Tech companies: Lahaina misinformation online seeks to sow division, distrust on the ground

Hawaii congressmembers, the tech industry and social media experts are trying to figure what to do about the conspiracy theories that just keep spreading.
Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 3:39 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 14, 2023 at 11:30 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Tech leaders confirmed in a Capitol Hill hearing on Wednesday what researchers had first suspected — that China and Russia were behind a coordinate campaign on social media platforms to spread misinformation about the catastrophic Lahaina wildfire.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said that he federal government’s response was hindered by online rumors. “Maui residents were subjected to disinformation, some of it coming from foreign governments, i.e. Russia, looking to sow confusion and distrust,” Hirono said.

Researchers: Disinformation campaign spread after wildfires slowed disaster response

“I worry that too, with AI, such information will only become more rampant,” she added.

Brad Smith, vice Chair and president of Microsoft, said during testimony before Congress that people come together during disaster. On Maui, they did, but there was also division.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

“We had some people, not necessarily directed by the Kremlin but people who regularly spread Russian propaganda, trying to discourage the people of Lahaina from going to the agencies that could help them. That’s inexcusable,” Smith said.

“We saw what we believe is Chinese-directed activity trying to persuade the world in multiple languages, that the fire was caused by the United States government itself using a meteorological weapon. Those are the things that we should all try to bring the international community together and agree they’re off limits,” he added.

Daniela Stolfi-Tow, administrator for popular Hawaii social media handle 808 Viral, called it ‘psychological warfare.”

Stolfi-Tow continued: “We are fighting a war online and there are foreign actors that are messing with our minds. We are seeing our own community and family members, we are seeing them change, their personalities are changing.”

She’s been trying to debunk the online myths, including a government land grab.

Another myth: That Gov. Josh Green told reporters he wanted to make Lahaina a “smart city.”

“It’s OK to be angry at the government. It’s OK to not be happy about what happened, but we have to have our feelings be our own and our community work together. What these campaigns are doing is dividing us,” Stolfi-Tow said.

Experts say government needs to be proactive about social media and have a plan for dealing with disinformation — now almost inevitable after a disaster.