdoctoral research associate and digital deception expert, said the online rumors started the day after the Aug. 8 fire.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

One phrase “Hawaii, not Ukraine” was similar in messaging to what was seen online after the Ohio train derailment disaster.

“They link that to the U.S. providing support to Ukraine. The idea is the reason that the aid to Hawaii was inadequate was because our attention and our resources were going to Ukraine,” said Bueno.

“It was the same narrative with this overarching idea pitting the support for Ukraine against support for a local community,” she added.

Gov. Josh Green reacted to research on HNN’s “Spotlight Now,” saying the disinformation is disappointing — and dangerous.

“When you start talking about laser beams and heat rays coming from space that would take out a people on Maui, coming on let’s get real,” Green said.

Green added that he’ll take his disinformation concerns to President Biden.

“They used that to sow discontent and doubt suggesting to our own social media types that there were thousands of children gone,” he said.

New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Myers, who covers misinformation, told Hawaii News Now that Maui wildfire rumors had photos generated by artificial intelligence.

They were on all digital platforms and in multiple languages.

He says it’s hard to tell if China and Russia started the rumors or amplified once it was online.

“This was a particularly terrible tragedy and in that moment, you see the Chinese, you see the Russians coming in and jumping on maybe people’s genuine upset with the government,” he said.

“People are hurting, people are upset, they are looking for answers and in that space I think people can be vulnerable,” he added.

Experts also said that platforms like Facebook have taken down several pages linked to China, but say they need to do more.