Wildfire DisInformation Becomes a State Weapon, Aided by AI

October 4, 2023
WatchDog Opinion banner
A Chinese AI “influence campaign” in the wake of the Maui fires this summer tried to convince people that the wildfire was caused by the U.S. government. Above, charred vehicles litter the landscape in Lahaina, Hawaii, August 17, 2023. Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Patrol/Glenn Fawcett, via Flickr Creative Commons (United States Government work).

WatchDog Opinion: Wildfire DisInformation Becomes a State Weapon, Aided by AI

By Joseph A. Davis

Disinformation kills. Environmental journalists should be getting used to that by now. But it’s still news. Leapfrogging technology is advancing dishonest influence campaigns almost faster than we journalists can adapt.

Just look at the Lahaina wildfire. The disinformation reality took a quantum leap in September when we learned from experts that Chinese hackers were conducting an online “influence campaign” — using artificial intelligence — to convince people that the deadly Maui fire had been caused by the federal government testing a “weather weapon.”

It’s no lie (may require subscription). And even with Hollywood screenwriters having been out on strike, we could have hardly imagined a spookier script.


The Chinese government, which can’t quit coal

despite its piously declared concern on climate,

may have distracted the world from its shortcomings.


Let us just say that Chinese disinformation would have the effect of helping weaken the trust of the U.S. people in their government. And that the Chinese government, which can’t quit coal despite its piously declared concern on climate, may have distracted the world from its own shortcomings.

What’s new here is that disinformation has proven such a successful tool that it is now increasingly being used as a surrogate for war between nations. That puts journalists on the front lines. And it puts lives at stake.


The playbook is old hat … but not

Environmental journalists should know better. Look at the long decades the fossil fuel industry has been funding the denial of climate change and yet saying it doesn’t (find more here, here and here).

Look at how the tobacco industry tried to convince us that second-hand (environmental) cigarette smoke was not a health threat.

Look at how the chemical industry tried to gaslight the public and discredit Rachel Carson when she reported that DDT was killing birds in “Silent Spring.”

This playbook should be old hat to us. But it never quite is. Here’s why this time:

  • The disinformation is state-sourced.
  • It is anonymously or deceptively sourced.
  • It uses generative AI to obscure and blur the line between fact and untruth.
  • It is disseminated via amplification and massive replication on social media.
  • It is harmful and it is meant to harm.

Disinformation is not just a threat to people’s well-being. It’s a threat to journalism and science. And to democracy. AI may be making disinformation more powerful. But the most important thing is that the untruths are threatening human lives and the planet.


Journalism is not always blameless

Sure. Some (if not all) politicians have often (if not always) lied. Governments have often pushed propaganda. That’s why journalism is so important. But to be honest, journalism is not always blameless either. Yellow journalism and tabloids have historically been part of our media ecosphere.

In the sensationalist tabloid press, the truth was merely an annoyance. In 1978, the weekly circulation of the National Enquirer was 5.7 million. Journalists too scrupulous to eat the doughnuts at a morning presser would still smirk and chortle cynically about tabloid headlines. Today, some of them still keep calling the Fox operations “news.”

So, bad journalism is also, sad to say, an American tradition. It was William Randolph Hearst who was supposed to have written to an illustrator, as he worked to whip up the Spanish-American War: “You furnish the pictures. I'll furnish the war."

Nor was Thomas Jefferson perfect, although he quite articulately laid down the reasons we need a free press. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” he said in 1787.

The reason we need a free press is that it is essential to democracy. We journalists cherish our battered belief that if the citizens of a democracy only knew the true facts, they would choose the right course of action, or at least the one that best serves their interests and values. But is it still true? Was it ever? Or is it a matter of values and faith?


Climate denial part of wider war

On the subject of climate change, journalists have been struggling with disinformation for decades.

It goes way back, but after scientist James Hansen testified in 1988 that warming was happening, the fossil fuel industry formed the Global Climate Coalition — an early outlet for disinformation. As climate science grew increasingly certain, it used PR techniques to increase doubt.


What results when a disinformation campaign

tries to convince people that they should act

against their own interests? Nothing good.


What results, we should ask, when a disinformation campaign tries to convince people that they should act against their own interests? Nothing good. That’s certainly the case with climate.

But today we are seeing that climate is just one special case of a wider war on science. We saw (and are still seeing) the response of politicians to the COVID pandemic and the whole idea of vaccination.

Baylor College of Medicine expert, Dr. Peter Hotez, is just out with a book inspired by the anti-vax movement, “The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science.” Hotez estimates that 200,000 Americans have died unnecessarily because they refused to get the COVID vaccine after it was introduced.

Of disinformation, Hotez said to Chris Hayes on Sept. 18: “This stuff is killing too many people. … It’s not only targeting the science, it’s targeting the scientists.” And, he said, the disinformation was “amplified every night on Fox News.”

Hotez’s book title neatly echoes the title of Chris Mooney’s 2005 book, “The Republican War on Science,” which began with the story of climate science denialism.


Responding when ‘truth isn’t truth’

It’s not merely journalism, but democracy itself that cannot function without a free press. Just as medicine cannot function without science. Just as government itself cannot function in a world without facts or truth, … where, as Rudy Giuliani puts it, where “Truth isn’t truth.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an authoritative science body, said in its 2022 report that misinformation was not only a problem but that it was delaying climate action. Journalists might ask: How many unnecessary deaths will climate denial and disinformation cause?

Perhaps what is needed is some evolution in the basic ground rules of journalism. Ten years ago, it was almost taboo for journalists to use the word “lie” in a story; today, thanks to Donald Trump, journalists use it all the time. And many are clearer that their job is to debunk the lies.

Are the mainstream media powerless against untruth? Fairness and objectivity in journalism are great things, but “false equivalence” and “bothsidesism” don’t necessarily illuminate the truth. We need to do more than just step around disinformation as if it were a dog mess on the sidewalk. We need to cover it.

[Editor’s Note: WatchDog Opinion writes regularly on disinformation, most recently with a column on “Why Nobelists Are Joining the Fight Against Disinformation’s Dangers,” as well as a two-part series on climate disinformation and climate censorship, and a look at fossil fuel industry disinformation.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 35. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: